Vus’musi is making a show of his new digs at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.
The 3.5-ton African elephant ambles across three acres of grass land dotted with palm trees and rocks. He stops occasionally and looks out toward the assembled guests, passively scratching a massive foot on a rock, his ears flapping away the heat and buzzing pests.
By the time he find his way to a shallow mud hole and lowers himself in, belly first, he’s almost frolicking. He tosses wet dirt into the air with his trunk – only some of it making it to his body.
At this moment, Vus’musi is the star. But close to 100 animals share space in the zoo’s new African Adventure exhibit, which opens to the public on Thursday, Oct. 15.
Musi, as he’s called by zoo staff, is joined by two female elephants, Amy, and her daughter Betts, plus lions and cheetahs, a rhino, zebras, giraffes and wildebeests, ostriches, storks and cranes. There are close to 100 animals in all.
Mostly, these are species that have not been seen at the Chaffee Zoo for decades, says zoo director Scott Barton.
100 The number of species on display inside African Adventure. Most were relocated to the zoo.
Some of the animals, like the African elephants, cheetah and wildebeests, are completely new to the zoo.
Also new for the zoo is the exhibit’s open design, which trades individual fenced-in enclosures for a 13-acre grand savannah.
The African Adventure is meant to be viewed in panoramic.
Entering the exhibit, one is met with a “Jurassic Park”-like view of the savannah; wildebeests graze in the foreground, elephants lumber in the distance. From most vantage points it’s almost impossible to tell where one enclosure ends and the next begins. While some of the animal are kept together, a 17-foot barrier separates the lions from the rest of the herd. There’s also a wall separating the elephant enclosure, though it’s out of sight, buried in the exhibit’s main water feature.
Guests can split off the savannah in two directions.
Zamaya, the younger of two female lions, can be distinguished by “cubby spots” on her belly and legs.
On one side is the Twiga (or giraffe) Trail, which ends at the savannah overlook, a viewing platform where guests will eventually be able to feed the giraffes or take a guided jeep tour out into the enclosure.
The other direction leads down the Tembo (or elephant) Trail, to the Baobab Tree. The giant faux tree is designed after the ancient African trees known for their extra wide trunks. It serves as a spot of shade and a great vantage point to watch the elephants.
While the $56 million African Adventure is sprawling, it is also designed to offer guests proximity to the animals.
Everything from seating outside the Kopje Lodge, to the elephant training wall (traditionally kept behind the scenes), to Musi’s mud wallow were carefully placed to give guests the feeling of being close to the action.
Of course, exactly how close guests get is up to the animal, says Ciara Norton, the zoo’s marketing manager.
“You can never make an animal do anything,” Norton says. “You can make the situation favorable.”
So, enclosures were designed around specific visual elements. For instance, Pride Rock, which is the heart of the lion enclosure and looks to be taken straight out of the “Lion King.” Likewise, the felled tree placed just on the other side of the lion’s viewing wall. The tree offers the cats a place to “stalk” prey while giving guests a close-up view.
Vus’musi is an African name given to eldest sons. It means “the beginning of a family.” The zoo hopes the elephant will breed.
The big cat enclosures also have strategically placed “rocks,” which can be heated and cooled depending on the weather. The cheetahs also have a climbing tree and can often be spotted lounging in the branches, Norton says.
If the cats can’t be spotted, they’re probably hiding in the tall grass, she says. Look for the bobbing white tips of their tails.
Traditionally, the best time to be at the zoo is the hours just after opening each day. That’s when the animals are out in their enclosures for the first time and tend to be more active, says zoo keeper Amanda Alamar.
To an extent, that holds true for the African Adventure as well, she says.
But the zoo designed the African exhibit to keep the animals (and, more important, the guests) engaged throughout the day. Keepers provide animal presentation throughout the exhibit and there are hidden touches – a series of dung beetle statues, a collection of animal hoof prints – for children to find scattered along the trails. Younger attendees can also buy a $2 Savannah Scout Field Journal, filled with puzzles and tasks that can be completed and redeemed for a special Ajabu Reserve Junior Ranger pin.
Some of these animals have never seen the other species.
Ciara Norton, Fresno Chaffee Zoo marketing manager.
The Kopje Lodge – the centerpiece of the African Adventure – offers free Wi-Fi, a cafe/restaurant with food options that includes brick oven pizza and seating that juts out into the savannah, or faces a glass wall into the lions’ enclosure.
Guests are encouraged to take their time exploring the zoo’s new addition, Barton says. In fact, his advice to get the most out of their African Adventure is just that: Don’t rush it.
“The exhibit changes minute by minute,” he says.
Fresno Chaffee Zoo
- 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends
- 894 W Belmont Ave.
- Tickets: $7, adults; $3.50 children ages 2 to 11, senior citizens 62 and over; free for zoo members. There is a $5 per vehicle daily entrance fee to Roeding Park, or $3 per vehicle with a senior citizen (age 65 or older).
- 559-498-5910, www.fresnochaffeezoo.org