Zoo plans improvements and preps for centennial

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

HOUSTON (AP) — On a muggy August morning, even some of the tropical animals at the Houston Zoo looked weary of summer, draping laconically over rocks or huddled in the shade.

The Houston Chronicle reports by this time next year, however, the zoo’s three jaguars, along with its tapirs, anteaters, capybaras, rheas and macaws may feel slightly more at home. They will have new digs in immersive exhibits that mimic South America’s Pantanal, their native habitat. A family of giant river otters and a giant anaconda coming from other zoos will join them.

Occupying 55 acres, the Houston Zoo is relatively small — half the size of the San Diego Zoo’s main campus, about onefifth the size of the Bronx Zoo, and far more intimate than the 750-acre Zoo Miami. But in the 21st century, bigger doesn’t automatically mean better.

The standard of excellence now is to exhibit fewer animals in realistic, immersive native habitats that inspire visitors and encourage support for conservation programs. And in those capacities, Houston’s operation is fast becoming a leader.

Ahead of schedule with a $150 million fundraising capital campaign that will transform nearly half of the zoo in time for its 2022 centennial, president and CEO Lee Ehmke already is talking about Phase II of the organization’s 20-year master plan to reconfigure the rest of the campus into experiential zones based on geographic ecosystems rather than animal types. Those improvements are subject to another round of major fundraising.

“Houston is a city that gets things done,” Ehmke said, noting the help of patrons who have been more generous than expected.

He obviously gets things done, too. A landscape architect known for his ability to balance zoo experience for animals, visitors and staff, he helped pioneer the move to native habitats with a landmark Congo exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1999. “Place-based design,” as he calls it, doesn’t just give captive animals more humane living conditions. It also teaches visitors about relationships between species and ecosystems.

Each space he has designed has had different parameters, Ehmke said. After years of working in the huge, urban environs of the Bronx Zoo, he directed the 500-acre Minnesota Zoo for about 15 years. Almost every square inch of the Houston Zoo’s land is built on already, and it has nowhere to grow. “It’s a fun challenge, especially while keeping our front door open,” Ehmke said.

The zoo’s evolution began before he arrived, after the operation was privatized in 2002. Houston Zoo Inc. has invested more than $135 million in improvements since then. That includes $123 million raised since the centennial campaign launched in April 2018, but also includes previous developments such as the African Forest exhibits that opened in 2010 and 2015 and enhanced elephant habitats that opened in 2008 and 2017.

Native Houstonian Michele Cruz was recently at the zoo with her friend Michelle Ellis and Ellis’ two young children to see the temporary dinosaur exhibit. She also was using her membership for the first time. Cruz said she has been coming to the zoo since she was a kid, and she appreciates the changes. She wants the animals to be comfortable. She does not miss the polar bears, who were long ago deemed inappropriate for Houston. She also remembers when the gorillas were enclosed in a concrete room with no natural light.

“I do kinda miss when it was free, but you could tell it was free,” she said.

Its significant transformation puts the zoo’s progress on par with other cultural projects that have elevated the city in the past decade, including the reinvention of its biggest parks, major museum expansions and the building of performing arts facilities such as the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston and the Houston Ballet Center for Dance.

Phase I projects include last year’s expansion of the black bear enclosure and major upgrade of the Cypress Circle Cafe; the Texas wetlands exhibit that opened in May; the Pantanal exhibit, due around Memorial Day next year; a reconfigured aviary coming in 2021; and a really big splash in 2022 — a dramatic rethinking of the entrance, featuring a Galapagos Island experience that will be the first of its kind.

The internationally recognized, 64-acre Fort Worth Zoo also has a $100 million improvement campaign underway, with spectacular new African exhibits, including a hippo habitat that may be one of the best in the world. With the guarantee of more to come, however, Houston Zoo’s efforts look particularly ambitious.

“We have big zones mapped out but no details yet,” Ehmke said. The master plan calls for future exhibits inspired by tropical Asia, new African exhibits for savanna animals and an improved children’s zoo focused on Texas habitats. Ehmke also envisions a satellite zoo in the Houston region for hoofed animals who need more space to roam, akin to San Diego Zoo’s 1,800-acre safari park.

Beyond the building projects, the current campaign devotes about $5 million to conservation. All accredited zoos contribute to saving animals in the wild with their field work, and Houston Zoo’s efforts are both local and global. It raises and releases hundreds of endangered Attwater’s prairie chickens each year, for example, as well as endangered Houston toads.