By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
The Toledo Zoo has educated, entertained, and charmed generations of children since its founding in 1900.
It has established itself as one of Toledo’s two or three premier cultural institutions and one of the country’s top zoos.
The zoo this year opened Arctic Encounter, an $11.5 million exhibit for polar bears and seals that is the largest in the zoo’s 100-year history. The exhibit, on 4.2 acres, is highlighted by underwater swimming pools with large viewing areas that have attracted thousands of visitors as well as the attention of other zoos nationwide.
But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
“There’s never been a period in our history when we’ve expanded as much physically as what we’ve got planned for the next few years,” said Doug Porter, the zoo’s assistant director.
Arctic Encounter is just the first stage of an expansion that, starting in the fall, will mean nearly nonstop construction at the zoo through at least 2004, Mr. Porter said.
The next addition will occur in 2002, when a wolf exhibit is scheduled to open.
Zoo officials are trying to figure out how to set up a compatible living environment, but the space will feature native plantings, gravel pits, a pool, and the stars of the show: two or three wolves.
It will be adjacent to the Arctic exhibit and about equal in size to the polar bear and seal exhibits put together.
But it won’t be able to fit too many animals because of the large area that wolves typically cover. “It’s not like it’s big enough for a herd of bison,” Mr. Porter said.
He hopes the wolves will be a success, as a similar exhibit was for Cleveland’s zoo several years ago. “People can relate easily to wolves, because they’re in the dog family, and people can identify them with their own pets,” he said.
The zoo will take pains to emphasize to visitors the differences between standard dogs and wolves, fearing that a successful exhibit might cause some Toledoans to buy wolf-dog hybrids as pets. “We’ll have to discourage people from doing that,” Mr. Porter said.
Construction on the exhibit, which should cost roughly $1 million to build, is scheduled to begin in the fall.
Not long after the wolves debut, work will begin on the next, even bigger stage: a 14-acre African grasslands exhibit.
For regular zoo goers, that may seem like a misprint: There is already an African savanna exhibit, which is home to giraffes, impala, and other African animals. But this new exhibit will be several times larger and will be able to hold many more animals.
(Despite the fact that savannas are by definition grasslands, the zoo is calling the new exhibit “African grasslands” and the old exhibit “African savanna” to eliminate confusion.)
The current exhibit can hold only two giraffes, and when they produce an offspring, it has to be shipped off to another zoo or facility immediately. But the grasslands, which will be built south of the wolves’ exhibit, will be able to hold four adult giraffes, along with several offspring, Mr. Porter said.
It also could hold 15 impala and many more hoofed animals than the smaller exhibit.
While it is still being designed, Mr. Porter said it’s clear it will be a “big project” and a major investment: $10 million and 18 months of construction.
To be built on the site of the former zoo parking lot, the grasslands are scheduled to open in 2004.
Both the wolf and grasslands exhibits are made possible by the zoo’s expansion across the Anthony Wayne Trail. Most of the funding for that expansion – including the construction of the pedestrian bridge across the road – comes from a capital levy passed in 1995 that will raise about $53 million.
The total expansion, including privately raised money, is expected to cost more than $66 million.
The growth – from a 35-acre site to 60 acres – presents challenges to the zoo, which has always been known for its tightly organized, intimate setting.
“We’re moving away from that sort of a small, visitor-friendly size, and we’ll have to fight a perception, even though we’re still not very big,” Mr. Porter said.
While the two big additions will take up a lot of the zoo staff’s energy over the next few years, there will be several smaller improvements and additions.
Next year, expect a bird show in the zoo’s amphitheater, possibly featuring everything from birds of prey to cranes and roadrunners. “We’re able to train birds now so they are completely free-flighted,” meaning they don’t have to be restricted by cages or netting, Mr. Porter said.
There will be some kind of new exhibit in the zoo’s museum in about two years, and there could also be an expansion in the aquarium. The current African savanna site will be reconfigured, perhaps with room for more elephants or rhinos. “It’s continual change,” he said.
And beyond 2005?
The current capital levy will expire at the end of that year, so zoo officials are reluctant to plan beyond that date with no assurance that there will be money to pay for the plans.
But William Dennler, zoo director, said expansion of the aquarium will be the big push after 2005, when a large tank between 100,000 and 150,000 gallons will be built. In addition there will be several smaller ones, but still three times bigger than the current main tank.
Mr. Porter said the most difficult thing to predict about the future of the zoo is how the presentation and environments of the animals will change. In the Toledo Zoo’s early years, it was common to keep animals in cages so small that today they’d be considered inhumane.
Today, the Toledo Zoo is one of only a few zoos nationwide to employ a full-time animal-behavior manager to ensure that the zoo’s environments are conducive to their personalities. Animals are now trained to present certain body parts or move in a certain way to make them easier to treat medically. It’s a far cry from the crammed cages of old.
“Who knows how that will change in another hundred years?” he asked.