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Virginia Zoo sales Kenyan flip-flop art

Jordan Crawford | 8/7/2013, 3:45 p.m.

While you are simply traipsing around in your brightly-colored flip-flops, folks in Kenya are fashioning theirs into sculptures resembling the country’s native wildlife. Still feeling accomplished?

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Ocean Sole collects discarded flip-flops from waterways and coastlines around Kenya and works with talented, local artisans to transform them into wonderful flip-flop creations.

The company was launched in 1997 by Marine Conservationist, Julie Church. Recycling the lost soles helps keep the Indian Ocean plastic-free and reduces the threat to marine life. In the Indian Ocean, flip-flops are one of the largest marine pollutants.

The foamy footwear is collected and scrubbed, then carved, sanded, and then sculpted into the statues.

The Virginia Zoo has partnered with Ocean Sole and is now selling various sizes of the marine-salvaged menagerie of giraffes, elephants, warthogs, hippos, rhinos, lions, and zebras in their gift shop. It is part of the zoo’s ongoing effort to promote conservation locally and worldwide.

Virginia Zoo Director, Greg Bockheim, discovered the art on a trip to a Kenyan elephant sanctuary last fall.

He recognized the art as a possible tactic to draw conservation-minded patrons to the zoo. Once back in the U.S., he immediately contacted the shoe-recycling company. Bockheim believed the sculptures would appeal to those into “eclectic and outsider art.”

“That’s what I like,” said Bockheim. “I like brightly colored, unique, sculptural things; things that are touchable, but are still art.”

The Virginia Zoo is the first zoo in the country to sell the flip-flop sculptures. The sculptures are pricey, however, and no two are the same. Each animal is crafted into a different pose.

According to Bockheim, transporting the pieces here was no cheap task. Bockheim and a colleague at the San Diego Zoo shared the expenses. Prices will range from $5 for a four-inch elephant, to $700 for a five-foot giraffe.

Church said the company began with a small workshop in her house and now produces over 30,000 pieces a month. Most of its workers are from the Kamba community, including a group of fifteen who do the beach collecting. There are over 50 artisans who work on the animals.

“For me, this is an African solution to a global problem of pollution,” said Church.