Six weeks after the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium cut the ribbon on its new African Grasslands exhibit, some animals still haven’t gone on display.
Several species — zebras, male impalas, meerkats and two types of birds — have been held back because of construction or permit delays. Others, including elephants, have limited access to their exhibit spaces.
The zoo planned to have the $73 million, 28-acre exhibit done by the May 27 grand opening. But rain delayed construction for most of the final week before the exhibit’s debut, setting off a domino effect — the ripples from which spread into July.
The most notable void has been a yard south and east of the African Lodge, stretching east to the lagoon. It’s a mixed-species habitat for elephants, zebras, impalas and birds, but so far only elephants have ventured into the patch of land, and they’re still feeling it out.
“We had hoped it would be open by (the ribbon cutting), but the weather just didn’t cooperate with us,” said Dennis Pate, the zoo’s CEO and executive director.
Complications with construction of a water filtration building behind the elephant yard was chief among the problems, setting in motion a series of delays. Crews needed to finish the structure before installing back fencing.
“The rain really delayed the construction of that building quite a bit,” Pate said. “It set down deep, and we couldn’t use heavy machinery in there to construct all of that. It was too muddy.”
The zoo had to wait until June 3 to introduce elephants to their full exhibit. At the moment, all of the herd except Lolly and Warren have begun exploring the full yard. Lolly is shy, and Warren is still recovering from a broken ankle.
Once the elephants are comfortable, the zoo will let impalas out into the yard to feel it out for themselves, gradually introducing the two species to each other and adding birds in the coming weeks. Zebras will come later, once the other animals are settled in. Zoo officials were worried that the elephants might bully the zebras.
“We think they’re going to be harassed by the elephants quite a bit,” Pate said. “Instead, we are going to put the impala out, which they can harass all they want. They’ll never catch them.”
Spectators watching the elephants have waited since March to see the lone bull, Warren. A veterinarian recently cleared him to go on display outside, but Pate said the zoo wants to be cautious to avoid reinjuring the elephant’s broken ankle.
Warren has started spending more time in a separate bull yard off exhibit, his first lengthy time outside of an overnight stall, where he rested while his ankle healed. Soon he will get time to explore the full yard on his own. Gradually he’ll integrate with the herd.
Another work in progress is the elephant amphitheater. One day zookeepers will train elephants at a platform for onlookers to watch, similar to the sea lion training area. The structure was ready on opening day, but elephants still haven’t been trained to come to the area.
Up the hill, the African lion training area is also a work in progress, as is the giraffe feeding station. Zookeepers are training the animals to come to the areas, and they’ll gradually get them used to the idea of training at their respective stations before the zoo starts promoting training times.
Pate expects public training demonstrations to begin sometime late this summer at a minimum of one station among the elephant, lion and giraffe areas. Whichever ones aren’t ready by the end of summer should be ready by fall.
“I think people have been amazingly patient with us,” Pate said. “I’ve spoken with some people and told them that we have to be really careful in these introductions, and they seem to really grasp it and understand that we need to go through this kind of methodically.”
Across from elephants, another mixed-species yard has filled up after an empty opening day. Muddy conditions were too risky for fragile giraffes, so keepers left the spacious yard south of the rock kopje and north of the elephants vacant until conditions improved.
Now all of the zoo’s female giraffes except one have gone outside into the yard. Ostriches live there 24 hours a day, and recently the zoo introduced female impalas and white storks to the mix. Rhinos will be gradually introduced over the coming weeks, first in a separated area, then slowly into the open yard.
When visitors came for Memorial Day weekend and the weeks that followed, they might have noticed a cheetah yard void of cheetahs. That has changed.
The pair of boys, new to Omaha from Texas, were apprehensive to come outside because of the noise generated by crowds and a passing train. Zookeepers came in after hours, when things calmed down, to train them to come out. Now they can be found lounging on a grassy hill near a log.
There’s still one more holdout in the African Grasslands.
At the exhibit’s entrance, in the rock kopje, a meerkat exhibit is empty. The zoo has waited more than a month for permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve the enclosure. Most structures, Pate said, are approved based on blueprints, but the meerkat enclosure needed to be inspected upon completion. He expects approval any day now.
The vacancies in the African Grasslands haven’t deterred people from visiting the zoo.
Earlier this month the zoo hit its 1 million visitor mark at a record pace. The zoo has seen a spike in membership sales and a rise in the number of visits by zoo members. The Fourth of July weekend, despite a rainy Saturday, set a record for the holiday at more than 50,000 visits.
At this pace, Pate said the zoo could eclipse the 2 million visit mark for the first time in its history.
That is, of course, if the weather holds.