Published on December 9th, 2013 | by Kali Raisl


The secrets of Zoolights

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s Zoolights is an event that, even in my adult years, I look forward to as the kick off to the holiday season. Zoolights began in 1988, making 2013 the 26th annual edition of this Puget Sound holiday season favorite.

The breathtaking display of more than half a million lights gives the Zoo its annual festive glow, but this year, I started thinking about what it could possibly take to bring this spectacle together.

And beyond the set-up and maintenance of Zoolights, what does it take to keep up with the everyday electrical needs of something as complex as the Zoo? I started to wonder just how all this illumination comes together.

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My questions were answered when the Zoo’s head electrician, Andy Peterson, granted me a peek behind the curtain.

Andy has been with the Zoo since 1989 and his deep connection and investment with the Zoo was infectious and inspiring. As we moved in and out of the animal habitats and Zoolights displays, my eyes were opened to how integral he and the Zoo operations team are to keeping the Zoo visitors and animals happy and safe.

As a photographer, it was a huge privilege to explore the secret areas of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and then to share my experience here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

In the workshop

Unbeknownst to most Zoo visitors, the electrical workshop is ensconced above the Red Wolf Conservation Center.

Behind the scenes at Zoolights

Zoolights comes together through a lot of collaboration, including partnerships outside of the Zoo. Some of the control boards for the light displays have been designed by students at Bates Technical College.


Control boards like this allow certain lights to be on timers and are used in displays where the animals are to appear to be moving.


Each Zoolights display had its own PLC microprocessors, steppers and faders put inside sealable boxes in order to protect the power connections from the elements.

Due to our damp Northwest winters, condensation can accumulate inside the box, but when on, the heat from the power quickly dries up any moisture.

Beyond Zoolights: the business of caring for and illuminating the Zoo

The electricians work to maintain power and function in any and all areas of the Zoo, including specialized animal habitats, education areas, laboratories, and more. This slideshow exposes the captivating activities that keep the Zoo going but that visitors rarely see.

Zoolights lets it glow

There are some gorgeous new installations at the 2013 Zoolights:

This year, Zoolights debuts the Polar Bear Panorama, this new installation features a family of polar bears stands amid glowing ice floes and a sparkling blue sea.


Also new this year, a huge, three dimensional 17-foot tall tiger head greets Zoo visitors.


Mount Rainier received a makeover: the mountain was rebuilt this year and is now composed exclusively of thousands of blue and white LED lights.


The Flame Tree, another classic favorite, is reborn in a new location and features more than 30,000 purple-and-green LED lights. The new Flame Tree is bigger, brighter, and more visible than its predecessor, and anchors a new area of lit displays.


It’s an incredible year to enjoy Zoolights. Go for the first time or go rediscover with a new appreciation for everything that happens behind the scenes and makes our Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium truly amazing.

Zoolights fun facts:

2.1 million estimated visitors since 1988; 1.5 million of them since 1997

550,000-plus lights strung around the zoo

340,000 lights on ground cover and bushes

110,000 lights on pathways around the zoo

100,000 lights to make figurines

30,030 lights on the Flame Tree (20,000 purple, 10,000 green)

24,000 lights to make the Giant Pacific Octopus glow

125 switches flipped to bring the magic to light every afternoon

100-foot span on the giant Pacific Octopus atop the North Pacific Aquarium

95-plus percent of all the lights are energy-efficient LEDs

80-plus figurines/displays arranged around the zoo

28 miles of light strings – about the distance between Tacoma and Seattle

17-foot-tall tiger head

15.5-foot Mount Rainier

13 amps to make the Flame Tree (down from 90 amps before LED lights were put into use)

5 miles-plus of extension cords

2 extension cords to power the Flame Tree (down from 9 before LED lights)

8 people and 10 minutes to power up the lights every afternoon; it would take one person about 30 minutes

2 months to install the magic of Zoolights every year


Story and photographs by Kali Raisl


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About the Author

Kali Raisl is the co-Creative Director at Post Defiance and a photographer.

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