The Tulsa Zoo has a brand new plan. On Tuesday, zoo officials showed their new 20-year, 10-exhibit master plan to the Tulsa Park Board.
The zoo will spend the next two decades updating old facilities, adding in state-of-the-art new exhibits, and creating a more playful and immersive experience for its guests.
Since the economy tanked in 2001, the Tulsa Zoo has struggled "just to maintain the status quo and keep the doors open," said Angela Evans, the zoo's public relations and marketing director.
But status quo isn't good enough anymore. The zoo shifted to private operation by Tulsa Zoo Management Inc. in 2009, though the city of Tulsa still owns the assets and property. Through a public-private partnership, the zoo can access city funds while also raising money from private donors for new projects.
In May 2011, the zoo hired PGAV Destinations, a master planning team, to help them find a way forward. And a big part of that is modernizing the 85-year-old, 84-acre zoo. "A modern zoo is immersive," Evans said. "It's about the animal's environment, not about putting the animal on display."
Terrie Correll, the Tulsa Zoo Management Inc.'s executive director, said, "What the master plan will do is give a whole new face to the zoo." And, hopefully, help ours become a "premier, world-class zoo," Correll said.
The new, updated Tulsa Zoo will be more about getting lost in a wild, whimsical adventure that transports guests to lost kingdoms and savannas.
This won't be your grandmother's zoo.
To find a great example of a modern zoo exhibit, look no farther than the Tulsa Zoo's new, revamped $5 million sea lion cove, which officially opens this month. The original sea lion exhibit was "built in the mid-1970s and was basically a swimming pool," Evans said. But now, "This place is far more immersive," she said.
You can watch Dorsey and Briney, the zoo's male and female sea lions, as they explore their new cove and swim in their new 100,000-gallon saltwater pool.
Through the Hille underwater viewing window, guests can get closer than ever before. Through three-inch glass, Dorsey stops to curiously examine a face in the crowd as Briney pirouettes and spins only a few feet away.
They're so close you can count their whiskers.
Several Tulsa families and foundations helped pay for the project, including the Lorton family, H.A. and Mary K. Chapman Charitable Trust, George Kaiser Family Foundation, Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation, ONEOK Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation, Bank of Oklahoma, and the Lobeck Taylor Foundation, among many others.
The new exhibit also got a financial boost from a 2006 third-penny sales tax and the zoo's "Growing Wild" Capital Campaign fundraiser.
This same blend of public funds and private donations will rebuild, renovate and update the zoo in upcoming years.
A Logical Place in This World
The zoo will need some major reshuffling. Right now, the exhibits are set up in zones separated loosely by geography, but only when they're not. The "Big Cats" are grouped together regardless of their point of origin, while the Conservation Center houses birds and animals from all over the globe.
Toward the front of the zoo are the North American and Asian exhibits. The chimpanzees are near the front too, but they're far from the rest of the African savanna exhibit, which is on the other side of the zoo.
The zoo's grizzly and black bears live in outmoded "bear grottos" near the African savanna, and are separate from the rest of the North American exhibit.
New exhibits will be grouped together more logically -- the bears will move to the front of the zoo into a renovated North American exhibit, and chimps will be re-grouped into new African exhibits.
One of the drawbacks of the zoo's current set-up is the lack of animals upon entrance. You walk in from a parking spot in Mohawk Park, pay for a ticket, head through the turnstile, and walk in and... there are no animals.
With updated exhibits, bears, chimps and elephants will now be close to the front and easy to see and find. The master plan has identified five major projects and one minor project, which include a redesign and expansion of the current chimp exhibit, and "we're looking at adding gorillas," Correll said. There will also be a special tiger-focused exhibit, an expansion and renovation of the elephant exhibit, a new vision for the current African exhibit, an overhaul of the playgrounds and the Children's Zoo, and finally, the simplification of the North American exhibit.
