Riverside Village Board of Trustees got a brief glimpse of renovation plans at Brookfield Zoo at their Monday night meeting, as the zoo’s director laid out a master plan whose final cost he said could run as high as nine figures.
According to the plans sketched out by Stuart Strahl, director of Brookfield Zoo and president of the Chicago Zoological Society, the changes at the zoo will include new animal exhibits and education centers, infrastructure improvements and a reshuffling of and renovations to existing exhibits.
He said the goal was not only to attract more visitors to the zoo-currently an average of 2 million visit the zoo each year-but also to educate their visitors about nature and conservation.
“If people get engaged with wildlife and learn more about their place in nature and wildlife’s nature, they begin to value nature and begin to take action,” Strahl said. “Our job is to do this.”
Strahl said the first phase of the plan will take place between 2007 and 2011. It will begin relatively small, with the picnic area currently located next to the south parking lot moved to the north end of the zoo next to the Discovery Center. Strahl said that change would be completed by this summer. Brookfield Zoo exists both within Riverside and Brookfield, with Golf Road forming the border between the two villages.
From there, however, the projects will begin to increase in size. By 2009, Strahl said, the southwest corner of the zoo will become home to a new North American animal exhibit featuring wolves, bison and bears. He said zoo staff was meeting with Native American groups to incorporate the historical importance of these animals into the exhibit, which will be much larger and more elaborate than the animals’ current living quarters.
“This is going to be a fantastic exhibit, the largest bear exhibit by far in the Midwest,” he said.
Other projects include an interactive play farm, located in the space currently taken up by Bear Grotto and the Children’s Zoo, which Strahl said should be ready by 2010.
Birds and reptiles will also have new facilities by 2011, as will the zoo’s elephants. Strahl explained that the new elephant exhibit will feature four new outdoor areas for the animals, each of which is four times larger than their current outdoor space, as well as an indoor housing area 10 times larger than their current building.
“The African elephant population has declined by 67 percent in the wild over the last 20 years,” Strahl said. “People, when they talk about elephants at zoos, don’t talk about that. We should know that about elephant survival, and that’s what we’re going to teach here, and how to care for them and how to protect them.”
In addition, the first phase will also include the creation of an education center where the current reptile house is located, as well as smaller satellite centers at each new exhibit. Each center will have classroom spaces available for students, and the satellite centers will look out directly into the exhibits to allow students to observe the animals.
Strahl did not specify how long the second phase of the master plan would take, but said it would begin in 2011 and would involve complete renovations of both the Africa and Australia exhibits. The large cats, baboons and marine animals would also have their outdoor exhibits renovated, and, for the first time, gorillas would be given an outdoor exhibit area.
With the increased attendance he hopes the renovations will inspire-Strahl said the zoo’s goal was to increase attendance to 2.5 million visitors a year-Strahl assured board members that the zoo was already investigating ways to accommodate the extra visitors.
He said infrastructure changes would increase parking by about 40 percent, and that zoo administrators were investigating the possibility of adding stacking lanes near the entrance off 31st Street to reduce traffic backup in that area.
As for financing, Strahl tentatively estimated that costs could reach into “the nine-figure range,” but said the zoo has not set a specific goal for a capital campaign yet.
“The capital campaign strategy is still in the feasibility phase, and we hope to be done next month,” he said. “I can say, though, that it’s going extremely well.”