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Retired Cardiologist’s Heart Is in Gardening

Peter Huntington, 87, has volunteered at Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s garden for the nearly 40 years. He now commands a crew of 15.

By David Figura

Peter Huntington, 87, has volunteered for 37 years to keep the gardens at Rosamond Gifford Zoo in good shape.

It begins every spring at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, thanks largely to the efforts of Peter Huntington.

Huntington, 87, a retired cardiologist, oversees a group of volunteers who begin planting, pruning and weeding the zoo’s colorful gardens starting in late April and continuing through October.

For Huntington, who lives in Tully, gardening has been a life-long hobby that he acquired from his mother. It’s a passion that has prompted him over the years to belong to two gardening clubs and to apply his green thumb to gardens at his home, church — and for the past 37 years at the zoo.

Huntington’s involvement at the zoo began after the county took over what was then the Burnet Park Zoo from the city in the late 1970s. With the help of the Friends of the Burnet Park Zoo, the county drafted a plan and came up with $13 million to pay for the work. The county provided $10 million and $3 million was raised by the friends group.

At the time of the zoo’s reopening in 1986, Huntington, then 51, was working full time at his cardiology practice in Syracuse.

Participating in a church program, he happened to take a couple of refugee youngsters to check out the new, improved zoo.

“I looked around and said to myself, ‘Man, this is a nice zoo, but they don’t have any gardens. It looks so sterile,’” he said.

Huntington said he approached Anne Baker, the zoo’s director at the time with an offer. “I told her I’d like start some gardens here. She said ‘Sure,’ and I’ve been doing that ever since. I supplied the labor and they would reimburse me for whatever plants I had to buy,” he said.

What initially started as a one-man show eventually evolved into Huntington overseeing a team of about 15 volunteers from the two gardening clubs that he belongs to: the Men and Women’s Garden Club of Syracuse and Habitat Gardening in CNY.

Some of the members of Men and Women’s Garden Club of Syracuse who volunteer to keep the gardens at Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse: (from left) Richard VanValkenburgh, Lisa Rigge, Deborah Holihan, Beverly Miller, Peter Huntington, Geraldine Greig, John Hosford and Diana Burchhardt.

Currently, the gardens at the zoo that Huntington and his team of volunteers created and maintain surround the circumference of the courtyard waterfowl pond at the zoo and run along part of the wildlife trail leading up to the Helga Beck Asian Elephant Preserve.

The gardens are a mix of colorful annuals and perennials, including a butterfly garden that incorporates native flowering plants which attract butterflies and pollinators.

“We call that the monarch butterfly way station,” Huntington said. ““We planted things that encourage monarch butterflies to come and stay.” He added he and the volunteers have also put up signage to educate zoo-goers on “what the gardens are all about.”

Since it reopened in 1986, the zoo has 700-plus animals, expanded to 43 acres and improved its offerings to visitors, the result of a number of capital improvement campaigns fueled by efforts of the Friends of the Zoo. Following a $2 million endowment by the Rosamond Gifford Charitable Corporation in 1999, the zoo was renamed the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park.

Ted Fox, the zoo’s current executive director, is appreciative of Huntington and his “zoo crew,” which is composed mostly of members of the Men and Women’s Garden Club.

Rosamond Gifford Zoo pond — and the flowers surrounding it.

“The zoo has relied on Peter’s dedicated leadership and we have been fortunate to entrust aesthetic design and the beautification of our zoo grounds to him,” he said.

Carrie Large, executive director of Friends of the Zoo added: “Peter has been a wonderful presence at the zoo over the years. Week in and week out, he and his team have brought expertise, skill and energy to the maintenance of the gardens throughout our zoo. He always takes time to share his enthusiasm and passion for gardening with everyone he meets, and our zoo is grateful to have such a positive person overseeing our gardens and connecting with our guests as they walk the grounds.”

Huntington retired from his cardiologist practice when he was 68. Apart from his work at the zoo, he has been active at his church, handling all of its gardening and participating over the years in mission and outreach work, having traveled to the Dominican Republic and offering his medical expertise.

Apart from the zoo, Huntington has been very involved with the two gardening clubs for more than two decades.

Leslie Molldrem, treasurer of the Men and Women’s Garden Club, said Huntington has received numerous flower and plant awards in our club “and also our bronze club service award, the Rotunno Award, for service outside the club (the zoo crew isn’t his only garden volunteering) — and our highest award, Master Gardener.”

Huntington said gardening and work at his church helps keeps him active. At his home, he tries to walk at least 20 minutes a day (rain or shine), has no special diet (apart from trying to eat healthy foods and watching his portions) and has been fortunate to get by with little or no medical problems. He’s 6-1 and he weighs 187 — the same weight, he said, as when he was in high school.

As for the zoo, Huntington said he and his ever-changing crew take turns, coming on different days. In total, they average some eight-10 hours of work each week, coming mornings before the zoo opens at 10 a.m., he said.

Geania Lasda, 75, of Camillus, has been a member of Huntington’s zoo crew for more than 10 years. She said he’s very good about coming up with ground plans for the gardens and dictates what everyone is doing.

“After every work session, we usually sit down for coffee for about a half hour and Peter will often talk about a particular weed or plant,” she said. “It comes so natural to him. He’s not only a good leader; he’s a good teacher and friend.”

Passion for Gardening

Sign of the Men and Women’s Garden Club of Syracuse. Its members help with the zoo’s upkeep.

Peter Huntington belongs to two garden clubs.

The Men and Women’s Garden Club of Syracuse. Meets the third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m., Reformed Church of Syracuse, 1228 Teall Ave., Syracuse. Meetings feature guest speakers on a variety of gardening and related topics. Members maintain gardens at Rosamond Gifford Zoo and Ronald McDonald House. Annual spring and fall flower shows, tours of local gardens and an annual picnic.

For further information, email mwgardenclubofsyracuse@gmail.com. The group also has a Facebook page.

• Habitat Gardening in CNY (HGCNY). Meets the last Sunday of most months at 2 p.m. Liverpool Public Library, 310 Tulip St., Liverpool. HGCNY is a chapter of Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes. Wild Ones promotes environmentally friendly, sound landscaping to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. Meetings are free and open to the public.

For more, go to hgcny.org and ourhabitatgarden.org. Subscribe to the free e-newsletter by emailing info@hgcny.org