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JOURNEYS: African Safari

JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls its coming African Grasslands Project The Next Big Thing for Omaha

Who ARE these people? Susan Baer-Collins and Carl Beck retire

 

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls its coming African Grasslands project the next big thing for Omaha. It's certainly that and then some in terms of the $70 million it will cost to transform 28 acres into an equatorial savannah experience in the Midwest.

The exhibit will open in two phases in 2016. Omaha-based Kiewit Construction, which realized the Zoo's existing big ticket immersive exhibits, will lead construction. Work begins in earnest this fall.

The project's the next big step for the Zoo in educating visitors about the conservation research work it does here and around the world. Ongoing education efforts include classes for youth ages 3 to 18, day camps, interpretive tours and safari-eco adventure trips.

The Zoo's Jungle, Desert Dome and Aquarium exhibits are indoor immersive experiences that recreate ecosystems within four walls. The Grasslands will be a sprawling natural mosaic that puts you in an open-air expanse where elephants – slated to return after a long absence – rhinos, impalas, giraffe and other iconic African animals roam.

"For the first time we're going to transport you outdoors to another world," executive director and CEO Dennis Pate says. "What you're going to see and feel is going to come closer to understanding what the savannah is like without us saying a word."

Pate says the Grasslands will come as close as an urban zoo can get to replicating the experience of exotic mixed species inhabiting the wild. 

OUT ON SAFARI

A group from Omaha recently returned from a two-week Zoo-organized safari to Botswana and Zambia, one way the institution tries building awareness and appreciation of endangered habitats and species.

Participants of the May safari, which featured former Zoo director Lee Simmons and his wife Marie as escorts, won't soon forget the breathtaking scenes they witnessed.

"What I brought home is the sacred peace of sounds that come only from the inhabitants of Africa, the interconnectedness of all creatures for survival and seeing the variety of animals," Ann Pape says.

The trip satisfied a Bucket List wish for Jean Bell, who says the experience impressed upon her "how very important" it is these wild environments and species "be preserved and that humans "are really the only ones who can make that happen."

Ellen Wright says, "People often take for granted these majestic and remarkable creatures will always be with us but when you are exposed to the devastating toll of poaching and to the human effect on the land you realize all this beauty could disappear unless we act now."

BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER

As most folks will never go on an actual African safari, the Zoo tries giving visitors increasingly authentic, intimate experiences in their own backyard. The goal is to display how these animals function in the wild as well as how they are cared for and protected. Interactive demonstration areas in the Grasslands exhibit will allow the public for the first time to observe staff conducting animal welfare maintenance, such as checking the condition of teeth and feet.

Interpreting the natural world indoors is one challenge but doing it outdoors, at scale, is a whole other challenge.

"It's harder to do because you can't control everything," says Pate.

EVOLVING EXPANSION

Construction will move many tons of dirt to reconfigure hilly old grounds and contour them into the gradually sloped savannah. Buildings will be recessed behind trees and landforms to obscure them, with the exception of a new African game lodge-inspired structure. Overlooks will provide visitors with panoramic views.

It's all part of the evolution of zoos.

"For the past 25 years what we've been doing as opposed to simply displaying animals in cages or pens is to try to present animals in their ecosystems and give people a chance to actually experience that ecosystem," says Simmons, now chairman of the Zoo Foundation. During his long tenure as Zoo director he initiated the institution's staggering growth that shows no signs of stopping. "Anytime you get people in the same environment with the animals it does make a difference. To see an animal from a distance through bars, a fence or glass is a lot different than being able to get up close and personal.

"What we're really interested in is the experience and what people come away with."

EVOLVING EXPERIENCE

Omaha Zoo Foundation director Tina Cherica says, "We're trying to create an experience that will make people actually care about the realties these animals face in their natural habitats."

"Zoos have become kind of giant classrooms," Simmons says, "but we preach this two dollar Sunday sermon by osmosis. We want people to come in and have a really good experience, realize they suddenly know something more than they did, and come away feeling they need to support conservation of habitat."

Simmons says the state of wildlife conservation is a mixed bag.

"The good thing about a lot of places in the world is that the locals on the ground have realized eco tourism has a very important economic and political impact. There are areas we go back to that are being managed significantly better than they were when we first started leading safaris 30 years ago. There are some that are not and we don't go to those anymore."

He says in addition to the destruction of habit by human encroachment, poaching of elephants and rhinos is "rampant."

