Sightseeing Zoolights with Cameron McIntyre isn’t your standard experience. For one thing, we’re driving around the annual holiday lights display at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in a maintenance truck during daylight. The Zoo is actually closed to the public for the day (winter hours) and rather than taking selfies in the rainbow tunnel or posing at the butterfly wings, we’re looking closely at wire frames, ground stakes and wooden support forms. Because McIntyre is a carpenter on the Zoo’s operations crew which builds and recreates the 800,000-plus light extravaganza every year – and for him it’s all in a day’s work.
“I like this part of the job because I can get creative while building things,” sums up McIntyre, as he guides the pickup truck around the path’s tight corners with practiced ease. “It’s artistic, and I get a lot of freedom to create things.”
Plus the satisfaction of seeing Zoolights visitors wide-eyed in amazement and delight?
“Yes,” McIntyre smiles.
Zoolights has been a community favorite at Point Defiance Zoo for 35 years now. From the day after Thanksgiving to early January, visitors can stroll around the Tacoma zoo from 4:30-10 p.m. every night except Christmas Eve and Day, gazing at illuminated tigers, polar bears, walruses, wolves, penguins, siamangs and sharks – not to mention an 11-foot-high replica of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge leading across a flickering blue Puget Sound to a 16-foot-high Mt Rainier in glittering white lights. There’s a giant Pacific octopus on the roof of the old aquarium, and a 34-year-old Flame Tree that’s a holiday photo favorite – as well as the more recent light tunnels.
It’s a mammoth effort on the part of the Zoo’s operations team, with 20-some staff members working every day from September onwards to build, repair and install hundreds of wooden figurines, wire sculptures and string lights while keeping up with their regular maintenance projects and duties.
For McIntyre, who’s been doing the job for 10 years now and also builds houses in his spare time, the thrill of building and creating never gets old – even when there’s a bit of trial and error needed.
“Sometimes I make something and it doesn’t work, so I just try again,” he says calmly.
One challenge McIntyre has already solved is how to make a cocoon when you’re a human rather than a butterfly larva. Last year’s giant sparkling butterfly wings were such a hit with visitors that the Zoolights team decided to expand the selfie-opportunity with a chrysalis, or cocoon, to remind folks about the insect lifecycle (and maybe hint at deeper themes of rebirth and renewal).
He began by sculpting a spiralling wire frame, threaded with glowing blue and green lights. He left a face-shaped hole, skillfully angled so that it was reachable on one side by shorter people, on the other by taller. Then he clad the entire frame in plastic wrap, melting and shrinking it in place with a heat gun.
The result? A mysterious glowing cocoon, just perfect for nighttime photos right next to the glowing butterfly wings.
Another McIntyre creation this year is a reincarnation of the red wolves. Like many of the Zoo’s older light displays, the wolves are life-size figurines cut out of wood, with holes punched around the perimeter for weaving through glowing red light strings. Again, like many of the Zoolights displays, they echo real animals in the Zoo – in this case the endangered red wolves who represent a conservation success story. .This year, McIntyre wanted a new angle for these beloved animals. Looking around the operations shed (aka the Zoolights workshop) and seeing the wooden panels used a few years ago as forms for a giant sand sculpture, he saw a new possibility. Stacking and securing, he assembled the panels into a freeform pyramid that, with the wood’s golden hue, reminded him of rock formations in Arizona. He arranged the wolf figurines realistically on the “rocks”, with one right at the top howling at a white-lit “moon” hanging from nearby trees.
“Yeah, looks a bit like Sedona,” says McIntyre with characteristic succinctness as he pauses nearby in the truck – but his quietly-proud grin tells the full story.
“When I think of Cameron, creativity comes to mind,” says Scott Clarke, Point Defiance Zoo’s facilities manager. “He has a way of taking a concept and, through his superior construction skills, turning it into a high-quality exhibit or project. His craftsmanship abilities are a perfect fit for the Zoo.”
After cruising by the octopus on the roof – McIntyre helps the team with that every year, reassembling 2x4s and pipes without any labelling into an awe-inspiring 100-foot creature – the last stop on the tour is the tunnel of lights near the South Pacific Aquarium. McIntyre ducks inside to flip the switch, and the tunnel starts pulsing through segments of blue, green, purple, white, red and yellow.
Another grin. “Kids just love these tunnels, running through them in a circle,” he says. “One guy even proposed to his fiancé.”
Aside from creating octopuses out of pipes and cocoons out of wire and plastic, what are the challenges in this job that starts at 7am each day, rain or shine?
“The weather,” says McIntyre without hesitation. “My least favorite is 38 degrees and raining. I actually like snow, even when we have to shovel it all out. But 38 and raining – that’s the worst.”
And the best?
“The team,” McIntyre says. “I work a lot with Matt Harris, who’s great, but it takes a whole team to do this job well.”
Any tips on being part of a team that keeps Zoolights – and the Zoo itself – running every day, all year?
“Communication is really important,” McIntyre says, driving up to the maintenance shed and parking the truck. “And being able to work outside the box. This job isn’t like flipping burgers at a fast-food place – there’s always a new problem to solve. It definitely keeps things interesting.”
VISIT ZOOLIGHTS: Tickets are now on sale for Zoolights, which is open every day 4:30 – 10 p.m. Nov. 25, 2022 – Jan. 2, 2023 (closed Christmas Eve and Day).