Lincoln Children’s Zoo-goers, let’s get right to it. Once the zoo’s most-ambitious expansion to date is completed — 2019 is the stated goal — you’re getting giraffes, tigers, spider monkeys, a lot more parking and an entrance that's open all year.
The $16 million project is the result of a fundraising campaign that the zoo's executive director, John Chapo, said began quietly about a year ago and went very public Wednesday morning. Children and teachers from two schools joined other Lincoln residents, the governor, the mayor, the LPS superintendent and Larry the Cable Guy at an unveiling of what more the zoo will soon offer.
"More animals, more first-hand interactions and more 'Love Your Zoo,'" Chapo said.
The Children’s Zoo is adding 10 acres to its 8.8-acre spread — plenty of neck room for giraffes, as well as a place for children (and adults) to safely feed them.
In addition to new animals, Lincoln Public Schools will expand its Science Focus Program, better known as Zoo School. Superintendent Steve Joel said enrollment could double from about 100 students to 200. And the historic Ager Building will be repurposed to feature animal exhibits.
In the process, the layout of the Children's Zoo — the state’s No. 3 arts and cultural destination — will change substantially, and the number of interactive experiences is set to grow. Many of those changes are inspired by the new animals.
* There will be an area just inside the new entrance featuring an inch-deep, man-made stream.
From there, visitors can get a view of the Children’s Zoo’s prized red pandas, who are moving to a more-prominent area where they can be seen wandering between two habitats thanks to a bridge that guests can pass beneath.
“This is going to be the hub of activity, leading to all parts of the current and expanded zoo,” Chapo said.
* There will be a new covered amphitheater that overlooks the giraffe habitat — a space where zookeepers will put on demonstrations featuring many of the animals at the Children’s Zoo. Along with the amphitheater, there will be a canopy that zoo visitors can climb to feed the giraffes — and take selfies. Only one zoo in the country — the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs — currently offers a giraffe-feeding experience that encompasses both indoor and outdoor areas.
* The tiger habitat will house a critically endangered species, most likely Sumatran tigers. The habitat will include a small pond and unique experiences for visitors. Zookeepers will do daily behavioral-training sessions with the tigers while guests look on. Elsewhere in the habitat, a safari-style Jeep will be parked half in the tigers' lair, half in the visitors’ area, and divided by a wall of protective glass that will allow for a safe, unique photo opportunity. (The tigers will be drawn to the Jeep, by the way, by cool air.)
* The monkeys will take over the Ager Building, where bringing visitors as close as possible to the animals’ habitat is at the center of what Chapo said is a one-of-a-kind design. The Indoor Adventure area will include a multi-tiered treehouse-like structure with crawl spaces that allow kids to, seemingly, enter the monkeys’ habitat and peer at them through glass in what appear to be felled, hollowed-out tree trunks. Plus, there’s a slide.
As each addition was announced, students from Sheridan Elementary and Bennet Elementary schools sitting in the front rows cheered.
“From the reaction of the kids, survey says that’s a winner right there,” Larry the Cable Guy said after revealing that he’d been wearing the zoo’s Pacific the Penguin costume all morning.
To expand the zoo, the current main parking lot will be demolished, along with the vacated Lincoln Parks and Recreation headquarters. A new lot will expand parking by 75 percent, something frequently requested in customer surveys and focus groups.
The expansion will be the culmination of a joint effort between the Children’s Zoo, the city, county, LPS and private donors who have already pledged much of the estimated cost.
“That’s what is making this city so successful right now; it’s figuring out win-win situations,” Mayor Chris Beutler said.
Said Gov. Pete Ricketts, addressing the front of the room: “Kids, we have the best place to be here in Nebraska, and it’s because of all the adults that worked together to make the zoo bigger. Because that’s what we do as Nebraskans, we work together to solve problems. And this is a great example of that.”
Love Your Zoo, a fundraising campaign involving a number of Lincoln grocery store locations and restaurants, is launching to help raise the remaining funds. To learn more, or to donate online, go to lincolnzoo.org.
The Children’s Zoo has already reached $13 million of its stated $16 million goal.
“I have been humbled by the support of this community,” Chapo said.