Visitors at the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota, are treated to the usual cacophony of zoo noise—zebras braying, sea lions barking, kids goofing off. But listen closely and you might catch another sound among the chirping and bleating: the bliss-filled strains of a harp. That’s because Terri Tacheny, a retired special-education teacher and therapeutic harpist, volunteers at the zoo twice a month to play—for the animals.
A longtime musician (she also plays piano, flute, and guitar), Tacheny first picked up the harp in her 20s. She played at more than 100 weddings before shifting to therapeutic harp music, creating calming compositions for meditation and for the special-needs children in her class. In 2002, Tacheny began volunteering as a gardener at the zoo, where she was taken aback at how human the great apes seemed. And just like us, she imagined, animals can suffer from sensory overload. “Zoos are busy places, with lots of stimulation from sounds and kids coming through,” Tacheny says. “I wondered if the apes would be as relaxed by harp music as people are.” (The benefits are proven: A 2015 Mayo Clinic study showed that up to 50 percent of people who listened to 30 minutes of harp music after being hospitalized reported improvement in their emotional state.) She connected with the zoo’s animal-enrichment team, who green-lit her idea.
Though Tacheny serenades safely from outside the animals’ enclosures, sitting across the glass from 350-pound gorillas was intimidating at first. “They acted like kindergarten boys,” she says. “I’ve played in classrooms, and this was the same, where they rushed in and elbowed each other to sit in front of me. One came up and urinated!” The zookeeper assured her this was a good sign; it meant he was comfortable in her presence. “The best is when they make a ‘gorilla purr,’ a guttural growl that’s their happy sound. It’s magical,” she says. “Virgil, one of the gorillas, just comes up and smiles at me. It’s very charming.”
Tacheny became a regular, performing for the primates—gorillas, orangutans, and smaller monkeys—behind the scenes, where the public couldn’t hear her. Then in 2014, she offered to play on the public side of the enclosures so visitors could also enjoy the music. Now she serenades the polar bears, who swim in her direction to get closer, and the big cats, who she says, “act like any other cats: They curl up and go to sleep.”
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.