By Sidney Schuhmann Levesque
Currently, the zoo has raised $3.2 million of the $3.5 million needed to complete the project. Zoo Director Bill Gersonde hopes to break ground on the exhibit by the time the new year starts. He also hopes the exhibit will open in the spring of 2015.
The project will double the size of the current giraffe exhibit, and it will allow the zoo to start a breeding program by adding a male giraffe. The zoo now has two female giraffes.
“I think everyone will really enjoy this new experience, and it will be so much fun to have babies to watch,” said Kathy Morehead, chairwoman of the giraffe campaign committee.
The zoo will be tearing down the popular concrete bridge that has spanned the 50-year-old giraffe exhibit and allowed thousands of people to hand feed the tall-necked animals crackers. But not to worry – the new exhibit will continue to allow up close and personal interaction with the giraffes by adding new viewing areas and a covered feeding deck.
“This is one of the few species that you can actually get pretty close to and interact with at the Abilene Zoo,” Gersonde said.
The current bridge is a safety hazard to the giraffes because it is too low. The giraffes must duck to pass underneath, and the bull giraffe is expected to be even taller.
“There is a risk that the animals could damage their horns or any part of their heads on the current bridge,” Gersonde said.
The new bridge will not only better fit the needs of the giraffes, it will meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. The bridge will be accessible by a path and boardwalk with a much more gradual slope than the current bridge.
“Kids will love our new feeding deck since the giraffe will be at eye level,” Morehead said.
The new exhibit will double the giraffe area from 7,000 to 14,800 square feet. This size better fits modern zoo standards.
Gersonde said the current exhibit is outdated and no longer meets professional standards. Plus it can only hold two animals, which is preventing the zoo from attaining a bull giraffe that would allow for mating. The zoo’s two females are still young enough to breed and are “genetically valuable,” zoo officials said. Asha was born in 1998 and Punk was born in 1999.
Gersonde said giraffes usually live 20 to 25 years in captivity and 10 to 15 years in the wild.
The zoo hopes to bring in a 7-year-old, 18-foot-tall male to breed with the females. Gersonde said at this time nothing has been confirmed on the acquisition of the male giraffe.
A new barn will be built for the Giraffe Safari exhibit behind the current barn, allowing for much more space to house a herd of giraffes – both adults and babies. The new barn will also include a giraffe restraint device, which is a chute the animals will be trained to enter and stand in, Gersonde said. A variety of doors in this chute will allow keepers and the veterinarian staff access to different parts of the animals, such as hooves for trims and locations to draw blood for routine or diagnostic testing.
“The giraffe restraint device allows staff to care for the animal without having to actually sedate the animal, which is a very risky procedure with giraffes,” Gersonde said.
The new exhibit will be constructed in two stages and the giraffes will remain on exhibit during the first phase of construction. The first stage will be the new barn. The giraffes will use the old barn and exhibit during this time period. When complete, Asha and Punk will move back to the barn and holding yards and the exhibit renovations will begin.
The Giraffe Safari Exhibit will be incorporating other zoo animals. African animals being relocated to the exhibit include the zoo’s current troop of colobus monkeys and Aldabra Tortoises. Other animals being added include two exhibits of small antelope and cranes or storks. Some of the antelope and bird species being considered include duikers, Thompson gazelle, white or marabou storks and blue cranes.
The Abilene Zoo, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is already home to more than 800 animals from 250 species. The zoo is also the most popular attraction in Abilene, drawing more than 214,000 visitors last year.
The current giraffe exhibit is pretty bare, plant-wise. That’s because giraffes will eat anything green. Also, their tall necks allow them to reach farther than other animals, and their dinner-plate size hooves are hard on grass and compact the ground. The new exhibit will be surrounded with new plants replicating the African grasslands, Gersonde said.
“We are hoping to establish grass in the expanded yard,” he said.
The zoo will be using hot wires to isolate certain landscaped areas because of the giraffe’s ability to reach.
The zoo launched two fundraising campaigns to raise money for the project – Buy-a-Spot and the Tall Neck Club.
The Buy-a-Spot campaign for individuals and businesses consists of several levels of giving, beginning at $100. The name of the donor, or the donor’s designee, will be displayed on permanent signage at the exhibit.
For a one-time membership fee of $35, children ages 3 to 13 can join the Tall Neck Club and receive a plush giraffe, tour of the giraffe’s new barn upon completion, take part in the first group to feed the giraffe, have their name permanently displayed on signs, and receive a card and a badge.
Zoo officials said they’re pleased with the outpouring of public support for the giraffe campaign. Gersonde said it helps that the campaign is supporting what is considered to be one of – if not the most – popular exhibit at the zoo.
“People in general love giraffes, and they love getting up close to the animals,” he said.