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Float features iconic wildlife from the San Diego Zoo that have inspired generations to care for and protect wildlife
Source:  San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
Photo:  the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s float won the Sweepstakes Trophy at the 2024 Rose Parade in Pasadena on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. (Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)


January 1, 2024 (Pasadena) - Today San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance participated in the 135th Rose Parade® presented by Honda with a float celebrating the San Diego Zoo’s 107-year history. The float themed “It Began With a Roar” depicted iconic wildlife from the Zoo, including Rex the lion, whose mighty roar sparked a dream more than a century ago and inspired the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.

The San Diego Zoo’s float won top honor with the Sweepstakes Trophy given for the most beautiful entry, encompassing float design, floral presentation, and entertainment. This is the 100th anniversary of the Sweepstakes Award. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance worked in collaboration with Artistic Entertainment Services to design and build the float. Hundreds of Alliance team members and volunteers worked for weeks putting in countless hours each day to help decorate the award-winning float.


“We are humbled and honored to receive the Sweepstakes Trophy, but more importantly, we are grateful the Rose Parade allows San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance an opportunity to share our conservation message with a global audience,” said Paul A. Baribault, president and chief executive officer, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “At the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the impact of conservation comes to life as our visitors experience the magnitude and wonder of nature.We are able to make a connection between people and wildlife with the hope that connection will inspire them to save, protect and care for wildlife worldwide.”


Diving in at the front of the San Diego Zoo’s float was Chinook the polar bear, designed after Chinook at the San Diego Zoo. The largest bears on Earth, these marine mammals face sizeable challenges caused by climate change. Collaborating with international partners, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is developing groundbreaking methods to save diminishing populations across the Arctic while protecting denning mothers and their vulnerable cubs—offering future generations of polar bears a second chance through conservation.


Perched high in a tree, koalas Omeo and Cynthia swayed back and forth while crunching on fragrant eucalyptus leaves. Omeo lost his mother to cancer when he was a few months old and would never have survived without the dedication, commitment, and around-the-clock care of veterinarians and wildlife care specialists from the San Diego Zoo. Caring for the world’s largest colony of koalas outside of Australia, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has been working with First Nations people, local communities, and conservation partners for the past 100 years to save these iconic marsupials and the threatened forests they call home.


Reaching her arm out, Karen the orangutan reminded parade viewers that every moment can bring new possibilities. Born with a large hole in her heart, she was the first orangutan in the world to undergo open-heart surgery. As an infant facing extraordinary challenges, Karen’s strength and bravery—along with first-of-its-kind care—were vital to her successful recovery. Karen’s inspiring story fuels San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance conservationists as they collaborate with local communities, protecting newborn orangutans in native habitats from illegal trafficking while safeguarding this critically endangered species and the lush rainforest ecosystem they rely on to thrive.


Fluttering on the end of Karen’s hand, a Quino checkerspot butterfly flapped its delicate wings. This endangered pollinator is only found in Baja and Southern California. For the first time in 20 years, thousands are being reintroduced back into native habitats by San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance entomology experts.


Stretching toward the warm morning sun, Grandma, a 137-year-old Galápagos tortoise, was joined by a flamboyance of flamingoes along the water’s edge. Through them, we get a glimpse into the lush landscapes and more than 2 million individual plants representing close to 13,000 specimens and close to 7,000 species cared for by dedicated teams of horticulturists at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Countless individual plants delicately propagated and grown at the San Diego Zoo—including golden bamboo, giant bamboo, and bird-of-paradise—were brought to Pasadena to be on the float and bring this botanical dream to life.


Atop the 55-foot float, standing along a ridge of cascading waterfalls, was Rex the lion. His regal roar reverberated, and his spirit was felt by generations of wildlife allies and conservationists around the world. Riding on the float with his family was Matt Akel, who first visited the San Diego Zoo with his parents when he was 10 years old. That moment sparked a love for wildlife and a lifelong commitment to global conservation. For the past 21 years, Matt has had the honor of caring for wildlife at the San Diego Zoo—including Chinook, Omeo, Karen and countless others—while saving and protecting endangered species worldwide. From Rex the lion, who ignited a conservation dream more than a century ago, to the miraculous heartbeat of Karen the orangutan, every life-changing moment at the San Diego Zoo celebrates the symphony of nature—and it all began with a roar.


Prior to this year, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance had a float in the 1996 Rose Parade in celebration of the Zoo’s 80th anniversary; in 2022, celebrating San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s global conservation efforts; and in 2023, celebrating the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s 50th anniversary, which won the Animation Award.


About San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance 


San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, a nonprofit conservation leader, inspires passion for nature and collaboration for a healthier world. The Alliance supports innovative conservation science through global partnerships. Through wildlife care, science expertise and collaboration, more than 44 endangered species have been reintroduced to native habitats. Annually, the Alliance reaches over 1 billion people, in person at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and virtually in 150 countries through media channels, including San Diego Zoo Wildlife Explorers television programming in children’s hospitals in 13 countries. Wildlife Allies—members, donors and guests—make success possible. 


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