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Zoo Boise’s largest expansion effort yet: new African exhibit, lofty conservation goals

A lioness relaxes in the sun at Zoo Boise.
A lioness relaxes in the sun at Zoo Boise. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Paintbrush in hand, Zoo Boise director Steve Burns touched up trim inside the African Schoolhouse that is both an interpretive center and a lookout into the lion enclosure.

This hands-on administrator led a work party this week to freshen up areas of the zoo in anticipation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation visit that happens every five years. Zoo Boise is one of only 210 of the nation’s 2,800 zoos with the AZA’s stamp of approval.

“They look at everything from our operations and budget to how we care for every animal, from mammals to reptiles to birds,” Burns said.

Burns completes his term as the outgoing chairman of the AZA in September. He served as chairman in 2016, a position that gave him more influence in the industry and helped raise the profile of Zoo Boise, one of the city’s most vital cultural assets and one of the most visited attractions in the state, hosting more than 350,000 people each year.

Now the zoo is preparing for its next-level expansion that will increase its physical footprint in Julia Davis Park and bring a taste of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park and Indochina’s Annamite Mountains to Boise.

The Gorongosa exhibit will add another acre and a half to the zoo’s compound, with the land coming from the east end of the park. This is the first time since 1981 that the zoo grounds have grown into the park, which the zoo has been part of since 1916. The last big updates at the zoo happened in 2008, when it opened the $3.7 million African exhibit, and in 2000, with the $1.7 million Small Animal Kingdom exhibit.

The campaign

Money for the zoo’s latest expansion is coming from a successful “Zoo With a New View” capital campaign.

Because the zoo met its final $200,000 goal through its public fundraising campaign by an April 1 deadline, it received an additional $1.5 million from an anonymous out-of-state donor. Those funds completed the $8.9 million campaign. About $7.1 million of that came from private donors and foundations before the public campaign launched in 2016.

“The community has been incredibly generous,” said Burns, adding that the capital campaign is done for now. “And we’re grateful. I can’t say definitively that we have all the money we need until the bids are in, but so far we’ve designed the project to fit in the budget. If we need more as we get closer, I’ll let you know.”

Right now, the project is in the blueprint stage. The zoo worked with Boise’s Erstad Architects on the design. In the coming months the pieces will come together. “We need a building permit like everybody else,” Burns said.

Contractor bids will start in January, construction will begin in March 2018 and the new exhibits will open in summer 2019, Burns said.

“After the building are complete, we’ll need time to move the animals in,” he said. “Some are animals we have at the zoo; others are animals that we have coming in. We have to get them situated and acclimated to their new homes.”

After that will come the development of themes and an interpretive plan for this new African-inspired exhibit.

“To make it look like Gorongosa National Park, to give those fun elements and props, we work with Boise State’s theater department, and we need some time,” Burns said.

In 2008, Micheal Baltzell and a team from BSU’s scene shop built props and signs to give the current African exhibit its charm and flavor. They also painted.

Baltzell and company will help create the look and environment for the new exhibit to evoke the feel of the real thing. The interpretive plan is about how they will tell the story.

Gorongosa to Boise

The large exhibit will be linked to Gorongosa, where Idaho philanthropist Greg Carr is dedicating his life to restoring the park to its former splendor.

The Harvard-educated Carr grew up in Idaho Falls and made his mark developing early voice mail and internet technology. Gorongosa is Carr’s latest philanthropic venture. He also helped build the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise and founded the Carr Center for Human Rights at his alma mater.

Burns and a team from Zoo Boise traveled with Carr to Mozambique in 2014 to experience the park for themselves. Burns sees the Boise exhibit as an important piece in helping rebuild the African preserve by connecting people in Idaho to the cause.

“We want to show people what it would be like if you stepped into Gorongosa Park, “ Burns said. “We’re trying to teach people about what it takes to preserve places like Gorongosa.”

The animals in the Zoo Boise Gorongosa exhibit will include wild African wild dogs, baboons, vervet monkeys, Nile crocodiles, southern ground hornbills and other birds, warthogs, and nyala, a type of antelope. Some animals already at the zoo, such as the striped hyena and white-backed vultures, will move into the Gorongosa area. Other Zoo Boise animals, such as some primates, may need to be housed at another zoo.

Conservation in action

People who visit the zoo in Boise will become part of the effort to revitalize Gorongosa. Burns projects that the exhibit will generate about $2 million over a 10-year period that will go to support the Gorongosa project, raised through additional fees for behind-the-scenes experiences like the “Giraffe Encounter,” where people can feed the animals.

“We don’t want to build any more exhibits that aren’t part of our conservation mission. Gorongosa will be the first,” Burns said. “We want to change the definition of the word ‘zoo’ and the reason we go to zoos. Our animals help generate hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis that help protect their wild counterparts.”

Gorongosa is a complete conservation project, Burns said.

“It’s teaching people how you restore a national park and how you bring back all the animals and ecology,” he said. “It’s also teaching about the 200,000 people living around that park who are our conservation partners. We’re telling the stories of how the park is helping those people through education, health and other programs. They have to buy into the idea of saving the park, too.”

Visiting Zoo Boise also becomes a mechanism for Idahoans to help protect the animals they care about.

“You come down, have a good time, learn some stuff, and while you’re here, you pay a conservation fee, and you can participate in a some extra activities for a small up-charge and you’ve done your part,” he said.

New exhibits will be better for the animals in Boise, Burns said. He and his staff have been working with animal welfare experts from the San Diego Zoo to create environments that will change throughout the year.

“We want a more random environment to reflect the experience the animal would have in the wild,” he said.

More conservation work

A smaller exhibit based on the Annamite Mountains, which run along the border between Vietnam and Laos, will replace the 1960s-era primate house and aviaries.

It’s an incredibly important area in terms of biodiversity, Burns said, and it’s been a project for the zoo teenage volunteers, who raise money to pay rangers to patrol the mountains to stop illegal poaching.

“Though not as big as Gorongosa, this will give these teens a larger platform for their conservation messages,” Burns said. “And anytime you can get 140 teenagers who are willing to spend their summer working and being passionate about the natural world they’re going to inherit — how great is that?”

The conservation funds generated at Zoo Boise don’t just help animals in Africa or Indochina.

“We also help animals in our own backyard, in the Foothills,” Burns said. Zoo Boise gave $100,000 for the effort to restore the Table Rock area after last summer’s fire.

“When that happened, we saw that as a chance to work with the Foothills and Open Space Division of Boise Parks and Rec,” Burns said. “We don’t want to stop there. The division has plans to restore other part of the Foothills, and we want to be part of that. We live in this sagebrush-steppe ecosystem that is incredibly endangered. Over the next five years, we will put $50,000 each year toward those efforts.”

Visit Zoo Boise

Zoo Boise, 355 Julia Davis Drive, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, last admission is at 4:30 p.m.

$10 general, $8 seniors, $7 children 3-11, free for 2 and younger and Friends of Zoo Boise pass holders. Thursdays are discounted: $7.25 general and seniors, $6 children 3 to 11. Admission includes the conservation fee. 608-7760, ZooBoise.org.

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