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Construction workers assemble a geothermal ground loop Tuesday as expansion continues at the Lincoln Children's Zoo.

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New at the Lincoln Children's Zoo: $16 million expansion taking shape

The giraffes will have heated floors.

And they’ll have zookeepers with college degrees and iPads to track their every meal and mood swing, and a full-time veterinarian to keep them in good health, and one of the five biggest giraffe houses in the country, with heating, air-conditioning and 24-hour video monitoring.

The Sumatran tigers will have all of this, too, plus a pond and waterfall. So will the red pandas, but they’ll have two enclosures, connected by an elevated log-like passageway letting them move above the heads of zoo guests.

When the Lincoln Children’s Zoo unveils its $16 million, 10-acre expansion next spring, visitors will focus their attention on the new displays designed to put them face-to-face with rare and threatened and storybook species.

They can share the front seat of a Jeep with a 300-pound tiger, a 4-inch-thick pane of glass protecting them from becoming dinner.

They can stand on an elevated platform — indoors or out — to feed lettuce to giraffes at eye level.

They can explore a rainforest from a suspended platform, side-by-side with spider monkeys.

But visitors won’t see the attention the zoo pays to what it calls its animals-management system — the care and feeding of its four-legged attractions.

“Animal care has come 180 degrees from where it was when I started,” said John Chapo, the zoo’s president and CEO, who’s worked at zoos for 46 years. “The commitment to animal welfare, nutrition and conservation is unprecedented compared to what it was.”

And this is what it was, he said: “Animals were basically thrown into a box.”

Now, before that box is built, a veterinarian consults with designers to draft enclosures with animals in mind. For example, male giraffes can grow to 18 feet, and their tongues can stretch another 18 inches, so all of the heating, cooling and electrical fixtures better be out of reach.


Ryan Gross, director of strategic communications at the Lincoln Children's Zoo, rolls up an 18-foot banner illustrating the height of an adult male giraffe, with zoo president and CEO John Chapo, in the giraffe enclosure. 

“The vet worked with the architects and engineers to design the buildings, keeping the welfare of the animals as a priority,” said Ryan Gross, the zoo’s director of strategic communication. “He said, ‘Here’s the best way to build this building to care for this animal.’”

So the enclosures will be climate-controlled for year-round viewing, with rubber-padded floors in some cases. The giraffes will have enough headroom, the tigers ample water, the spider monkeys plenty of perches — and all of their handlers will have enough technology to monitor their every move.

Video cameras will allow zookeepers to monitor animals at all hours, even from their couches at home.

But what Chapo really wants to showcase now, nearly a year before the new buildings and displays open, is what the public will see during the day — even though it’s still a full-blown construction site, covered in hard hats and excavators and a sign warning visitors not to look at the welders.

A tour of the zoo

“A year from now,” Chapo said Tuesday, “if you’re standing here, you’re toast.”

Here used to be the zoo’s parking lot along South 27th Street, but next year will be home to a pair of young Sumatran tigers. The animals — brothers born in separate litters at the San Diego Safari Park — will arrive this fall, once their home is complete.

The Tiger Encounter will be the zoo’s second-largest animal habitat, with heated indoor shelters and a wild habitat of grass, rocks, water and a cave. The zoo is building several indoor and outdoor viewing areas, including a fake Jeep built on both sides of the enclosure’s glass wall, so visitors can share the seat with a tiger.

From the construction site, Chapo concedes that it’s all a little hard to envision now, but he can see it.

The tiger enclosure will be on the west side of the zoo’s new entrance, alongside its new parking lot on A Street. The zoo is doubling the number of ticket gates, from three to six, to accommodate the expected increase in visitors.

Last year, 240,000 people came through the gates; Gross expects that number to ultimately hit 350,000 to 400,000.

The two-story Education and Conservation Center will be on the east side of the new entrance, with three science classrooms and four regular classrooms. During the school year, it will house the LPS Science Focus Program — known as the Zoo School — and during the summer the zoo camp.

The zoo plans to make its new multipurpose room — with seating for 250 — available to the public, for everything from neighborhood meetings to flower shows.

The new red panda habitat will be built adjacent to the education center, with two enclosures connected by a fake, hollow log.

Courtesy image 

Artist Cliff Hollestelle is creating a 30-by-13-foot sculpture of sandhill cranes for the zoo’s new Splash Stream, a miniature replica of the Platte River.

In the middle of it all, the Splash Stream — a 72-foot river replica and liquid playground with shade trees, sand, sticks and swimming pool-quality water running through it. A 30-foot-by-13-foot bronze sculpture by artist Cliff Hollestelle will depict five life-size sandhill cranes in flight.

“This is like a miniature Platte River for the kids to play in,” Chapo said.

Next to that, an amphitheater for animal acts will seat 150, and next to that, the zoo’s largest habitat — the 250,000-cubic-foot future home to up to five giraffes. Everything about the building is tall, the 18-foot giraffe doorways, the 34-foot ceiling, the feeding platform 8 feet off the ground.


Doorways for giraffes and humans line the walls of the giraffe enclosure, a 250,000-cubic-foot structure under construction on Tuesday at the Lincoln Children's Zoo. 