EVOLVING AWARENESS

Pate says zoos like Omaha's are perhaps best positioned to educate the public about these challenges.

"On average 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa and one really large bull was just poached in a national park, and so it's a huge problem. The decline in elephants has been pretty radical. Rhinos are in even worse shape. If we as zoos don't bring this to the public then there's very little likelihood they're going to appreciate the diversity of species alive in the world today.

"I think these problems are being day-lighted through what zoos are doing. People learn that the zoo they support is playing a role in trying to stem some of those problems."

Cherica says, "I think it brings it home to people. When you see a news story, you're so far removed from that reality. When you come to your zoo and see these animals and learn about the work we're doing, then all of a sudden there's more of a personal connection. This is an opportunity to take a venue with 1.7 million visitors a year and use it as a learning experience to create that personal connection."

"The new move is to not only show people these animals but to talk about their plight and what the local zoo is doing to assist them," Pate says. "That makes us really unique. There's a  lot of conservation organizations but very few have a place to be able to talk about it with the public. We have a place where we educate millions of people."

Pate says the Omaha Zoo "has a strong record of conservation and
we're going to begin talking a lot more about what we do in the wild." He adds, "A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That's evolving and we're going to be at the point of that sphere. It's part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they're in zoos or in the wild."

Simmons says, "We've been doing our bit, not just in Omaha. We've had a very active conservation program going for the last 30 years."
The Center for Conservation Research based in Omaha employs several PhD scientists who spend months at a time in the field.

"We've had people actively in the field doing conservation in South Africa and East Africa and particularly in Madagascar," he says. "We've got permanent and temporary establishments in Madagascar all focused on conservation, lemurs primarily, but also habitat, reforestation, turtles, frogs, bats and a whole lot of other things. We send people to many places. We’ve contributed a lot to the conservation of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in far Eastern Russia, both by sending people to do training there and bringing Russian biologists to do training here. We've also brought Chinese and Vietnamese here. We have also trained scientists, researchers and interns from over 40 countries here."

Pate says tying all the threads of this story together "starts with not necessarily the science or the slaughter, it starts with an emotional attachment to a living being – not ones you see on television or read about in a newspaper." "That's why it's important for us to have kindergarten kids through here. It's why we do day camps. It's why we have a high school," he says. "That emotional connection starts early. Then we can build on it with the science. It’s nice to go a little deeper with these animals and talk about what's affecting them in the wild and how our zoo is helping them and their counterparts in the wild. That's the exciting part – the whole interpretive story."

A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.

Ellen Wright, a longtime donor and Zoofari volunteer, says the need for conservation education cuts across all ages. "The African Grasslands project is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience and building awareness of the conservation challenges here and around the world."

Her passion's shared by many. Much of the work Cherica and Simmons do through the Omaha Zoo Foundation is to cultivate donors to make a wish-list of major projects possible. When pitching projects Simmons knows he's struck a chord when "the donor's eyes light up" and that's happened enough to realize a string of multimillion dollar undertakings.

SHARED TRUST

Another indicator of people's embrace of the Zoo is the mass of humanity that streams through its gates – enough to make it the top tourist destination in the region. It also boasts a membership of 72,000 households, which translates to about a third of the metro's population.

"We've got way, way more zoo than you would remotely expect in a community this size," Simmons says. "It's because the community has been supportive. We have had the highest attendance and membership in North America (among zoos) as a percentage of our metro population base."

Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.

"The community has a lot of confidence in us because we deliver on what we say we're going to deliver, so over time that's instilled not only community pride but donor confidence to continue reinvesting in what we're doing here."

Being a well-run venue helps.

"Since 1970 we've never run an operating deficit," Simmons says. "We had our first positive year in 1970 and we've been positive ever since.
And we've brought every project in on time and on budget."

No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.

"We knew it was going to be a challenge," Cherica says. "It's twice as much as any project we've done to date but we're confident in the donor community and in their ability to push this forward. We fully expect the project will be funded by the end of the year."

"The community support here is unusual and it makes it a highly attractive place to work," says Pate, who came to Omaha five years ago from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. "The opportunity to affect that many millions of people is pretty incredible. There's space, there’s money, there's its place in the community, there's the conservation research and welfare of animals. It all comes together."

Follow Grasslands progress at www.omahazoo.com.

 

“A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That's evolving and we're going to be at the point of that sphere. It's part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they're in zoos or in the wild.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

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