By Kevin Kilbane
Posted on Tue, Sep. 26, 2006
Imagine walking through a concrete tunnel and emerging in an African oasis of tall grasses, small pools of water and a jungle of plants.
From there, the trail meanders across what appears to be an East African savannah, where you encounter new animals around every turn. Along the way, young explorers can crawl through tunnels in the rocks, try on warthog tusks, report animal activity on a database or use remotely controlled video cameras to study lions and zebras.
The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo’s new African Journey exhibit will engage visitors in a way they never have been before when it opens in spring 2009, zoo Director Jim Anderson said.
“It’s all those little things and a lot of interactive things that pay off for kids and families,” added Anderson, who announced details of the $7 million project Tuesday afternoon.
The highlight of the announcement was that the zoo already has raised $5.4 million of the estimated cost, capital campaign chairman Mark Hagerman said. The largest contribution has come from Lincoln Financial Group Foundation, which pledged $1.1 million.
“Lincoln is very proud to have a part in helping the zoo continue its tradition of being the very best it can be,” said Jon Boscia, Lincoln Financial Group chairman and chief executive officer. Lincoln Financial has now donated $2.4 million to the 38-acre zoo since it opened in 1965 in Franke Park off Sherman Boulevard.
The zoo plans to continue seeking donations from foundations, businesses and other large donors during the winter, Anderson said. The public will be invited to help beginning this spring.
Transforming the existing African Veldt area, which opened in 1976, into the new African Journey exhibit will be a two-year process, Anderson said. Demolition work will begin after the zoo closes Oct. 15. The area will be closed to visitors during construction, but the zoo hopes to arrange sneak peaks at the area as opportunities present themselves, he said.
The basic form of the current African Veldt area will be preserved, but the contents of the 26-acre exhibit will change dramatically, a written description of the exhibit said.
Instead of walking along the current raised boardwalk around the main veldt area, visitors will travel at ground level along the Savannah Trail. The path will wander along a small stream through grasslands, woodlands and ponds to outcroppings of massive boulders, called kopjes in East Africa.
As in Africa, the kopjes will be home to many different animals, such as deerlike dik diks, hyenas and large birds known as bustards. The fake rock outcroppings also will form the skins around zoo service buildings, making them nearly invisible to visitors, Anderson said.
Large, fake boulders also will frame the lion exhibit, where visitors can get face-to-face with lions through 2-inch-thick secure glass. Youngsters also can peer into the lions’ den by operating a remotely controlled video camera.
The lion exhibit will be large enough to house three adult lions, or a pair of lions and their cubs, said Mark Weldon, zoo animal curator. It will occupy land located approximately where the current African wild dog exhibit stands, Weldon said. The dogs will be sent to another zoo and will not be part of the African Journey exhibit.
Around the lion exhibit, visitors also will be able to see hyenas, vultures, servals and honey badgers. The zoo exhibited the cat-like serval in the 1980s, Weldon said.
The zoo has decided not to display cheetahs, Weldon said, as an exhibit description the zoo presented to prospective large donors earlier this year stated.
The zoo also hasn’t decided whether to display meerkats or the banded mongoose, Weldon said. The zoo also is debating whether to continue exhibiting warthogs, which tend to lie around a lot, or to replace them with Red River hogs, Weldon said. Red River hogs look somewhat like warthogs, but have reddish-orange fur and weigh about 100 to 250 pounds.
The African Journey exhibit also will expand the zoo’s giraffe population, with a new exhibit area and barn designed for seven or eight adults as well as babies, Weldon said. Visitors will be to stand on a platform to hand-feed giraffes with snacks, such as carrots.