A small group of Sunset Zoo employees, Manhattan city officials, KBS Constructors, Inc. officials and zoo supporters came together Friday to break ground on the Sunset Zoo’s newest exhibit, Expedition Asia.
The nearly $4.3 million project will feature a renovation and expansion of Malayan tiger, Amur leopard and sloth bear exhibits, some of which are over 50-years old.
Through Expedition Asia, the Sunset Zoo will see its conservation and educational abilities expanded as well.
“All three species are either threatened or endangered in the wild,” Scott Shoemaker, Sunset Zoo director, said. “Our ability to have these exhibits and to work with these species – to try to help save them from extinction – is a big deal for us as a zoo. But it’s also a big deal for the community, to have to largest project we’ve ever done out here.”
According to the Sunset Zoo’s website, only 35 Amur leopards, about 3.500 Asian tigers and about 6,000-10,000 sloth bears remain in the wild today.
One way the zoo will be able to combat these species’ dwindling numbers is through expanded animal enclosures.
“We’re not only going to have room for the animals, we’re going to have room for offspring,” Shoemaker said. “We currently do not have that, so we can’t breed tigers because we don’t have a place to hold the cubs. These new facilities will provide us with the space to hold cubs, mom, dad, for all three of the species. That’s big.”
In addition to enhanced conservation efforts, Sunset Zoo trainers and animals will be able to educate and interact with the public in new, up-close and personal ways.
According to Shoemaker, the exhibit will feature what he calls training platforms, which will allow trainers to teach and show the public about how they manage different animals.
“For example, we can look at their teeth and we can look at their paws and not have to do a full-blown medical procedure to get a look at those things,” Shoemaker said. “We’re training them to open their mouths and present paws and do all those things that help us manage them and keep them healthy. That’s all going to be done in the public now – right up where you and I can watch it.”
Beverly Fulton, Sunset Zoo Zoological Park and Wildlife Conservation Trust president, would like to see local organizations access the new educational opportunities.
“Hopefully it will be something that local schools take advantage of, different organizations take advantage of, and definitely, we will be focusing on conservation efforts at the same time,” Fulton said.
While Expedition Asia will improve the lives of the animals, it will also feature a new and improved ADA-compliant experience for guests.
One addition guests can expect to see is a platform from which they can look down upon the enclosures.
“It’s just going to be a totally different kind of experience than any experience around,” Fulton said. “And it will allow us to highlight conservation in a different way.”
Officials are hoping the expanded guest areas will lead to increased attendance capacities at events such as Wine in the Wild and Brew at the Zoo.
“With the addition of the new space, we’re hoping we can close to double it,” Guelker said.
According to Matt Guelker, Friends of the Sunset Zoo president, about 400 people attend Wine in the Wild and about 800 people attend Brew at the Zoo.
Guelker also says these two events, in addition to member contributions, provide the Friends of the Sunset Zoo with most of their operating expenses.
Funding for Expedition Asia kicked off a few years ago when Chuck Jackson, who Scott Shoemaker describes as a fan of tigers, donated about $500,000 to the Sunset Zoo.
A total of about $2.2 million in donations have been raised for the project.
The City of Manhattan is also contributing addition about $2 million in excess funds from a 2006 Quality of Life sales tax.
The Manhattan City Commission approved the funds its contribution during meeting earlier this month.
Expedition Asia is expected to be completed in fall of 2021. Officials also have to account for how long it will take for the animals to become accustomed to their new environments.
The Sunset Zoo currently does not have sloth bears and will have to bring them in from another location.
Those wanting to donate to the new exhibit can do so on the Sunset Zoo’s website at sunsetzoo.com.