Philly Zoo set to open new $20 million big cat exhibit
PHILADELPHIA – Thirteen big cats – from a rare black jaguar to a trio of young snow leopards – are enjoying spacious new digs in the city after some time away "vacationing" at other zoos.
The Philadelphia Zoo next week will formally open its new $20 million habitat, which is designed to give the animals a more natural setting and visitors a more intimate experience.
The exhibit also preaches conservation, using interactive games, video clips and other tools to describe the threats humans pose to big-cat species around the world.
"Its intent is really gut level, for people to look at how beautiful and intense and amazing these animals really are, so they’ll want to do something to save big cats," said Andrew Baker, the zoo’s senior vice president of animal programs.
When the cats are willing, visitors can play patty-cake with them against a 1 1/2-inch-thick glass pane that is the only thing separating the natural predators from the public.
Zenda, a playful, 273-pound African lion, took the bait Thursday, bounding over when a child appeared and patting its thick paws against the awe-struck girl’s hands.
"This is what we hope for, a really powerful experience," Baker said. "You can see the reaction people have to the cats and the reaction cats have to people."
Threats to their survival run the gamut from hunting to development to ranching.
The zoo’s 10-month-old puma cubs – two girls and a boy – were orphaned in South Dakota last summer when a hunter legally killed their mother.
The 364-pound tiger Dmitri belongs to the subspecies once known as Siberian tigers, the largest of the world’s big cats. With their range now limited to the Amur River Valley in southern Russia, they are now called Amur tigers. Only a few hundred remain in the wild.
Other exhibits describe the human encroachment that has largely driven jaguars from the southwestern United States into Mexico and pumas – also called mountain lions or cougars – from the eastern United States.
"You hear reports of people seeing mountain lions in Appalachia," Baker said. "It’s hard to know if these are real or not."
The zoo also offers information on a program in Kenya it supports that teaches ranchers how to build lion-proof corrals for their herds, so they don’t shoot the endangered lions.
Big Cat Falls, which opens Thursday, is likely to be a summer blockbuster for the zoo, which attracts as many as 13,000 visitors on a weekend summer day and 1.2 million visitors a year.
It is the first new exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo since 1999, spokeswoman Ginette Meluso said. The zoo has two other capital campaigns planned, one to update the aviary and the other to redesign the children’s zoo.
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