Zoo improvements ahead, elephant screens are up first

Zina, Babe and Sophie, the three elephants of the “old lady” at the Little Rock Zoohave something new to look forward to – two shaded structures are heading their way in the coming months, zoo director Susan Altru said.

The Board of Directors of Little Rock approved the funds on Aug. 16, about $61,000 for the construction of two large fabric structures that will cover much of the elephants’ yards. Funds for this project will come from the city’s three-eighth cents in sales tax, and Altrui said the shades were the cheapest option available.

Brian Chison
ZOO DIRECTOR: Susan Altrui details the renovation of three elephants at the Little Rock Zoo.

“We need to update the facilities to modern zoological design and to exhibits and attractions that people want,” Altrui said. “It’s a zoo that I’m proud of, it’s a zoo that’s beautiful, but it’s not a zoo where tourists come.”

In April 2022, a severe storm swept through Little Rock and damaged several parts of the zoo — it was so rough Altrui said she thought a tornado was coming. A large tree that once stood in the elephant enclosure crashed into the nearby men’s room and opposite the tiger exhibit, bending the fence slightly. The tree provided natural shade, but without it the elephants have spent more time in their covered building where it is cooler.

Photo of damage to zooBrian Chison
DAMAGE: In April 2022, a storm caused damage in several areas of the zoo.

This shade is important for improving the animals’ well-being and making them more comfortable in the Arkansas heat, Altrui said. The elephants don’t necessarily burn like humans, as they sweep up dirt and grasses to cover their skin, but they still feel the effects of high temperatures.

With this addition, Altrui hopes to see the elephants more active in the garden. This is good exercise for the geriatrics — Zina is 62, Babe is in her fifties and Sophie is a shredder 43 — and Altrui said she hopes it will improve the guest experience because the elephants will be more visible.

Photo of elephant yardBrian Chison
ZINA: The 62-year-old elephant spends most of her time in this garden, which is already partially covered with a fabric shade.

The elephant enclosure includes two large gardens with tires, logs and grass for the animals to play with. Because of the elephants’ social dynamics – Babe and Sophie are best friends, but Zina and Sophie don’t get along – separation is important. Partly because of this difficult roommate situation, two shady constructions are needed.

The structures will be triangular, one measuring 25 feet by 25 feet by 35 feet and four inches. This hood will be placed near Cafe Africa in the zoo, in the garden most used by Babe and Sophie. The other is slightly smaller, at 20 feet by 20 feet by 28 feet and three inches. This goes to Zina’s garden, partially overlapping with a pre-existing structure.

Photo of elephant habitatBrian Chison
HABITAT: The smaller shade will partially overlap with the existing one, using the posts already placed to reduce costs.

Altrui has been working at the zoo for more than 15 years, the last five of which as the director. During her leadership, she has advocated for zoo funding. The zoo will receive its $12.3 million allotment as part of the city’s bond milage election, passed on Aug. 9. zoo visitors alike, Altrui said.

While $12.3 million seems like a lot on paper, Altrui said the money is moving fast. The newest animal habitat opened last year, a $1.7 million home for the colobus monkeys, including an animal trail over the human trail and several climbing and play structures.

Photo of colobus housingBrian Chison
COLOBUS: This monkey, native to Central Africa, cost 1.7 million dollars to stay.

“For me, it’s not just about meeting standards, it’s about exceeding standards,” says Altrui. “Most zoos do exhibits that are much more natural — that look much better, that are more like the natural environment the animals come from.”

For example, improvements to the zoo’s bear enclosure would give animals more opportunities to lounge and play, ultimately improving their quality of life, Altrui said. In addition, the changes would make it easier for visitors to watch the bears.

Another improvement on the horizon is an upgrade to the amphitheater, with a permanent canopy over the outside seating, Altrui said. In the past, storms often tore the canvas shade. An improved amphitheater could increase the engagement opportunities for animal ambassadors’ shows — where attendants provide up-close views for educational purposes — and even be a venue for weddings or private concerts, Altrui said. Funding for this project has not yet been finalized.

Photo of view of amphitheaterBrian Chison
RENDERING: Funding for this upgrade to the zoo’s amphitheater has not yet been finalized.

[The rendering] “is beautiful,” she said. “It’s done in a kind of Fay Jones architecture style – very natural, fits into the natural environment.”

“Spider Monkey Island” is also due for an upgrade, as it is “literally falling on its own architecturally,” Altrui said. Plans aren’t final yet, but she said it’s likely a new species will come to the zoo.

Photo of spider monkey enclosureBrian Chison
SPIDER MONKEY ISLAND: This enclosure will eventually be completely revamped and will likely welcome a new species to the zoo.

While improving the zoo aesthetically, Altrui said she also focuses on improving educational opportunities. In 2023, the zoo plans to open the Conservation Learning Center, a privately funded facility that will offer activities for toddlers and small children on the one hand and STEM educational activities for older children on the other. Programs are offered to the public through scheduled events and are also available through reservations.

A new collar lizard habitat for the Learning Center was recently opened thanks to a partnership with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Altrui said the zoo is breeding the colorful species for repopulation in the Ozark Mountains, and that 20 cubs have already been born.

“Parents are much more sophisticated these days,” Altrui said. “If they go to a zoo or a museum, for example, it’s not just for entertainment. They also want an educational value in what they do with their children. We have to keep that in mind – it’s not just about that, it’s about preserving and learning.”

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