There are people who decorate for Halloween. There are people who recreate a haunted house.
And then there’s Hoot ‘n’ Howl. An entire wildlife park full of spooky decorations, lights and glowing pumpkins, not to mention games, treats and even a ghost tram, the annual Northwest Trek fall event (this year 5-9pm Oct. 15-16 and 22-23) takes weeks of preparation from almost every single staff member: zookeepers, naturalists, admissions staff, maintenance crew and more.
But it’s worth every minute.
Pumpkins and Prep
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s so much fun,” says Emily Santiago, the lead naturalist in charge of events. On a Thursday afternoon one week before Hoot ‘n’ Howl opens, Santiago’s on the floor of a staff meeting room surrounded by spooky decorations: dozens of grinning fake pumpkins, a couple of ghoulish stumps, giant cauldrons, electric candles, string lights, black tinsel, six skeletal trees, boxes and boxes of art supplies and candy, and a massive white spider in a storage tub.
(Kind of like the “12 Days of Christmas” song, but for Halloween.)
It took five minivan trips to bring it all up from the storage buildings.
“We start about a week beforehand,” says Santiago, winding spider webbing around a pallet with “Welcome to Hoot ‘n’ Howl” written in orange and white. “It takes all staff – it’s a team effort.”
“It takes all staff – it’s a team effort.” – Emily Santiago, Northwest Trek
While the maintenance team puts up glowing lights and bigger structures, and animal care staff decorate their own spaces, Santiago’s role is decorator-in-chief. She buys new items (like the skeletal willows) and tries to make traditions even bigger and better, like the spider-themed Bear Bridge.
From Tombstones to Ghosts
But if it sounds like a decorator’s paradise to have an entire wildlife park as a canvas, there are definitely challenges too.
“I have to outsmart the wild animals around here,” Santiago says, smiling. “The squirrels love to take my webbing. And of course the weather takes its toll on everything. Plus it gets really dark out here, so if a decoration doesn’t have its own light I need to figure out how people can see it.”
Some of the decorations go back decades to when Hoot ‘n’ Howl first began. A series of gray foam tombstones with humorous epitaphs were made long ago. There are still even some of the original inflatables: “They were built to last in those days,” comments Santiago. “And they’re so cool!”
But some are brand-new, like the ghosts-on-sticks Santiago’s team just made this year.
One annual tradition is the legendary Ghost Tram, the stuff of not-so-scary stories. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Ghost Tram. Note: No trams in 2021 as we build for new ones.
“It’s one of the regular trams, which we park close to the core area,” explains Santiago, who’s about to spend an afternoon stringing up fake skeletons and a taxidermied wolf with duct tape and fishing line. “We black out one side and light up the other. And we usually have some sort of costume theme – one year it was Star Trek, another was ‘Music through the Ages.’”
There’s even a rumor that the moose statue at the front of the park will get into the spirit of the theme.
It Takes a Team
Of course, the actual event – this year on four nights, Oct. 15-16 and 22-23 – is a team effort. Santiago’s job involves leading the decorations, restocking candy at treat stations, overseeing the many volunteers that make the event happen and generally making sure everyone is having a great time – but many other staff members pitch in.
After all this, does she decorate her own house?
“No!” Santiago laughs. “This is enough Halloween for me!”