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.
“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.
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.
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.”