In Any Event 

Lions and tigers and bears, oh no!

Wise planners know to always prepare beforehand for live animals at events.

Thinking about adding animals to your event for a little pizzazz? Local experts say it can work well with proper planning and the correct creatures. It’s probably no surprise to learn that lions, tigers and bears are not a good choice.

“We actually had someone request that we bring a tiger to an event,” said Teresa Collins, manager of events and shows for the Knoxville Zoo. “But we don’t do anything with big cats.”

Collins joined Tina Rolen, the zoo’s assistant director of marketing, and Sharon Moore, the zoo’s director of development, to discuss the ins and outs of including animals at events.


Knoxville Convention Center General Manager Mary Bogert and Jason Bourgoyne, the convention center’s director of event services and operations, also shared insight from the venue’s perspective.

Here are key takeaways for planners:

  1. Consider the space. There needs to be adequate room so guests can choose whether or not to interact with the animal. Additionally, Health Department regulations dictate animals cannot be in the same room where food is served.

“We never allow animals in the ballrooms,” Bogert said. “In the Exhibit Halls, we set up food in a separate room when animals are present, such as at dog shows.”

  1. Safety is key. The well-being of the animals and guests must be addressed beforehand.

“Anything with a mouth can bite,” Moore said.

Beatrice, a baby kangaroo from the Columbus Zoo, made an appearance at the Cherokee Country Club. (Blue Streak photo, needs link)
Beatrice, a baby kangaroo from the Columbus Zoo, made an appearance at Cherokee Country Club – and made The Blue Streak – for the Jack Hanna event.

The Convention Center always sets up an area with a barrier between the animal and guests.

“We hosted one private party that included a bull for photo opportunities,” Bourgoyne said. “We kept him behind a roped-off area and had no problems at all.”

Sometimes, an animal at an event is presumed to be very tame, or alcohol consumption could lower someone’s inhibitions. Under those circumstances, people may be more inclined to go near an animal’s head or face, making barriers even more important.

Animal safety also is paramount. The Convention Center turned down a groom’s request to ride a horse into a wedding because of safety concerns.

“This would have required bringing up the horse on a freight elevator, a difficult and unsafe endeavor at best,” Bourgoyne said. “Even if the elevator ride went well, the animal would have exited the elevator onto tile floors. Horse shoes and tile floors don’t go well together. There’s no way we would have put a horse in such a dangerous predicament.”

  1. They’re not humans. Animals are, well, animals. They sometimes emit odors, and they aren’t housebroken.

“You need to be prepared to clean up when animals answer the ‘call of nature,’ ” Bourgoyne said.

“All waste is considered a biohazard, so on-site staff need to be trained to properly handle its disposal.”


  1. Rely on professionals. Using an animal handler is a must. In addition to ensuring proper permitting and safety compliance, a professional can help with animal selection, setup to avoid mishaps and animal management during the event. They also should provide proof of insurance.

“It should be a big red flag if someone doesn’t have insurance,” Bogert said.


Patrick-and-Melanie-Hunt-with-Brad-Moxley-center-herpetololgy-keeper (1)
Patrick and Melanie Hunt with Brad Moxley, center, the herpetology keeper at the Knoxville Zoo, and Drogo, a baby Komodo dragon at Zoofari, as shown in The Blue Streak. (Photo courtesy of the Knoxville Zoo.)


The additional work of adding animals is worth the effort. Cherel Henderson, executive director of the East Tennessee Historical Society, said animals were the perfect touch when the society held its event naming Jack Hanna as East Tennessean of the Year.

Einstein of the Knoxville Zoo is a seasoned event performer.
Einstein is a seasoned event performer.

“The people loved it, and the animals really added to the Jack Hanna experience,” Henderson said. “The handlers were very professional and made it very easy.”

A good starting point for planners would be the Knoxville Zoo. The zoo has traveling animal ambassadors such as hawks, owls, reptiles, hedgehogs and a bunny.

It also is home to Einstein, the African Grey Parrot that serves as the zoo’s “spokesbird” and stars in the zoo’s Bird Show.

“Einstein works well, travels well and is good working with a microphone,” Rolen said. “She is visually small but makes up for it with what she can do.”

Michelle Henry is a recovering event planner who now serves in a part-time role at Moxley Carmichael with a focus on writing. When not at the keyboard, you’ll likely find her at the pool – or thinking about being at the pool – or somewhere with her nose in a book.

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