Since 1876, folks have been visiting the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Nearly 200 species roam the 135-plus acre zoo. The Maryland Zoo is the third oldest zoo in the country. Its mission is “to inspire people to engage in conservation and advocacy of wildlife.”
Over the years, the zoo weathered its share of tough times. In Spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily closed the facility and subsequently impacted ticket sales. In April of that year, Kirby Fowler became the zoo’s CEO.
Kirby and his team thought creatively about how to help the community safely visit the zoo. As part of that effort, the organization’s executive team decided to bring back a historically popular event, Zoo Lights.
Zoo Lights allowed families to walk or drive through displays of over 100,000 LED lights. Families who walked through enjoyed snacks, hot chocolate, and free carousel rides. Those who drove through enjoyed the lights from the comfort of their own vehicles. Both walkers and riders were on the lookout for lighted animals throughout the park. The attraction provided families with a socially distant, safe form of holiday entertainment.
The Maryland Zoo designed Zoo Lights display with Rileighs Outdoor Decor, the leader in Commercial Christmas Decoration in the North East & Mid-Atlantic regions. Though the zoo and Rileighs took great care to design the project with energy conservation in mind, the event nonetheless left a carbon footprint. The display’s energy output, the vehicles that transported supplies and people, and the carbon cost of the lights’ production each created environmental impacts. This provided the zoo and Rileighs a great opportunity to improve the environmental impact of the displays while helping the animals and the earth. Rileighs decided to measure the carbon footprint of the event, and then to fund equal-value mitigation projects in order to make the event carbon neutral.
Every dollar raised by the Zoo Lights event went towards advancing the Zoo’s mission: “Engaging People with the Wonder of the Living World.” According to the Zoo’s website, they strive to “inspire and educate people to join with it in the active support and conservation of wildlife and wild places. The Zoo is committed to serving its communities by engaging people with the wonder of the living world through personal encounters that foster lifelong harmonious relationships with nature.” The Zoo also strives to eliminate man’s negative impact on the environment in order to protect Earth’s creatures. Zoo officials were more than on board with reducing Zoo Light’s carbon footprint.
To determine the light show’s environmental impact, several categories of carbon emissions were calculated, including: power consumption during the event, the manufacturing process of the equipment, and the logistics of transportation – including freight and park and visitor vehicle emissions.
Emissions were measured in unit tonnes of Carbon Dixoide (CO2). For reference, one unit tonne of CO2 occupies 556.2m³ of volume. While the global average of yearly CO2 output per person is 4.5 tonnes, the U.S. average per person is 17.5 tonnes per person, per year.
Researchers found that the manufacturing process was the largest contributor to Zoo Light’s carbon footprint, at 1.47 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. The remaining two categories each contributed approximately one metric tonne of CO2. In all, the Zoo Lights event produced 3.62 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Rileighs Outdoor Decor believes in a triple bottom line social enterprise model: Profits, people, environment. In that context, they hope to offer their customers an opportunity to offset the carbon emissions of their Holiday Light Shows. Rileighs will work with Cool Effect, a nonprofit that opened in 2015. Cool Effect helps groups reduce and offset their carbon emissions by routing donations from those groups to organizations committed to projects that offset a given amount of carbon. Carbon emissions may be offset in many ways, from planting trees in the Amazon to providing more efficient appliances to Rwandans in need.
As a gesture of appreciation to the Zoo, Rileighs will fund a Cool Effect donation that was selected in collaboration with the Maryland Zoo: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Through this donation, Rileighs and the Maryland Zoo will in essence negate the environmental effects of the Zoo Lights. Hawk Mountain’s mission is similar to that of the Zoo, in that it strives to “conserve birds of prey worldwide by providing leadership in raptor conservation science and education, and by maintaining Hawk Mountain Sanctuary as a model observation, research and education facility.”
Christmas lights are a beautiful way to put joy in people’s hearts. Knowing that it is possible to celebrate the season while helping the environment only increases the reward for all.