Chicago Zoological Society celebrates diversity with first Zoo Pride Day

Mon. June 8, 2015 8:33 AM by Anthony Morgano

brookfield zoo

photo credit // brookfield zoo

Brookfield Zoo and Best Gay Chicago create a unique opportunity to walk, talk and lounge with the animals at Zoo Pride on Thursday, June 25

Chicago, IL - Brookfield Zoo becomes the second zoo in the country to officially recognize and celebrate Pride as it teams up with Best Gay Chicago to create another unique event this Pride Month. 

On Thursday, June 25, just days before the Chicago Pride Parade, the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) is hosting its first ever Zoo Pride, featuring both a daytime mix-in event and a private after-hours event complete with food and drinks, DJ music and the chance to wander around and interact up-close with some of the fabulous wildlife at Chicago's 216-acre zoo.

The idea was born after Colin Borck, who works in fundraising for the Zoo, attended a presentation on diversity (specifically of LGBTQ workers) at a conference for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums last fall.

"I was talking with our CEO and he was very excited at the idea of having a Pride celebration at the Zoo, and told me I could take charge and make it happen," Borck, who grew up in Chicagoland and recently moved from the city to the burbs with his husband, told "I fully know our location is a small deterrent for some who are city centric (I know, having lived on the north side) with limited transportation, but thanks to partnering with Best Gay Chicago, they have arranged bus transportation to and from the city and zoo!"

"I think the event is going to be an awesome success, because where else can you have cocktails and meet a wild animal at the same time?" he continued. "And come on, who doesn't want to be part of history by attending the first ever fully sanctioned LGBTQ Pride event at a Zoo in the country?"

Borck first met with various LGBTQ community groups across the city, all of whom gave him encouraging feedback for putting on a Zoo Pride Event. He then specifically sought out Best Gay Chicago, who have successfully orchestrated the popular Out at the Park and Heatwave events, as well as this year's new Pride Splash at Six Flags' Hurricane Harbor.

Borck also spoke with other zoos and aquariums around the country. Many do have LGBTQ events at their institutions, but these are private events where an organization essentially rents the zoo out. Primarily, he says, this is done because it provides the institution the ability to publicly distance themselves from the organization and their ideals, which could result in controversy among patrons with conflicting views.

The CZS, however, isn't interested in distancing themselves from the LGBTQ community.

"To the best of my knowledge, the Chicago Zoological Society is the first cultural institution to have an officially sanctioned Pride event," Borck said. "The importance of such an established and recognized organization taking that big step is groundbreaking. By holding a sanctioned event, the Society is truly stating we support diversity and inclusion of all kinds to the general public. With over 2 million visitors a year - that's a strong statement, and we hope this inspires other organizations to support similar events."

The Chicago Zoological Society has actually long been at the forefront as far as LGBTQ rights are involved. One of the very first policies current CEO Stuart Strahl insisted on was domestic partner benefits for staff members of the Society back in 2004. That was a full 7 years before Illinois made civil unions law back in 2011. They also organized various events with Lambda Legal throughout the 2000s and emphasize Diversity (the D in their core institutional acronym P.R.I.D.E.) as an important value they strive to uphold.

Zoo Pride itself is split into two separate events: a Pride-themed mix-in day event from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and a private after-house night event from 7 to 10 p.m.

The Zoo holds celebratory events for holidays (like Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Veterans Day) throughout the year, most of which feature a handful of speakers and some sort of artistic performance. Michael Snell and Derrick Sorles of Best Gay Chicago and the CZS Arcoiris Diversity team worked together to create a more informal daytime event for Zoo Pride. The zoo will be decorated with pride flags and also feature an LGBTQ vendor expo with gay and gay-friendly businesses on the North Mall, near the main entrance to the Zoo. (Borck also hinted that there will be some special animal visitors making an appearance at the expo around 2 p.m.)

"Anyone LGBTQ friendly is welcome to purchase a space which is $150 for the day," Snell told, adding that there are still a few spots available. "We have corporate people like Unleashed by Petco and Walgreens, who has been a long time supporter of the LGBT community and our events, and we reached to small business owners like Halsted Eye Boutique, Taverna 750, Merrick Animal Hospital and a few arts and crafts vendors as well."

