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VOL. 125 | NO. 192 | Monday, October 4, 2010

Animal Kingdom

Memphis Zoo builds on recent success by preparing for future growth

STACEY WIEDOWER | Special to The Memphis News

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Grizzly bears are the main attraction at the Memphis Zoo's Teton Trek, which features a lodge inspired by the Old Faithful Inn in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park. The exhibit houses grizzlies, elk, wolves and ducks, all part of Yellowstone's ecosystem. Teton Trek turns 1 this month, and the zoo has plenty of other successes to celebrate. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

This time last year, the opening of the Teton Trek exhibit at the Memphis Zoo marked the latest step in an aggressive expansion plan that has placed the zoo No. 4 on the list of most-visited attractions in Tennessee and No. 1 in the Mid-South.

“It’s been a tremendous success,” said zoo CEO Chuck Brady of Teton Trek, which provides a habitat for animals including grizzly bears, elk and timber wolves and features a 20-foot waterfall, Great Lodge and a walkway that overlooks the animals. “The elevated hike around the exhibit has been over the top. People can’t stop talking about it.”

Gray wolves frolic at the Memphis Zoo’s Teton Trek, which features a lodge inspired by the Old Faithful Inn in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. The exhibit houses grizzlies, elk, wolves and ducks, all part of Yellowstone’s ecosystem.

Buzz about its exhibits led slightly fewer than a million visitors through the zoo’s gates in the most recent fiscal year. It has led to other accolades, as well: In a 2008 ranking on popular travel website TripAdvisor.com, the Memphis Zoo was listed as the No. 1 zoo in the nation.

Now the attraction’s main focus is to keep up the momentum.

“The zoo is very focused on staying current and on the front side of the curve with technology,” said board chairman Kelly Truitt. “There is a great commitment by the leadership, staff and community to make sure the zoo is competitively relevant and maintains that world-class reputation.”

Up to this point, the zoo has had its own detailed guidebook to reaching its goals: a master plan that originated in the early 1980s. That plan, which has been revised and updated over the years, has guided more than $80 million in renovation and expansion efforts on the zoo’s 76-acre Midtown campus.

Visitors cross a bridge at the Memphis Zoo’s Teton Trek exhibit, which overlooks the grizzly bear exhibit. Teton Trek opened this month one year ago.

Now, however, the zoo has fulfilled nearly every goal the plan laid out.

“In that master plan, China came on board, Northwest Passage came on board and Teton Trek came on board,” Brady said. “What’s left to do in that master plan, which we’ve already planned, is an exhibit called the Zambezi River Hippo Camp.”

The $16 million exhibit will cover 3.5 acres and focus on wildlife found in the Zambezi River area of Central Africa, including hippos, crocodiles, monkeys, flamingos and forest giraffes.

Once that project is finished, the only exhibit that remains to complete the original plan is Chickasaw Bluff, a low-impact, interpretive boardwalk that will meander through the zoo’s 17 remaining acres of old-growth forest and cost about $1.5 million to build.

While they work to carry out these projects, zoo leaders have their eyes on the future – a future that will be dominated by a new master plan that’s in the early stages of formation.

Right now, the zoo is in the process of asking 200 individuals – a “broad cross-section of the community, including donors, board members, zoo members, individual visitors and political officials,” said Brady – to examine current exhibits and provide feedback on future development opportunities.

A Year of Teton Trek

The Memphis Zoo is getting set to celebrate the one-year anniversary of its newest exhibit, Teton Trek.

Saturday, Oct. 9, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Inside Teton Trek’s Great Lodge
Free with zoo admission

The event includes special animal feedings, live music, sneak preview of the movie “White Lion” and a visit from Memphis Grizzlies mascot “Grizz.” For more information, call 333-6500 or visit www.memphiszoo.org.

“The zoo is always looking at existing exhibits and either replacing or redeveloping them so they’re current for the public and serve the animals properly,” Truitt said.

Participants are being asked to rank exhibits on appearance, educational value, conservation emphasis and entertainment value. Once that data is analyzed, zoo leadership will decide which exhibits need to be upgraded, overhauled or completely replaced. A team of professionals will research possibilities for future exhibits, then a second round of community input will help determine priorities for those exhibits.

Development of the new master plan is under way, and zoo officials hope to roll it out in 12 months, Brady said.

Although the existing master plan was developed by Torre Design Consortium Ltd., an outside architectural design firm that specializes in zoological design, the new plan is being researched and developed from within.

“This time, we’re not going to bring in outside help until we get to the renderings (of proposed exhibits),” Brady said. “Then we’ll hire an architect.”

