Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s 13-acre African Adventure project is about two-thirds complete and is expected to open in October.
The lack of rainfall has accelerated construction of the $55.7 million project. But zoo director Scott Barton is hesitant to move up the opening date because the project is not just about exhibit readiness.
Most of the animals — about 100 in all — have to be delivered, quarantined for 30 days and then acclimated to their exhibits and each other, which will likely take a couple months.
Growth at the zoo will not end with the first Africa phase. With the November election’s extension of Measure Z, the tenth-of-a-cent sales tax to support zoo projects and programs, the zoo will begin seeking designers for the next phase of growth. An additional 8 acres will push the zoo to a total of 39 acres when completed.
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“We think that acre-for-acre, we will be one of the best zoos in the world,” Barton said. “Measure Z allows us to do all these things without having to compromise for our guests or these animals.”
The African Adventure entry sign is in place east of the zoo’s bear enclosure, and cheetahs will be the greeters at the African savanna’s entrance.
A few yards to the east is the African Lodge, which will offer a place to rest or eat and also views of lions and the main savanna area with rhinoceroses, ostriches, giraffes, zebras and elephants. A waterfall will cascade as the backdrop to the elephant area.
Lion and elephant enclosures will have close-up views similar to those in the Sea Lion Cove project, separating visitors by just a thick pane of glass from some of the world’s most charismatic wildlife, Barton said.
Zoo officials also designed the project with Roeding Park’s large, century-old tree canopy in mind. The lion exhibit was situated around a large oak tree dubbed the “lion tree,” Barton said.
“We hope you can see lions at rest on the tree and we placed a viewing area right in front of it,” he said.
His hope is echoed by the zoo’s African Adventure insignia that shows a lion walking on a tree limb.
The lions also will have a view of nearly all 13 acres from a rock perch 20 feet above ground. The zoo exhibit will have three lions to start and build up to a “natural pride,” which could have eight to 10, Barton said.
Elephants also will live in a typical matriarchal setting as they do in Africa. Barton said the zoo will start with three and could build up to six or eight on the 4-acre portion of the expansion.
The Africa project impressed Lee Ehmke, Minnesota Zoo president and also president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, who visited Fresno last month and took a tour with Barton.
Ehmke, who spent a year in Corcoran as a child, said Fresno Chaffee Zoo was the first zoo he visited. He appreciated the long views from the African Lodge that will show the expanse of the exhibit and the animals.
“You can see the scale and from what I could see, the level of detail, all the finishes on the buildings, the landscaping, the sight lines, are really well-thought-out,” he said.
The rock facings, Ehmke said, also reflect what is seen in Africa.
“It’s being done with a real sense of accuracy of what you’d see in east Africa,” he said.
Another important touch is keeping Roeding Park’s existing trees, he said.
“That is one of the things that’s unique,” Ehmke said. “A lot of big zoo projects come in with a bulldozer and wipe the slate clean, but this will have an instant feel like it’s been there forever.”
It all adds up to “a highly detailed, naturalistic exhibit,” Ehmke said. “The overwhelming feeling I got was that it’s just big.”
The project will affect the way zoo visitors encounter animals and has a design both good for animals and visitors, said Susan Chin, vice president of planning and chief architect for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates four zoos and one aquarium in New York City.
“It’s going to be a really attractive feature for people,” said Chin, who also toured the site with Ehmke and Barton. “This project has a lot of vision and a lot of ambition.”
Visitors, she said, will be able to connect with animals. The close-up views will emphasize the importance of preserving wildlife.
“This exhibit is going to make a huge impact on the visitor experience,” Chin said. “It will be a very rich wildlife experience.”
Chin also appreciated the park’s trees that “you do want to build an exhibit around.”
“A lot of zoo exhibit design is based on landscape architecture and looking at what we do have on the site that adds value to what we want to do,” she said, “to take you to a different place.”