Chocolate lovers monkey around at Zoo-Bilee

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Abre McMannis, 12, daughter of Jennifer and Milan McMannis, samples some of the chocolate at Chocolate Fantasia on Friday afternoon at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Chocolate lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

The La Plata County Fairgrounds went wild Friday night as a crowd of 850 pigged out on chocolate.

There was no shortage of fondant animal fun at Chocolate Zoo-Bilee, the 27th annual Chocolate Fantasia, sponsored by First National Bank of Durango, that raised more than $13,000 for Volunteer of America’s Southwest Safehouse and Durango Community Shelter.

Hippos poked their noses through shaved coconut. Chocolate banana pandas clutched bamboo. Sea turtles swam in crushed graham crackers, while crocodiles shed dark chocolate tears.

About a dozen judges licked their way through more than 40 professional, amateur and children’s displays of chocolate confections, awarding ribbons and plaques in four categories, including People’s Choice.

Animal crackers were dipped, drizzled, or displayed near carousels and circus-themed zoo trains. Some were frosted with salted caramel goat cheese, offering flavor pairings that stopped dessert-lovers in their tracks.

“We’re chocolated out,” Amy Dobbins said. Dobbins and Christine Chapin sampled confections early, before the crowd arrived. The two event volunteers, both members of Durango Young Professionals, helped by escorting judges through a jungle-themed forest of silk trees and moss-covered animal cages.

“Volunteers of America is a fantastic organization. And then there’s the chocolate. How can you beat that?” Dobbins asked.

“This is a classic Durango mix,” Dobbins said of the crowd of young and old, well-dressed and denim-clad.

Boy Scouts volunteered as zoo security and janitors. Eastern Star members were among nearly 60 volunteers who cut cakes, said volunteer recruiter Pat LeRoy.

Musical performances by Encore and cat-costumed, aerial acrobats from Salt Fire Circus entertained guests.

Kids dipped cookies, marshmallows and grape spears in Fuzziwig’s chocolate fountain while adults went for Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s signature chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Crowd pleasers included Dig’s sea-salt caramels, chocolate-dipped biscotti and “Ocelot Chocolat”– Mexican brownies flavored with cinnamon, pine nuts and red chile pepper.

Kathy Bowser encouraged her grandchildren, Evan Hansen, 9, Bryce Mestas, 11 and Niko Mestas, 9, to enter an almond-coated alligator cake that sported marshmallow eyes and candy-corn, razor-sharp teeth. The cousins also fashioned a nest of alligator eggs made with Rice Crispies treats nestled in peanut butter and butterscotch coated Chinese noodles.

The 3-foot-long green alligator took no prisoners or prizes, but Bowser was proud of her grandchildren, anyway.

“What a nice way to have kids give something back to their community,” she said.

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