It wasn’t long ago that Fresno Chaffee Zoo was battling for its very existence, but today it’s a destination for zoo officials nationwide who want to see some of the latest in animal exhibits.
African Adventure, Sea Lion Cove, Reptile House improvements and promises of more projects are evidence of the hard work that went into saving the zoo, which keeps setting record annual attendance numbers.
Now Fresno is on the map for the zoo community.
Visits from other zoo leaders have become common for Fresno Chaffee Zoo officials. Former Fresno Chaffee Zoo head Lewis Greene and his team from the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, were in Fresno on Tuesday, and a group also visited last week from Omaha, Neb. In the coming weeks, a team from Fort Worth, Texas, and another from Spain on a tour of California’s zoos will drop by, said Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee’s director.
The visits give Fresno Chaffee Zoo a chance to show off the new exhibits but also are an opportunity to help cohorts, Barton said, something that separates the zoo industry from others. Zoo officials lean on each other on issues ranging from financial advice, employee recruitment and software program recommendations to animal care and ways to improve attendance. Zoos and aquariums also share animals.
“Zoos and aquariums might be the most collaborative industry in the country,” Barton said. “We very much want to see each other succeed.”
Greene was impressed by his former stomping grounds during his stopover last week.
“Fresno has always gotten a bad rap, but you can’t make fun of this,” he said while under the roof of the African lodge. “There are more great things to come … Fresno can take a huge amount of pride in this zoo.”
The bad rap at one time was well-deserved.
Shari Rainwater, a longtime board member of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corp. and a zoo advisory committee member before Measure Z was first passed in 2004, recalls that the zoo faced challenges.
It was, she said, “such a sad facility,” beset by leaking pipes, busted railings, cracking paint and duct-tape repairs.
Animals were fed, she said, but behind the scenes, things were falling apart and there was an overriding sense that the zoo could close.
When the City Council learned about the conditions, Rainwater said, council members were surprised to hear that the zoo was at risk of losing its accreditation.
The City Council faced tough choices. Then-Council Member Jerry Duncan said at the time: “If we lose our accreditation, most of the large animals will have to go, and that would be a real tragedy for the community. I hope people don’t underestimate the seriousness of the situation.”
By late 2004, Measure Z, the tenth-of-a-cent countywide sales tax, passed for the first time, promising a stream of money, but other issues persisted.
One was leadership stability – allowing zoo professionals to manage – after a zoo director resigned under what she described as board pressure in late 2005.
Fresno has always gotten a bad rap, but you can’t make fun of this, and there are more great things to come
Lewis Greene, senior vice president of animal care and conservation, Columbus Zoo
The zoo got a reprieve on accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in early 2006. It gave time to a new management team to make repairs and develop a zoo master plan, plus strategic and financial plans, normal requirements for accreditation.
In May 2006, a new zoo director was hired. The $10 million Sea Lion Cove and $56 million African Adventure weren’t even on Greene’s radar when he became director. But by 2007, the zoo had obtained a four-year accreditation and money was starting to roll in from Measure Z to start projects. The Measure Z tax was renewed for another 10 years in 2014.
A new zoo
Upgrades at Fresno Chaffee were slowed by an environmental lawsuit to preserve Roeding Park’s trees and ensure that all the park’s amenities and historical values remained.
The zoo’s plans called for major projects and expansion: 13 acres were added for African Adventure and a new, high-tech sea lion exhibit within the zoo’s existing 18 acres. The final expansion will include about eight acres and will return hippos to the zoo along with several new species. One plan includes a river exhibit with otters, crocodiles and monkeys. Another project will feature tigers in an Asian forest setting.
“When I left (in 2009), they had not been able to pass the environmental impact report,” Greene said. “I had a whole lot of money in the bank that I couldn’t spend.”
Greene was able to add Stingray Bay in 2007; attendance grew about 50 percent from his arrival in 2006 to 450,000 in 2009, showing pent-up demand for new exhibits.
In 2016, the zoo could double that attendance number from a decade ago. The zoo was on pace last year to meet 2014’s record attendance of 703,000 until African Adventure opened in October. By the end of December, attendance skyrocketed, reaching 809,000. Visitors came from 47 states and 22 countries, Barton said.
808,914Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s attendance record set in 2015
Zoos and aquariums are continuing to gain popularity across the country, and many are setting attendance records, said Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the Maryland-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“AZA zoos are tourist destinations,” Vernon said, “so it isn’t surprising the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is welcoming so many visitors from around the country and the world. We are certainly proud of their success.”
The Columbus Zoo, where Greene is senior vice president of animal care and conservation, already has an Africa exhibit and is in the early stages of developing a sea lion project.
“This is one we felt we needed to look at,” he said of Fresno’s AZA award-winning exhibit. “One of the things that Sea Lion Cove did was, it gave a window to the community that this is the kind of project we are capable of doing and set the stage for passing Measure Z again.”
For Fresno, Barton said, ordinary exhibits no longer will suffice.
“We have set the bar pretty high with Sea Lion Cove and African Adventure,” he said. “I don’t think an average exhibit will do anymore.”
Paying it forward
The climate in Columbus, Ohio, may not work for sea lions because of colder winters, but Fresno’s exhibit is a starting point for ideas, said Suzi Rapp, vice president of animal programs for the Columbus Zoo.
After Fresno, the next stop for the Columbus contingent was St. Louis, where they could observe a newer sea lion exhibit with similar weather conditions, she said.
“The next big exhibit we are focusing on is sea lions,” Rapp said. “I loved this one; of course, we don’t have the weather you have here, so there are other factors we have to consider in designing.”
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is nearly finished with its Africa exhibit, and officials also are considering a new sea lion project and a Komodo dragon display, both of which will need to be sensitive to climate that is much different than Fresno’s, said Dan Cassidy, general curator.
The Omaha sea lion project will replace an older enclosure that was once a public swimming pool, Cassidy said.
“Ours doesn’t have that naturalistic feel,” he said.
It’s rewarding to get that recognition from your colleagues, and have that curiosity from them wanting to see what’s going on in Fresno and have that positive buzz.
Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee Zoo director
Omaha has a 23-acre, $70 million Africa exhibit that hasn’t opened yet. The Fresno project was an opportunity to examine how different animals co-exist in the same enclosure, he said.
“What intrigues us about this exhibit is the mixed species,” he said. “It’s less common in the U.S. than in European zoos.”
The view from the lodge at African Adventure is reminiscent of Africa, Cassidy said.
Visiting other zoos’ exhibits is vital to making improvements in new and existing exhibits, he said.
“Seeing it on paper and seeing the real deal can be very different,” Cassidy said.
For Fresno zoo officials, receiving visits from other zoo leaders is a way of paying back for visits they made to other zoo exhibits in the past.
“It’s rewarding to get that recognition from your colleagues, and have that curiosity from them wanting to see what’s going on in Fresno and have that positive buzz,” Barton said.