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VOL. 130 | NO. 218 | Monday, November 9, 2015

Zambezi Hippo Exhibit Caps Generation of Zoo Plans, Launches Another

By Bill Dries

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Sandblasting, painting rondavels and plotting a FedEx flight out of Durban, South Africa, for a quartet of 850-pound crocodiles is the order of the day at the Memphis Zoo.

The $22 million Zambezi River Hippo Camp exhibit at the Memphis Zoo opens in March.

(Memphis Zoo)

But just beyond the March 1 opening of the $22 million Zambezi River Hippo Camp, zoo director Chuck Brady already is looking ahead to what the organization’s next master plan will tackle. The aquarium and the aviary are at the top of his list.

“We have to build a master plan to address parts of our campus that have aging buildings,” Brady said last week during a tour of the still-forming hippo exhibit area.

“For example, the aquarium was built by (philanthropist) Abe Plough in the 1950s,” he added. “Although it is still nice to visit, it’s long past its life and we’re keeping it together with duct tape.”

A neighboring structure goes back even further, to the 1920s.

“The point is that that has to change.” Brady said.

Once the hippos, crocodiles and flamingos are settled, Brady and the zoo board will start work on the next 25-year plan, fully aware that the last 10 years have been aggressive.

Zambezi River is the last major piece of the zoo’s current master plan, which began in the late 1980s. It’s included three major exhibits in the last decade – the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, Teton Trek and Northwest Passage – which collectively cost about $60 million, almost exclusively raised through private donations.

“Unfortunately the bears and the hippos – all expensive exhibitry – were both high priorities,” Brady said. “Hence the aggressive schedule we have. Very few zoos would have built three big exhibits in 10 years.”

The Zambezi River exhibit is being erected where the bears, and the Depression-era “bear grottos” they called home, once were. The hippo house will soon come down, ending the use of the blue wading pool that has been their home for generations.

The Memphis Zoological Society, which operates the Memphis Zoo for the city of Memphis, will consult with donors and citizens as it begins the two-year process of developing a new master plan and new priorities.

It may be hard to follow the Jurassic World-like spectacle of the 15-foot long Nile crocodiles leaping from 175,000 gallons of water at feeding time, which Brady described as a “high point” of the new exhibit. Matt Thompson, the zoo’s director of animal programs, is quick to distance the feeding from the idea that it’s a stunt.

“We really want to showcase their natural abilities to hunt and catch things,” he said. “We purposely built a deep pit in the pool where they can get a running start and leap up out of the water … just to show how powerful they are.”

The crocodiles don’t feed every day. And because of their size, zookeepers will never handle them, even as they arrive in their new home.

The four crocs – three females and one male – are tentatively scheduled to arrive in Memphis in early February following a two-day journey by FedEx jet that will include stops in Dubai and Milan. The massive reptiles will be shipped in foam-lined crates resembling coffins to keep them secure and still.

Brady is quick to add that you shouldn’t sell the neighboring hippos short in their 250,000-gallon tank. Similar to the crocodile area and the existing Northwest Passage exhibit, visitors will be able to see the hippos underwater.

Viewing the hippos through their extended underwater viewing area allows a visual transformation from the movements they make on land to a more graceful, and what seems to be playful, presence underwater.

Brady said the new perspective will make the hippos stars of the exhibit and overall zoo.

Two of the new camp’s three hippos are females and long-time zoo residents. The third hippo, a male, will arrive from Florida in late January or early February.

The zoo will work to breed both hippos and crocs.

Other exhibit features include a new home and breeding area for the pink flamingos, an African aviary and an Okapi display. Rondavels, round hut-like homes prevalent in the Zambezi River region of Africa, serve as exhibit areas to learn more about African culture as well as the animals and their environments.

Technology also is a big part of the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, from 60-inch video screens to an app that makes information available to visitors in as much or as little depth as they want. It’s the same approach used in the recent renovation at the National Civil Rights Museum as well as at Graceland: Give repeat visitors new areas, and more in-depth information, to explore.

“We already have the app,” said Laura Doty, marketing and communications manager for the zoo. “It’s interactive. When you walk in at a beacon point, it will push information toward you. You have the option to view it.”

The 500,000 gallons of water to be contained within the exhibit will be run through an elaborate filtration system. The zoo hired a specialty engineering firm to design the life support systems in each area of the exhibit.

Ultimately, the Zambezi River Hippo Camp continues, expands and highlights the Memphis Zoo’s long history with hippos, dating back to the 1920s and two hippos named Venus and Adonis.

“You think about the 1920s and hippos they had to be brought here by boat and train,” Brady said. “That was a long trip. Animal care and husbandry wasn’t what it is today. It was a pretty remarkable feat.

“In the 40s and 50s we were like the hippo capital of north America.”

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