Plans and renderings are already complete for Zambezi River Hippo Camp.

The Zambezi River Hippo Camp is a $16 million project that Memphis Zoo leaders hope to begin building in the next two years. The exhibit, which will house the zoo's hippos, was designed to replicate life on a sandbar along Africa's Zambezi River.

Of the $16 million needed to construct the project, $9 million has been raised to date. Zoo leaders, whose philosophy is to raise all money to build exhibits before starting construction, hope to have fund raising for the Zambezi exhibit completed in the next 12 to 15 months and are aiming to break ground in about two years.

The exhibit will provide a new home for the zoo’s existing hippos, showcasing their lives both underwater and on land.

“There will be a state-of-the-art filtration system, meaning the water will stay clear and you’ll be able to see them frolicking and running their river races on the bottom and all that they do,” said Gene Holcomb, chairman of the zoo board’s finance committee. “I think it’s a really exciting thing.”

The goal of the exhibit, which will be situated just east of the main gate, is to replicate life on a Zambezi River sandbar. It will include a “treetop classroom” that will overlook the exhibit.

Zoo officials hope to begin construction on the next project, Chickasaw Bluff, within three years, Brady said. The exhibit will put to use 17 acres of currently fenced-in forest that resides within the zoo’s bounds. That’s cause for concern for one community group, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP), whose primary mission is to protect the 150 remaining acres of the park’s original 200 acres of old-growth forest. According to the group, eight acres of forest have been destroyed in the past five years for zoo exhibits.

Its members hope the new Chickasaw Bluff exhibit will not bring further damage to the forest’s 10,000-year-old ecosystem.

“We heard they were done with the plan, but we haven’t seen a draft,” said CPOP board president Naomi Van Tol. “Last year they told us they want to build a low-impact boardwalk. We do not know if they’ll be cutting trees to build that boardwalk.”

The group also is unclear about the zoo’s plans to preserve the forest’s understory – the foliage and life growing beneath the forest canopy.

“Our concern is that the zoo in the past has not demonstrated a lot of interest in preserving the understory,” Van Tol said.

She added that CPOP, which has been pushing to have the park’s forestland designated a State Natural Area by the Tennessee Legislature, would like to see the fence that surrounds the zoo’s wooded acreage removed.

CPOP member Jimmy Ogle said the group supports the zoo and its expansion initiatives.

“But we’re also supporters of the forest, and we’d like to make sure things are done as responsibly as possible,” he said. “We’re just trying to make sure the forest is there 50 years from now, because the folks that protected it 50 years ago left it for us, and we’ve got to make sure to pass on that torch.”

Brady said the Chickasaw Bluff exhibit is designed to make use of the zoo’s 17 remaining acres of forestland, not destroy it.

“Our goal is to provide a low-impact boardwalk so that our visitors – a million or so each year – can enjoy the forest,” he said. “And by the same token, we want to preserve the forest and we will preserve the forest.”

Zoo officials’ main goal, he said, is to ensure that the zoo’s exhibits and events respond to and meet the needs of the community members the attraction is designed to serve.

“Good publicity and the building program that’s built these wonderful new exhibits have all helped the zoo grow and get more visitation from more segments of the community,” Brady said. “That’s what we’re after. We’re after young families, older people, teenagers – we want them all to come to the zoo, and we have programming to capture all those different groups. That takes a lot of planning.”

Holcomb said the zoo is financially self-sustaining, which is another of its goals.

“I sometimes think the community doesn’t understand what our goals or objectives are, and they occasionally complain about the price of entry,” Holcomb said. “But really we’re protecting local people’s interests by charging a higher one-time fee and giving local people the opportunity to be members at a very low fee. The idea there is for tourists to help support the zoo and try to make an economical way for locals to use the zoo.”

The zoo works to reach out to community members in other ways. For instance, the zoo is in the process of launching a science-based distance-learning initiative that will link the zoo’s educators to schoolchildren across the state. Brady said the project should be up and running by year’s end. Other partnerships and programs aim to connect the zoo and the education system.

“Our approach in conservation and research is to be focused, to do a great job on a select group of issues that are important,” Brady said. “We make partnerships with all the local universities, so we don’t try to do conservation work by ourselves; we do it in collaboration.”

In addition, events such as member nights, Zoo Boo, Zoo Lights, Zoo Rendezvous and Zoo Brew aim to continually expand the zoo’s presence in the community.

“Our philosophy is that there always has to be something new at the zoo,” Brady said.

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