St. Louis Zoo to expand; will include new homes for bears, sea lions, elephants

Friday, June 4, 2010 | 9:35 a.m. CDT; updated 11:16 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 4, 2010

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis' animal kingdom is about to undergo some major renovations. The St. Louis Zoo plans to build new homes for its bears, sea lions, elephants and red pandas. The digs offer more space, bigger pools, shady trees and grassy lawns. The first project, Sea Lion Sound, is set to open in 2012 and will feature an underwater viewing tunnel, expanded saltwater pools and a new, 850-seat sea lion arena.

The new exhibits are part of "The Living Promise," the zoo's $120 million capital campaign. The money will also go toward new bathrooms, sewer and water lines, a maintenance facility and other infrastructure improvements as well as the zoo's growing endowment. The zoo already has raised some $74 million, including $5 million from Emerson, the single largest gift in zoo history. The zoo is continuing to seek money from corporations and individuals to meet its goal. Parking lot improvements and work on the elephant area are already under way.

"There are no 'wouldn't it be nice' projects here. These are all fundamental needs," said Jeffrey Bonner, the zoo's president. "After 100 years, there are some things like water lines and sewer lines you don't repair anymore, you replace. This campaign will guarantee that we remain the best free zoo in the world well into the future."

Sea Lion Sound will provide a 1.5-acre complex for the zoo's California sea lions. Currently the zoo must drain the 90-year-old sea lion pool every other week for cleaning. That won't be necessary at the new Sea Lion Landing; divers will clean the new pool. Steve Bircher, zoo curator of mammals and carnivores, said Sea Lion Sound's improved facilities will allow the zoo to add harbor and gray seals to its collection.

"The underwater viewing tube is a first," Bircher said. "Sea lions are curious about humans, and it will be exciting to be just inches away."

The zoo also will reconfigure its many bear exhibits, doubling the size of the grizzly and polar bear pits. The zoo no longer will house black bears, which have increased their numbers in the wild. The zoo's lone black bear has already surpassed its life expectancy and is not likely to be at the zoo when the new bear exhibits open in about five years or so.

"The bear pits are the second-oldest exhibit here at the zoo, and they have a lot of history. They were among the first cageless exhibits and were a real model for other zoos. But they are no longer state of the art," Bircher said. "What we have planned will be better for the health and psychology of the animals."

At the new Grizzly Ridge, natural grass and vegetation will replace the concrete floor, but the bluffs, modeled after rock formations in Herculaneum, will remain.

The new polar bear pit, named Polar Bear Point, will feature a chilly "ice cave" where visitors can watch polar bears swim underwater in a simulated arctic environment. While Bircher hopes the polar bear exhibit will be finished in five years, when polar bears will return to the St. Louis Zoo is a more complicated question. Bircher would like to obtain a breeding pair, but other zoos already have new exhibits that need to be populated. Polar bears come from zoo breeding programs and, in some cases, the wild. However, the government has restricted the relocation of wild bears to zoos. The zoo lost its last polar bear in 2009 to cancer. In 2005, two polar bears died: one after surgery to remove cloth and plastic that somehow got into pit; the other suffered an infection. The USDA fined the zoo in those cases.

The Andean Bear Ridge will open near the capybaras and giant anteaters in River's Edge while the popular Malayan sun bears will move to Sun Bear Forest near the Asian elephants. A pair of red pandas, which resemble raccoons, will move to the current sun bear habitat.

The zoo also plans to add a fourth elephant yard, which will double the elephants' outdoor enclosure. Only viewable from the Zooline Railroad, Elephant Woods will accommodate the zoo's growing herd. Two elephants at the zoo are expecting calves next summer. Animal rights activists have protested that the zoo's 1.25-acre habitat is far too small for animals that roam for miles and miles in the wild. Bonner insists the current yard is adequate but says the addition will allow keepers to better manage the herd.

"It gives us more flexibility," Bonner said. "It's a very rich environment because of the terrain. There's a ravine with water and trees they can tear into. It will be great fun and exercise."

The zoo closed its last capital campaign less than a decade ago. It raised some $71 million for Fragile Forest, the River's Edge and Penguin and Puffin Coast, wildly popular exhibits that boosted annual attendance to 3 million visitors.


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