The Zoo is also working with a few awesome youth programs, including Youth Outlook and Illinois Parents of Transgender & Gender Diverse Children, to provide hundreds of LGBTQ teens free access to the Zoo with their family on Pride Day.

The daytime event ends at 5 p.m. with the zoo's closing, but re-opens from 7 to 10 p.m. for the private LGBTQ nighttime event.

The three pavilion buildings located on the very north side of the zoo are the heart of the nighttime party. The Swan Pavilion is dedicated to food and drinks, offering an open bar as well as outdoor picnic style food. CSZ's Catered Events department, which puts on hundreds of corporate events, birthday parties, weddings and more every year, is providing a yummy wedding cake station for dessert.

Next door, the Bison Pavilion will feature the DJs of Scarlet, back for another Best Gay Chicago event, spinning some mood-setting lounge music. Finally, the Dolphin Pavilion will feature various animals from the Zoo's Animal Ambassador program for some very special "Lounge with the Animals" and "Talk with the Animals" events in which guests will have the chance to get up close and personal with and learn more about some fascinating creatures.

"This new and growing allowing more guests at Brookfield Zoo the opportunity to have close, personal interactions with a distinctive animal, helping fulfill our mission of connecting people with wildlife and nature," Borck explained. "These special animals are hand reared by our extraordinary staff to be able to engage with guests throughout the park. Though these animals are very accustomed to being out in the park ,'Lounge With the Animals' and 'Talk with the Animals' are definitely specific to the Pride events. I don't think any of these animals have been exposed to lounge/techno music before!"

"The specific animals that will make an appearance that night are yet to be determined, based on who was out in the Zoo during the day," he continued. "But one could potentially see, meet, and get photos with a: tamandua, wallaby, prehensile tail porcupine, hawk, eagle, savannah cat/serval (a cool, 35 lb. wild cat), sloth, or even some snakes or lizards."

Guests will also have the chance to walk the grounds to a number of nearby exhibits to see animals including, Borck said, "giraffes, African painted dogs, zebras, addax, camels, leopards, lions, tigers and (sloth) bears -- oh my!" These animals will be out in their state-of-the-art exhibits for guests to see and CZS docents volunteering their time will be available to chat about the animals and answers any questions.

Discounted $15 tickets to the Zoo for the daytime event can be purchased online. Tickets for the nighttime event can be purchased at the same site for $60, including food, open bar and an awesome one-of-a-kind experience. A limited number of people can also purchase $100 VIP tickets which include a private tour and the chance to MEET A PENGUIN!

"This is something very special - anyone who purchases a $100 VIP ticket will get a private walk through of our Living Coast exhibit which ends with a personal meeting with a Humboldt penguin!" Borck explained. "They will be able to meet, touch, and get photos with a penguin. The penguins, Pepe and Divot were both hand reared for different reasons and are very accustomed to interacting with guests."

The Brookfield Zoo is located at 8400 W 31st St, Brookfield Il., about 14 miles west of downtown Chicago. It can be reached easily by Pace busses, the Metra or car. Best Gay Chicago has also organized transportation to both the day and night events, with rides leaving Boystown at 10 a.m. and leaving the Zoo at 4 p.m. for the day event, and leaving Boystown at 5 p.m. and the Zoo at 10 p.m. for the evening event, each for a flat $30. More information about all your traveling options can be found online

"This event is important to me, not just because I am gay, I work for the Zoo, and of course want an event I'm helping plan to be successful," Borck told "It's mostly important to me because Brookfield Zoo is such a recognized organization, both locally with visitors, and internationally with all of the conservation work we do across the globe. The fact that this institution is rising above so many others by publicly endorsing and supporting the LGBTQ community and holding an event is a big deal – bigger than I even realize on some days."

Don't miss your chance to be part of this interesting, historic and downright fun event, and what is sure to become a favorite Pride tradition in Chicago.

Related: 2015 Chicago Pride Events