FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – To Kristin Bodkin, the ponies at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, are like family. She loved the pony rides when she was a child and now her son can’t wait to get on the trail too.

“That’s the first place we go every time we visit the zoo. He knows all the ponies by name,” Bodkin said.

It’s a similar story for James Kahn’s family.

“I’m 42 and it was a big deal when I was a kid to come and get to ride the ponies,” he said. “We can’t tell our daughter that we’re coming to the zoo because then we’re asked how many times she gets to ride the ponies and if we can go there first. We have to strategically plan our trip to the zoo around the pony rides so that we can see other things too.”

Articles from 1965 when the zoo first opened list the pony rides as an attraction. The Hooley family took over the pony trail in 1981 and has been running it since.

Last year, the zoo announced the pony rides wouldn’t be back this season because of construction for the new Red Panda Ridge exhibit. The zoo initially said it would make a decision on if and when the pony rides would return in December 2021, but there still haven’t been any announcements.

“Anytime there’s change, you’re going to have questions and you’re going to have concerns,” Chris Gomez, the zoo’s board president, said in an interview with WANE 15 earlier this year.

While talking to Gomez about the zoo’s new director, Rick Schuiteman, WANE 15 also asked him about the pony trail.

“It was more affordable for us to do the construction on Red Panda Ridge by coming through that side. It was significant dollars and being fiscally responsible to the community and those who support the zoo, this is still the right decision,” Gomez said.

WANE 15 requested an interview with Schuiteman for this story, but it was declined. Instead, the zoo spokeswoman said in an email, “Due to the construction of Red Panda Ridge, we won’t be offering the Pony Trail this season.  Red Panda Ridge is scheduled to open Summer of 2023.  We haven’t made any decisions on the future of the Pony Trail.”

In a follow-up email, WANE 15 asked when the zoo might make a decision and what it was considering to make that decision, but those questions weren’t answered.

“I think making the zoo better is always a good idea,” Bodkin said. “If you look back at past reimaginations, look at Monkey Island, for example. It was an original exhibit to our zoo and they just made it better. So let’s bring back the pony trail and make it even better.”

Bodkin just created a new website, zooponies.com, for people to show their support for bringing the pony trail back.

“It’s already pre-filled and you just have to enter your name. You can leave it as is or you can add to it or delete it altogether and share your story. All of that information will be compiled and given to zoo leadership and their board of directors. Just so hopefully they can make the best decision possible for our community and our kids,” Bodkin said.

An online petition created last fall now has more than 7,000 signatures.

“The community really needs to speak up and let the zoo leadership know that this is important and that we want it to come back,” Bodkin said.

We have truly enjoyed our forty-year partnership with the zoo and the opportunity to serve the Fort Wayne community. We would love to return and help continue to fulfill the zoo’s mission of “connecting kids and animals, strengthening families and inspiring people to care.”

– The Hooley Family

Bodkin adds that the chance for children to help feed and groom the ponies along the pony trail is also invaluable.

“It’s hands-on and that’s how kids learn best and it really gives them a connection to the animals,” she said. “I love our zoo. It’s an amazing place for kids and this community and I’ve found that this is either their first experience with horses or their only opportunity to ride horses.”

Kahn hopes the zoo will decide in favor of the pony trail coming back.

“It feels like a Fort Wayne institution that’s kind of stepping away and hopefully they’ll reconsider. It offers so much joy to have [the kids] interact and to ride and pet and get to know the ponies,” he said.

After the zoo closed for the season last year, the Hooley ponies went to the Blackstone Ranch in southwest Allen County. The new ranch provided an opportunity to continue pony rides through the winter.

Bodkin’s made a few trips for pony rides at the ranch, but still hopes they will return to the zoo.

“It makes the most sense for them to be there. It’s just the perfect location for them and I hope they come back.”