Finally, contractors are converting the former Ager Play Center into a rainforest, with a multilevel treehouse so guests can greet spider monkeys at their level.

When the buildings open in the spring, they won’t close for the winter. For the first time in its 53 years, the seasonal zoo will be open 12 months.

“Everything we’re doing is about a year-round experience for our guests and our creatures.”

Photos, renderings, map: Expansion at Lincoln Children's Zoo

Photos, renderings, map: Expansion at Lincoln Children's Zoo


Ryan Gross, director of strategic communications at the Lincoln Children's Zoo, rolls up an 18-foot banner illustrating the height of an adult male giraffe, with zoo president and CEO John Chapo, in the giraffe enclosure. 

Freed detainees head home for big welcome

WASHINGTON — Freed after more than a year in prison, three Americans flew home from North Korea late Tuesday toward a big middle-of-the-night celebration featuring President Donald Trump — the latest sign of improving relations between longtime adversaries in the buildup to a historic summit between Trump and North Korea's King Jong Un.

Trump promised "quite a scene" at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington for the detainees, who were released as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea on Wednesday to finalize plans for the summit.

Trump made a point of publicly thanking North Korea's leader for the prisoners' release — "I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this" — and hailed it as a sign of cooling tensions and growing opportunity on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea had accused Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, all Korean-Americans, of anti-state activities. Their arrests were widely seen as politically motivated and had compounded the dire state of relations over the isolated nation's nuclear weapons.

Trump entered office as an emboldened North Korea developed new generations of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental U.S. Those advances were the subject of President Barack Obama's starkest warning shortly before Trump took office, and this is a crisis he's convinced his negotiating skills can resolve.

Crediting himself for recent progress, Trump has pointed to Kim's willingness to come to the negotiating table as validating U.S. moves to tighten sanctions — branded "maximum pressure" by the president.

The release capped a dramatic day of diplomacy in Pyongyang. After Pompeo's 90-minute meeting with Kim, he gave reporters a fingers-crossed sign when asked about the prisoners as he returned to his hotel. It was only after a North Korean emissary arrived a bit later to inform him that the release was confirmed.

The three had been held for periods ranging from one and two years. They were the latest in a series of Americans who have been detained by North Korea in recent years for seemingly small offenses and typically freed when senior U.S. officials or statesmen personally visited to bail them out.

Of the released detainees, Kim Dong Chul, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, had been held the longest. The former Virginia resident was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years in prison with hard labor after being convicted of espionage. He reportedly ran a trade and hotel service company in Rason, a special economic zone on North Korea's border with Russia.

The other two detainees hadn't been tried.

Kim Hak Song worked in agricultural development at an experimental farm run by the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST. The university is the only privately funded college in North Korea and was founded in 2010 with donations from Christian groups. He was detained last May for alleged anti-state activities.

Tony Kim, who also uses the name Kim Sang-duk, was detained in April 2017 at the Pyongyang airport. He taught accounting at PUST and was accused of committing unspecified criminal acts intended to overthrow the government.

The family of Tony Kim thanked all those who worked for his return and also credited Trump for engaging directly with North Korea. "Mostly we thank God for Tony's safe return," the family said in a statement.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer celebrated the detainees' return but warned that "we'll see many more hostages" if the administration provides an incentive for imprisoning Americans.

"We are happy they've returned, but North Korea shouldn't gain by taking Americans and then releasing them," he said.

Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press 

People watch a TV news report on May 3, showing portraits of three Americans, Kim Dong Chul, from left, Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song, detained in North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea.

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Political pressure 'at the very heart' of lecturer's dismissal, faculty group says

Mounting political pressure led to the dismissal of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln lecturer who protested a recruiting event for Turning Point USA last fall, the American Association of University Professors said Thursday.

The national faculty organization said UNL administrators violated university policies and broke widely observed norms in higher education to end the prolonged and intense reaction to Courtney Lawton’s protest of the conservative student group last August.

But in ending Lawton’s part-time teaching appointment within UNL’s English Department, administrators violated her right to a hearing and may have violated her academic freedom, the AAUP said, which could result in a censure of the university’s administration.

“The conclusion seems inescapable that the basis for Ms. Lawton’s dismissal was related to the political content of her speech and thus may have violated her academic freedom, a conclusion that stands unrebutted absent the affordance of a dismissal hearing,” the report states.

The Journal Star obtained a copy of the report Wednesday and spoke to several individuals about its findings.

Conflicting explanations

Video of Lawton's protest of the Turning Point USA event led by UNL undergraduate student Kaitlyn Mullen sped across social media and conservative outlets, drawing outrage from Nebraskans, lawmakers, and others, and pushing UNL to reassign Lawton from her teaching duties in early September.

While UNL said Lawton was removed from the classroom for safety purposes in early September, the AAUP noted she later received a written reprimand from Executive Vice Chancellor Donde Plowman: “We believe the way you chose to express your views was disrespectful, and it was in fact experienced by the student as ‘silencing.’”

Furthermore, the AAUP said UNL Police told Lawton the threats against her were in "a continued and steady decline" the very day she was removed from her teaching duties, while Plowman said she considered the intensity of the threats made against Lawton, rather than the number in making her decision.

