The Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s African Adventure is about to grow so it can host a big animal that’s been missing from the zoo for more than a decade.
The project to bring a hippo back to the zoo is part of a slew of changes that will add or improve quarters for several other animals and include a children’s water play area with shade for parents to make the zoo more inviting on the Valley’s hot summer days.
Altogether, the projects, funded by Measure Z, the one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax for zoo improvements and staffing, eventually are expected to cost up to $60 million.
Among $10 million in projects, plans and designs approved so far by the Fresno County Zoo Authority are the African River exhibit with hippos, which will take up more than an acre on the southeastern edge of the zoo’s African Adventure area. The cost of design is about $3.6 million.
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When built, the African River project will include a 150,000-gallon hippo pool and land for hippos to roam; a pool for Nile crocodiles; an area for Guenon, an African primate; spotted-neck otters; and African birds. The hippo pool will include an underwater viewing area, similar to one at the San Diego Zoo, and will cost $30 million to $35 million. It’s proposed for completion in the summer of 2020.
Much of the cost is for the underwater viewing and water filtering system, said Scott Barton, the zoo’s director.
When it opens, it will end 15 years without hippos at Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Hippos were a popular attraction when Bulgy, the last living hippo, died in late 2005. Hippos had been a fixture for 50 years at the zoo.
“It’s going to be one of the best hippo exhibits in the world,” Barton said.
The very first thing we heard after the last one passed away was that we have to have hippos.
Jean Chaffee, zoo animal book author and wife of late zoo director Paul Chaffee
When Bulgy died, the exhibit was demolished because its small pool was inadequate to meet Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ guidelines.
“It was an atrociously small exhibit,” said Jean Chaffee, whose late husband, Paul, was the zoo’s namesake. “But you could feed them and get really close.”
She has authored seven books on zoo animals, including hippos, and people still ask her about them, she said.
“The very first thing we heard after the last one passed away was that we have to have hippos,” Chaffee said. “There was a time you could throw cabbage and lettuce into them and when that happens it gets personal, like your dog or your pet.”
African River will be the largest project since African Adventure was completed in October 2015.
After seeing the renderings, Ralph Waterhouse, a retired zoo director who serves on the Fresno County Zoo Authority, said he’s excited about the hippo project.
“Based on what they’ve accomplished so far with Sea Lion Cove and African Adventure, I am looking forward to this being a spectacular exhibit,” he said.
Design for a new Asia exhibit also is underway to expand enclosures for tigers, sloth bears and other species. The project is planned on the former site of the giraffe, zebra and warthog enclosures because those animals were moved, or will soon move, to African Adventure.
The price is not known, but estimated in the $12 million to $15 million range, Barton said. The target date for completion is 2019.
One idea for the Asia exhibit is to have an elevated walkway for the tigers to use. They will cross over visitors, who are on a sidewalk below, to where giraffes previously roamed, Barton said.
“These are amazing, charismatic animals, so we want to give them things to do with a lot of space,” he said. “Other than Sea Lion Cove, this is the first project to make improvements on the old zoo properties.”
By early next year, the orangutans will have a slightly larger area, part of a project that wasn’t finished when the forest setting opened 17 years ago.
They are completing part of the plan that was in the original concept for orangutans, but we couldn’t get it done because we just didn’t have the money.
Ralph Waterhouse, retired Fresno Chaffee Zoo director
Glass panels will be added and the upper-level deck and viewing area will be extended to provide shelter for the animals. Artificial trees and rock work also will enhance the exhibit along with heating and cooling to add comfort for the animals.
“They are completing part of the plan that was in the original concept for orangutans, but we couldn’t get it done because we just didn’t have the money,” Waterhouse said.
Warthogs and bat-eared foxes also will have new digs in the African Adventure. The project is now out to bid and while the specific cost isn’t known, it’s expected to be about $1 million.
The exhibit will feature natural rocks and boulders, artificial hanging roots, native grasses and trees.
Work is expected to start in June on a children’s water play area next to Dino Dig.
It will feature a 9-foot-tall waterfall, a 70-foot-long flowing creek, a 20-foot-tall lookout tower, slide and water play and rest areas.
$3.1 millionCost for new water play area
“In those hot summer days when people avoid going outside, we hope to give people a reason to come out,” said Barton. “There will be a nice shaded area for parents to sit while children play.”
The total cost of the project is $3.1 million. The project is expected to be finished later this year.
New nutrition center
The zoo also is replacing its antiquated nutrition center, which was built about 70 years ago and requires updating and enlarging.
Design for a new two-story, 24,000-square-foot building costs about $889,000. The price is about $8.5 million and will take about two years to build.
The project will include a large walk-in refrigerator and freezer, dry storage, a large kitchen, industrial laundry and break areas. It also will have a studio apartment for zoo staff who must remain on site if an animal has overnight needs, such as an injury or birth.
When Barton first worked at the zoo in 1980, he said he prepared animal meals in the same small nutrition building that is used today, he said.
The building is comprised of a small preparation kitchen and a walk-in freezer.
It worked OK for the old size of the zoo, but as we’ve expanded, it hasn’t met our needs.
Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee Zoo director
Jean Chaffee said the building was there when she and Paul Chaffee arrived in 1961. She suspects that it was built about 10 years earlier.
“We need to expand and modernize it,” he said. “and make it an appropriate size for our new animal collection.”
The new building also will house several zoo offices, many of which are in trailers now.
“It worked OK for the old size of the zoo, but as we’ve expanded, it hasn’t met our needs,” Barton said.