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Tulsa Zoo Master Plan to Bring New Exhibits

Managing Editor

DINOSAURS RETURN: Zoorasic Park, the Tulsa Zoo’s first dinosaur exhibit in more than 20 years, runs May 3-Oct. 31. The exhibit features 15 animatronic dinosaurs made with steel frames and covered in rubber that are able to move and make sounds, contributing to the feel that visitors are walking through a pre-historic land.

EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers

Tulsans can expect to see substantial changes in the not-so-distant future at the Tulsa Zoo.

In 2011, Tulsa Zoo Management Inc. (TZMI) entered into an official public/private partnership with the city of Tulsa. Shortly thereafter, TZMI board members and staff set out to create a 20-year master plan, identifying the zoo’s areas of strengths and weaknesses and outlining new projects to create what Tulsa Zoo CEO Terrie Correll terms “a premier zoo.”

Now as a privately managed organization, the Tulsa Zoo is insulated from city budgetary issues, says Correll.

“Part of the reason for the privatization was to address the failing infrastructure,” she continues, “and to allow the zoo to develop on its own terms, to be in control of its destiny.”

Architectural firm PGAV, based in St. Louis, worked with the zoo’s board of directors and staff members to develop the master plan.

The first sign of progress that visitors will notice is the opening of the Mary K. Chapman Rhino Reserve, with an expected completion date of late fall. The rhino exhibit will provide indoor and outdoor viewing of the animals and offer rhino encounters for guests. This new exhibit will be located near the Chapman Event Lodge.

The master plan evaluated exhibits including their condition, message and popularity in order to target areas for improvement. For instance, the exhibits that hold the bears, lions and tigers was completed in 1964, Correll says, and is now “physically succumbing to its age.” Additionally, when the exhibits were built, the deep moats that stand between observers and the animals, called carnivore grottos, were the trend in zoo construction.

In addition, the new projects found in the master plan will help to increase attendance. In previous years, attendance numbers increased in direct relation to the opening of new exhibits, driving home the importance of bringing in new animal exhibits and guest amenities to maintain public interest.

Currently driving increased zoo traffic is the temporary exhibit Zoorasic Park, the zoo’s first dinosaur exhibit in more than 20 years. It opened May 3 and will run through Oct. 31. The exhibit features 15 animatronic dinosaurs made with steel frames and covered in rubber that are able to move and make sounds, contributing to the feel that visitors are walking through a pre-historic land.

The first phase of the zoo’s master plan, running from 2014-2018, will include construction of a new exhibit complex that will hold Asian big cats such as tigers, snow leopards and Komodo dragons, to be called Lost Kingdom. It will include large, paneless windows “that will allow people to be up close with the tigers,” Correll says. “It will be a gateway from looking at the animals along a deep moat to being close to the animals. You can’t inspire anyone from so far away.”

Lost Kingdom will be a five-acre exhibit complex located in the center of the zoo, where the current Bank of Oklahoma Pavilion stands. The pavilion will be renovated to include viewing windows into the tiger exhibit.

Zoo officials still need to raise $5 million for the $16 million project but still expect to break ground in late fall.

Correll says that the only exhibit currently at the zoo that comes closest to the concept of Lost Kingdom is the Tropical American Rainforest exhibit, where many animals live together in the same habitats, creating an immersive, naturalistic environment.

“Lost Kingdom will be an ‘ah-ha’ moment for people,” she says. “It will be a portal into the wild, and it will show everyone what we will be doing in the future.”
Following construction on Lost Kingdom will be the new Carnivores! exhibit featuring a new habitat for African lions and renovations of the giraffe exhibit to include two large outdoor dining areas with views of the animals, a boardwalk to view giraffes from above and giraffe feeding opportunities.

Also occurring during phase one of construction is a revamped and expanded chimpanzee exhibit, to be called African Forest.

The renovated exhibit will remain in its current location near the zoo entrance. It will carry a Swiss Family Robinson theme, with tall buildings set in the treetops, climbing structures, gardens that create a lush jungle feel and a ropes course.

Gorillas will be added to African Forest during phase two, which runs from 2019-2024.

A new children’s zoo, called Sheepy Hollow, will be created during phase two. It will be located near the Rainforest exhibit and feature animals from around the world in a magical setting, Correll says. The exhibit is meant to inspire wonder and encourage exploration and discovery of both plants and wildlife through its landscaped gardens and petting zoo. The North American river otters will be the main exhibit, offering overwater and underwater views with underwater crawl-throughs and pop-ups. The area will also feature a train station and amphitheater.

To appeal to young ones and offer a reprieve from the heat, the Wild Islands, a water play and kids’ area, will be constructed during phase three, which runs from 2025-2032. It will be built near Helmerich Sea Lion Cove to allow parents to sit and relax while watching their kids play in the splash play area, Correll says. There will be indoor and outdoor exhibits of animals that are found on islands, such as birds and reptiles.

“It’ll be a game changer,” she says. “It will give people a reason to go to the zoo when it’s hot.”

A new elephant yard will be added to Lost Kingdom during phase three. This will take place in addition to the renovation of the existing elephant viewing and holding area.

Although Tulsans will have to wait some time before seeing the zoo’s master plan come to full fruition, locals can trust that the wait will be worth it. The zoo’s master plan will only enhance the zoo’s ability to “reconnect humans with nature and each other,” Correll says. “Zoos allow us to engage with animals in a personal way and learn how the way we live affects animal habitats.

“Zoos have a way of reconnecting humans with nature and each other.”

Updated 06-16-2014

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