EATON — Clues like “I have a hump or two,” “I am a very social creature but I may spit when I am distressed or feel threatened,” and “I can run up to 31 mph,” lined the lane as visitors entered Fort St. Clair in Eaton on Sunday, May 17, leading the way to an event designed to bring smiles to the faces of families who had been stuck at home far too long.
The first-ever Social Distancing Drive-Thru Zoo was the highlight of the weekend for thousands of people, young and old.
“We had 1,637 cars, trucks and vans, and four buses drive through,” Preble County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Leslie Collins said. “It was an amazing turnout for an event which came together in very little time based on an idea chamber members Jamie and Dianna Beneke saw from fellow zoos in other parts of the country.”
“We had visitors not only from Preble County, but from surrounding counties and Indiana as well,” Collins added. “I hope our open coronavirus-stressed businesses and restaurants saw some additional traffic Sunday afternoon.”
The Benekes, owners of Safari Junction in Eaton, with the help of several volunteers, brought animals from their mobile zoo for the event. Staff from Preble County District Library designed signs with clues for families to discuss as they waited in line to see the animals, and promoted the PCDL Summer Reading Program and Preble County’s newly launched Dolly Parton Imagination Library as attendees exited.
“The City of Eaton’s staff was extremely generous in allowing the use of the park for a community event of this nature, helping with setup, and even in directing traffic at times,” Collins said. “We can’t thank them enough for all their help.”
“We had overwhelmingly great feedback from people as they finished up their tour,” Collins added. “Adults and children alike were all smiles!”
All visitors had to remain in their vehicles as they drove through the Fort per social distancing guidelines. The event was free, but donations were accepted. Safari Junction’s crew was excited to be able to help raise over $3,000 to benefit the Dolly Parton Imagination Library fund, according to Collins.
“I think it was a wonderful day for the community,” Dianna Beneke said. “We were able to help people get out of their houses and enjoy a beautiful day with their family, while raising funds for a new program the library and United Way is offering that will help spark the love of reading in the next generation. I call that a success for everyone.”
“Thank you to all of the families that came out to visit the Social Distancing Zoo,” Preble County District Library Director Lauren Robinson said. “I was excited to have the chance to share information on the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and PCDL’s upcoming Summer Reading Program.”
Safari Junction, Home of Valley Exotics, is located at 2961 U.S. 127 South. The Benekes are still awaiting state closure orders to be lifted for travel and tourism facilities like their zoo, but hope to reopen soon, according to Collins. More information about the zoo can be found online at www.rzoo4u.com.
The Preble County District Library’s Summer Reading Program begins June 1. Readers can sign up now at www.preblelbrary.org, or by calling their local PCDL library branch.
The Dolly Parton Imagination Library launched in Preble County in March, under the coordination of United Way of the Greater Dayton Area (UWGDA), The Preble County District Library and The Dayton Foundation. DPIL is a program which delivers a free, age-appropriate book every month directly to the home of every child in the community from birth until their fifth birthday. Families with children under the age of five can enroll by visiting www.ohioimaginationlibrary.org/enroll.
Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4056 or follow on Twitter @emowen_RH.