Pittsburgh Zoo glows with animal-themed Asian Lantern Festival

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Maria Scanga | Staff Writer

A 100-foot long brightly colored dragon stands at the end of The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s lantern-filled tunnel, one of the attractions of the zoo’s Asian Lantern Festival event.

By Maria Scanga, Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium has a new animal in town — a 100-foot long and brightly colored dragon that stands at the end of a lantern-filled tunnel.

As a part of their newly unveiled Asian Lantern Festival  — which opened on Aug. 14 and is set to run through Oct. 30 — the Pittsburgh Zoo has brought animal-themed and handmade lantern art throughout the entire zoo’s route.

Tickets are available online for $19.95, or in person for $25, but are separate from daily zoo admission tickets. The festival runs Thursdays through Saturdays.

Allan Marshall, vice president of internal relations at the zoo, said the zoo is always looking to bring something different in, and he had heard about the festival in previous years. Other zoos such as the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio have featured a similar lantern festival in the past.

“We wanted to just try and find something else that’s unique and unusual, so when this came up, we looked at that as an option to throw our mission out there,” Marshall said. “We’re making sure that people know what we’re doing about conservation and show them what the natural world is all about.”

The lanterns themselves capture a different part of Chinese culture. At each lantern display, there is a small plaque that details the lantern’s artistic meaning and Chinese roots.

Intended for all ages, the festival also features live performances and entertainment on certain nights, including dancing, music and food representing parts of Asian heritage.

Entertainment is all by local groups and artists, like the Organization of Chinese Americans. The zoo has been teaming up with the Pittsburgh group to bring their lion dance team, drumming team and martial arts team to the zoo.

When Elena Liberto, a senior psychology major at Pitt, visited the zoo over the weekend, she was amazed at the detail of each lantern.

“You think you’re coming to see little lantern animals, but they’re huge and so detailed. Some of them even blink,” Liberto said.

Marshall said people hear about the festival, but can’t really visualize what exactly the lantern festival entails without being there.

“They just don’t really know what it is until they walk in and then they see a 100-foot long dragon lit up at night,” Marshall said.

The company that the Pittsburgh Zoo worked with to bring this festival to life, Tianyu, exclusively creates lanterns for different festivals. Marshall added that they’re popular around Chinese New Year, and have only recently started doing international festivals like the one in Pittsburgh.

“They have a few places that they do in North America, Europe and various other places as well, and they brought a team of people from China to come out,” Marshall said.

Each lantern is completely handmade from scratch, using no instructions or guidance. According to Marshall, some of the lanterns were even built directly on zoo grounds.

“The dragon is a classic example, they built that from scratch, just pieces of steel and they bent it and shaped it and welded it all together,” Marshall said. “Then they had artisans attach the silk around the frame, it’s all from scratch.”

For Pittsburgh Zoo’s Public Relations and Media Manager Ian Hunter, watching them build the lanterns was a new surprise every day. According to Hunter, the anticipation and excitement for the festival was felt by the zoo workers themselves as they watched the process of it being built from the very beginning.

“Usually once a day, [a zoo employee] tried to go down and ask, ‘What are they working on today?’” Hunter said. “We just had to walk right down the hill to get to see it happening.”

Liberto said she was particularly amazed by the different kinds of lanterns. While the majority are animal themed — featuring pandas, elephants and giraffes — there are also flower lanterns, decorative archways, tunnels and even a butterfly tree.

“You just stare at this butterfly tree and watch all of the different colors and how each of their wings move, you just can’t take your eyes off it,” Liberto said. “It’s neat how there’s more than just animals, it’s also nature and just art.”

According to Marshall, the festival targets all demographics and has attracted families, older couples and college students alike. Liberto visited with a few friends, but said she would love to bring her boyfriend back.

“Walking through this would definitely make for a really cool date night activity,” Liberto said.

If the idea of a 100-foot long dragon alone isn’t enough incentive for people who are unsure about going and visiting, Marshall said you just have to visit and see for yourself.

“Get off the fence because as far as I know, Pittsburgh has never had anything like this,” Marshall said. “You are going to be wowed.”

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