The controversy briefly lost steam until UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green met with Mullen, Lawton and others involved in the protest in a series of follow-up meetings in late October.

After the meeting, a tweet and statements on local radio stations by Mullen expressing dissatisfaction that Lawton had not been fired reignited the debate, leading to an Oct. 30 editorial from a trio of state senators critical of how the university handled the situation.

Conservative lawmakers continued to question university leaders, and public-records requests from the Nebraska Republican Party and conservative media outlets added fuel to the flames, culminating in a meeting between Green, NU President Hank Bounds and several lawmakers on Nov. 16, the AAUP said.

The next day, Lawton was told she would no longer be permitted to teach at UNL, but according to the AAUP, administrators offered conflicting reasons for Lawton’s dismissal, one in the meeting between the graduate student and administrators and another publicly.

According to statements Lawton made to the AAUP, Green told Lawton he anticipated further threats against her once emails from the university’s communications team were provided through a public-records request by the Conservative Review website were released.

Writing in an editorial that appeared in several Nebraska newspapers, however, Green said Lawton’s behavior “was unacceptable,” and that “she will not teach at our university going forward because of this inappropriate behavior.”

The same day, Bounds wrote to Gov. Pete Ricketts and state lawmakers that the university was going to study the political climate at NU to ensure “no inappropriate political bias exists in our classrooms and anywhere else on campus."

"In the view of the investigating committee, Ms. Lawton was a convenient scapegoat for an administration under pressure to respond to such a charge," the committee wrote.

Policies and procedures

Before permanently ending her teaching appointment in November, UNL administrators failed to provide Lawton a hearing before a faculty committee — a procedure outlined in UNL policies and commonly practiced at universities across the country.

In place of a process where the administration would be required to "demonstrate adequate cause for dismissal," Lawton explored UNL's grievance procedure, which would have required her to shoulder the burden of proof in a lengthy and burdensome process.

Plowman acknowledged to the AAUP that no consideration was given to treating Lawton as a student, only as a member of the faculty, the report states, and NU's bylaws are unclear how graduate students also employed as lecturers should be treated — either as an employee or a student — in disciplinary procedures as well.

"Once the decision was made to treat Ms. Lawton as a faculty member, the procedures and protections for faculty as outlined in the University of Nebraska board of regents bylaws should have been applied," the report states.

Political pressures

"There is little doubt that political pressure played a significant role in the Lawton case," the AAUP report says. "In one sense, it is at the very heart of it."

From interviews conducted by the committee, administrators said they were overwhelmed by and confused in the responses to the ongoing media attention Lawton's protest created.

The report says an Aug. 28 tweet by Bounds critical of Lawton's actions "pre-empted the efforts of the campus administration to follow up on the incident."

Bounds said Wednesday he stood by his statement, according to a spokeswoman.

Green and Plowman both told the investigation committee the ultimate decision to remove Lawton was to stem "continued harm" and ongoing disruption to the university — "vague standards that do not justify such an action under AAUP-supported principles."

Two state senators who helped keep the spotlight on NU — Sens. Steve Erdman of Bayard and Tom Brewer of Gordon — said Wednesday they may have had some influence in the decision to end Lawton's role as a teacher at UNL.

But both senators who, along with Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, have continued publishing editorials critical of NU, said they were acting on behalf of their constituents.

"They are whining about the fact we have some oversight in what they do," Erdman said. "They can lay blame wherever they want to lay blame. The university is getting a black eye."

Brewer said he heard from taxpayers in his district and elsewhere.

"It may have played a factor, but the people we represent are voicing concerns," he said.

What happens next?

Copies of the investigation committee's findings were shared with UNL’s local AAUP chapter, campus administrators, and the individuals interviewed by the committee, including Lawton and Mullen, before it was made public this week, according to Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of the national AAUP.

Green said Wednesday he was "disappointed in the conclusions of the report." Several objections Green raised with the AAUP appear as a footnote in the official version.

"We worked with the AAUP in their investigation and disagree with the findings," he said in a statement. "Our core responsibility is the quality education of our students and to ensure a classroom environment that is conducive to learning.

"I respect the concerns raised by the AAUP, but stand by a decision that I believe was in the best interest of our university community," Green added. Bounds said he agreed with the chancellor's response.

The AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure could vote to censure UNL when it meets later this month for its annual meeting, Tiede said.

A censure vote could have an immediate impact on UNL's reputation, making it harder to recruit top faculty, administrators and, in some cases, students, according to Julia Schleck, a professor of English at UNL and past president of the Nebraska Conference of the AAUP.

“Essentially, it signals to those who have choices this may not be the best choice, because this is an institution that doesn’t respect its own procedures and the norms of American higher education,” Schleck said.

UNL administrators will have a chance to negotiate with the AAUP and Lawton to reach a resolution and avoid censure. Schleck said the ball is in the administration's court.

Lawton, who is wrapping up her Ph.D., said no effort to reach a resolution has been extended. The last time she heard from UNL administrators was Nov. 17, she said Wednesday.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

Courtney Lawton