West Columbia woman walks on the wild side

bbetts@thestate.comJuly 9, 2013 

In 1996, West Columbia resident Annie Ruth Huffstetler started walking at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden three days a week and never stopped.

Seventeen years later, she’s walked far enough amongst the zoo’s wildlife to have hiked the Appalachian Trail three times and still had miles to spare.

Huffstetler is one of three local residents, along with Margaret and Walter Hahn, who have passed the 7,000 mile mark as a part of the Riverbank Zoo’s Zoo Walker program, a partnership with Palmetto Health aimed at encouraging seniors to exercise regularly.

The zoo says that hundreds of seniors have participated in the program over the years, collectively logging more than 60,000 miles, but that Huffstetler is the only original Zoo Walker to have reached the 7,000 milestone.

If they were frequent flyer miles, she might have traveled to the distant locales where the animals are from, but for Huffstetler, it’s always been about the zoo – she has lived in West Columbia much of her life and has been a member of the zoo since it opened in 1974.

Huffstetler joined the Zoo Walker program as a way to lose the weight she’d gained after she quit smoking. Her first year she logged nearly 1,000 miles walking about 18 miles a week, wearing through a rugged pair of tennis shoes.

One of the program’s perks is that members can enter the zoo at 8 a.m., an hour before the park opens, and for years it was Huffstetler’s routine to roam the grounds in the cool morning air just after the animals had been fed and were most active.

It’s the zoo’s relaxing, tranquil environment that Prime Times program manager Mary Bundrick said keeps Zoo Walkers like Huffstetler coming back.

“This is their place, their sort of sanctuary where they come on a regular basis,” Bundrick said, adding that the zoo is safer and more scenic than a neighborhood.

Huffstetler said she’s become a familiar face with the park staff over the years, even getting a few behind-the-scenes tours of the exhibits, and will sometimes get a call when she hasn’t been around for a while.

“It’s like a family, really,” she said.

The koalas and meerkats are Huffstetler’s favorite animals, but she said she most loved the zoo’s last polar bear, which died in 2001. She said she also likes to explore the zoo’s plants and gardens and occasionally seeks out gardening tips at the horticulture center.

“I just enjoy the people, the animals, the plants. Everything,” she said.

After Huffstetler and the Hahns, there’s a significant gap before you reach the next-most-accomplished zoo walker, who has walked a still respectable 3,000 miles.

Huffstetler doesn’t walk as much anymore though. She’s been struggling with health problems, including her third battle with breast cancer since she first began zoo walking.

But she said she still gets out to the zoo as often as she can, finding her time there therapeutic as she undergoes treatment.

The Zoo Walkers group officially recognized Huffstetler as a 7,000-miler in December, and she seemed as ready as ever when asked if she’d try for 8,000 miles.

“Well, why not?” she said.

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