By Laura Layden
Sunday, July 8, 2007
The leopards will rock at a new exhibit opening at the Naples Zoo come Saturday.
The big cats will roam around a life-like African kopje rock formation, looking as though they're walking in the wild.
Zoo-goers will get the chance to stand within finger's reach of the leopards, with only glass separating them.
"It will be our most expensive exhibit yet," zoo director David Tetzlaff said.
The exhibit, called Leopard Rock, cost $130,000. A donation from The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation group, paid for it.
After the zoo became a nonprofit last year, the trust wrote it a $200,000 check, officially kicking off the second phase of a ReNew the Zoo fundraising campaign to help the landmark attraction make improvements and recover from a blow by Hurricane Wilma nearly two years ago.
The Category 3 storm uprooted trees and smashed exhibits, including the home for leopards when it made landfall in Collier County on Oct. 24, 2005.
"Naples Zoo was hit hard by Hurricane Wilma and we're happy to help in the reconstruction effort," said Greg Chelius, director of the trust's Florida office, in a written statement.
The trust was instrumental in saving the zoo, which faced the threat of development a few years ago as the former owners, the Fleischmann family, looked to sell their property. The trust worked with Collier County officials to preserve the land.
The zoo chose the kopje (pronounced copy) as the centerpiece for its newest exhibit because many people don't know about the popular habitat for leopards, Tetzlaff said.
In the wild, the cats hide inside and hunt around them.
"We hope this type of exhibit sets a stage for the future," Tetzlaff said. "I think we have budgeted very well. We have used the money as best as possible, to get the most bang for our buck, so to speak."
While the new exhibit is virtually complete and you might even see leopards wandering around in it, zoo visitors won't see the cats up close until the opening in a few days.
"The wow factor in this is going to be getting right up to the glass and the public won't be able to get up close to the glass until July 14 at 9 a.m.," Tetzlaff said.
That is, unless you're a zoo member. Then you can get a sneak peak of the exhibit starting at 8 a.m. the same Saturday. A "vine-cutting" ceremony is planned for 8:30 a.m. The first 400 children in the door on opening day will get a plush leopard to take home.
The exhibit includes living trees and logs. It has four viewing windows, each 7 feet tall and four feet wide.
The glass is one inch thick.
"You can stand one inch away from a leopard," Tetzlaff said. "It's going to be a very dramatic experience."
The exhibit will tell a story about leopards; there are graphics showing how they live in African cities, often unnoticed.
"They are very nocturnal. They only come out at night," Tetzlaff said.
He said it's a zoo's role to educate the public about animals and their habitat.
The zoo will show two leopards at a time in the new exhibit. There are four in all. One of them is black. Two of cats are 12-year-olds who have only appeared in Tetzlaff's big cat shows, which he plans to phase out.
The others are their 9-year-old offspring. But you'll never see the parents with their children.
"They haven't seen each other in years," Tetzlaff explained. "So you would have a fight on your hands.
"Leopards are not group animals," he added.
Much of the remaining money from the trust's gift went toward paving the crushed rock walkway that circles the zoo. Now, strollers run smoothly through the trail, no longer getting caught.
"It was something we always wanted to do," Tetzlaff said. "It's really made a great improvement."
The zoo continues to raise money in hopes of adding other exhibits. After operating as a for-profit business for decades, the zoo changed its status as Collier County looked for ways to rescue it.
In late 2005, Collier County government bought 130 acres, including the roughly 40 acres on which the zoo sits, for $41.5 million. The county now leases the land to the zoo. A condition of the deal was for the zoo to become a nonprofit.
The Trust for Public Land actually purchased the property and then sold it to the county after commissioners balked over the asking price.
The trust sold parts of the land to others, lowering the county's cost.
Most of the money for the land purchase came from a referendum voters approved to save the zoo. They agreed to tax themselves $40 million to buy the property.
Since the county purchased its land, the zoo has made many improvements. Now that the leopards have a new home at the zoo, Tetzlaff has his eye on a new exhibit for endangered black bears that he hopes to acquire.
The zoo has requested $120,000 from Collier County's Tourist Development Council to help build the exhibit. If it's approved, grant money would come from a tourist tax the county collects on hotel rooms and other short-term lodging.
The new bear habitat could include a waterfall, pool, rocks, a cave and glass windows for viewing the animals at play. A new zoo master plan shows the bear exhibit as part of a Florida-themed area with panthers and alligators. The plan divides the attraction into four ecosystems, one of them being the Florida coast.
Recently, the Naples City Council approved a variance to allow the zoo to put up a new sign on U.S. 41, just south of the Coastland Center mall.
The old sign with the giant, brightly painted toucan fell victim to Hurricane Wilma. The new sign will be plain, at least for now.
It will be like the one the attraction has out front on Goodlette-Frank Road. It's green and white, with the zoo's name in simple lettering and would replace a temporary banner that went up shortly after the old sign came down.
"That's not the end all, be all," Tetzlaff said. "Our ultimate goal is to actually have artificial rocks with bronze lions, which will require another variance in the future."
"I want something on (U.S.) 41 that will be an attraction itself," he said.
But the zoo needs to raise money to afford that kind of sign. Four months ago, the zoo hired a development director to help with fundraising.
"We are reaching out to the donors we already know and we have increased our membership," Tetzlaff said.
Annual memberships are up 47 percent over last year, he said.
"A lot of it is people coming into the zoo and liking it," Tetzlaff said. "That day, they can use their ticket toward buying that membership."
Memberships are 50 percent off for Collier County residents — at $49.95 for the year.
"The zoo faced extinction a few years ago, and now we're bigger and stronger than ever," Tetzlaff said.
Just ask the leopards.