And finding these new renovated exhibits will be easier than ever -- the zoo will also be working on offering better signage and easier routes to exhibits. Behind the scenes, the zoo will renovate all out-of-date and failing facilities.
"Some exhibits will go away, like the outdated bear and tiger and lion exhibits," Correll said. "Those grotto exhibits have lived past their life expectancy and don't represent a modern zoo."
Overall, Correll said the zoo's master plan will address maintenance issues with older exhibits and create new, more natural exhibits that bring guests closer to the animals than ever before.
Lost Kingdoms and Misty Jungles
The zoo's master plan is phased so construction will happen slowly over the next 20 years. Every few years, the zoo hopes to be able to herald a new, state-of-the-art exhibit. Here's a look at what the zoo has in store for guests:
An African Forest exhibit will "have a deep, misty jungle feel to it," Correll said. The "Chimp Family Robinson" theme will take guests through lush tropical gardens, thatched huts and rope bridges, where they can encounter chimps and gorillas in a more natural habitat. For extra fun, the zoo will add a zip line, ropes course and climbing structures.
The new sea lion cove blends in seamlessly with the next-newest exhibit, the penguins. These two areas will be the cornerstone for a "Wild Islands" area, featuring bamboo work and colorful remnants from shipwrecks and crashed airplanes in a "rugged Gilligan's Island theme," Correll said.
The Wild Islands will also offer a "splash pad with water play for children, and parents can sit in shady spaces and observe, watch the kids and relax," Correll said.
Two "Lost Kingdoms" will be added as well -- one for tigers, and another for elephants. "Our tigers and snow leopards will be moved closer to the Asian elephant," Correll said. The Lost Kingdoms will allow guests to explore the lost relics of ancient civilizations.
The current petting zoo will be "totally redesigned" into a "fantastical wonderland for children of all ages," Correll said. A new "Sheepy Hollow" will feature Alice in Wonderland-like oversized butterflies, flowers and mushrooms, plus playful creatures like pandas and river otters and perhaps kangaroos.
The sprawling African plains exhibit will get an overhaul as well. With a "Bush Backpacking Adventure" theme, guests will be invited to hitch a ride into the wilderness where they can experience renovated animal exhibits. "We'll be adding more antelope exhibits, and relocating our rhino exhibit," Correll said.
Improvements will also be made to the area's current villages and the giraffes will get a modern barn. The lions will move into this area, too. Correll also said a new "keeper chat area" will offer an "up close experience with the rhinos" in the new African plains area.
An Ark and a Compass
Developing new exhibits for exotic, sometimes endangered animals with unique needs isn't as easy as slapping up fun new signage. Considering each species and its survival is key to moving forward. Rhinos, for example, "are extremely endangered, and is one of those animals where we're committed to being a part of their species survival plan," Evans explained.
"No matter what the problem may be, whatever they're facing (say, global warming), the species will always have a home and the zoo's job is to tell their story," Evans said. "We're an ark, basically."
The Tulsa Zoo is one of the largest and oldest zoos in the nation, Evans said.
Wondering why the zoo doesn't feature all of your favorite animals? Zoos must consider a species endangerment, availability, health, age and special needs before taking on ay new animal.
For instance, Evans said, "There are only 70 polar bears in Canada and the Americas... Sometimes an animal species just isn't very available" and the zoo has to figure out how to modify exhibits according to which animals are available. In the zoo's old polar bear exhibit, "we brought in a grizzly bear instead," Evans said. But because grizzlies like to claw and dig, the zoo had to add reinforcements.
Plus, animals in the zoo are living longer, she said. Gunda, one of the zoo's two female Asian elephants, is 61 years old and is the oldest of her kind living in captivity. Briney, the female sea lion, is 26 years old. Zookeepers and veterinarians keep the animals healthy by "treating them like we treat ourselves" for various conditions like arthritis, Evans said.
So now the zoo has a plan; the next step is fundraising, and after that, creating a wild new world.
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