For about two and a half years, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium carefully moved animals around in a sort of logistical sliding puzzle, trying to free up space to construct the African Grasslands exhibit.
In spring 2014, keepers began training animals to move to permanent new homes, temporary homes out at the zoo’s safari park in Ashland or just to new homes within the zoo. It was a delicate process that wrapped up just a few months ago, after the opening of the 28-acre exhibit this spring.
African penguins, Stanley cranes and several other birds stayed in Omaha, finding new homes at the zoo. Addax, dama gazelles and Grévy’s zebras left the zoo for good. Bongo, sable antelope, ostriches and cheetahs were trucked to Ashland, where they lived in off-exhibit areas.
“It went really smooth,” said Jack Hetherington, hoofstock supervisor. “I think everybody worries when you’re moving animals, you hear stories of bad things happening, but I think we were mindful, we took our time and we didn’t rush anything.”
When construction started in 2014, the animals south of the old giraffe building were the first to move. That allowed crews to start work on a new giraffe building and a nearby elephant structure.
Bongo and sable antelope were temporarily relocated to the zoo’s safari park. Cheetahs moved there as well, but on a permanent basis, to join a new breeding facility. The cheetahs that now live in the African Grasslands came from another zoo later.
Around the same time, Grévy’s zebras left the zoo permanently, destined for Miami and St. Louis. The zoo opted to replace Grévy’s zebras — which have larger ears, narrower stripes and are more threatened in the wild — with plains zebras, which now share a yard with elephants, impalas and others. Plains zebras get along better with other animals than the Grévy’s zebras do.
“Male Grévy’s zebras can be aggressive to other species,” said Dan Cassidy, the zoo’s general curator. “Since we wanted to do a mixed species exhibit, we decided to switch species.”
Around the same time, the zoo’s pair of dama gazelles departed for Columbus, Ohio. The biggest departure of all, a 14-member herd of addax, left then as well, splitting into two groups. Neither species aligned with the geographic theme of the African Grasslands, Cassidy said.
Two female addaxes moved to the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, and the rest — two males and 10 females — moved to the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas to join a herd of about 50 in a pasture that’s approximately 400 acres of grass, trees and hills in a drive-through park.
“They’re doing great, really well,” said Kelley Snodgrass, chief operating officer at Fossil Rim. “A number of the cows have certainly been producing calves. Being an endangered species, you know how important that is.”
Once construction on the new giraffe building was complete, zookeepers prepared the herd to move.
They trained the herd of shy giraffes to walk down a fenced-in pathway, crossing the sidewalk on the way to their new barn. Most zoos train animals to enter a crate, then move them via forklift or truck into their new enclosures, but the zoo chose the more challenging path for giraffes. Crate-training can stress out young animals, and the zoo had a young giraffe named LoLo that they didn’t want to damage, emotionally or physically.
“That was probably the shortest move, but it was probably the most stressful,” Hetherington said. “My crew worked very hard through the day during the summer to get the giraffes through that lane.”
The penguins, cranes and birds that once lived in the old giraffe building were moved elsewhere in the zoo. The penguins can now be found north of Red Barn Park in the old otter exhibit.
Meanwhile, the ostriches that lived outside with giraffes in the pasture near the building moved to Ashland, where they hung out on a farm near the safari park waiting for their new exhibit to be completed.
As the elephant and giraffe buildings progressed, construction crews gradually started moving farther east. Eventually, they needed to work at the former site of Pachyderm Hill to build new exhibits for lions, cheetahs, tortoises, bongos and sable antelope. For that to happen, rhinos had to vacate their longtime home.
Keepers delicately crate-trained white rhinos and Indian rhinos, careful to not spook them. Rhinos are among the most dangerous zoo animals to move. Their weight, horns and temperament can put keepers or the animal at risk if it doesn’t remain calm.
Slowly, the rhinos were trained to come into their crates. They were moved to new homes in the zoo — a new habitat near the train station for the Indian rhinos and a new barn near the Garden of the Senses for white rhinos.
That freed up Pachyderm Hill.
A wet spring saw construction delays, but as Memorial Day neared, the zoo began to retrieve a few departed species.
Ostriches, bongo and sable antelope made their way back to Omaha, leaving behind their quiet vacation homes in Ashland. The exhibit opened by the end of May, and the rest of the animals began to slowly fill their new exhibits.
The last straggler — one male sable antelope — settled into his new home with the herd this August.
“We just brought him in to give him a chance to breed the females,” Hetherington said. “We were just waiting to see if those girls were going to have calves” from a previous attempt before introducing the bull to try again.
Most of these animals should call the new exhibit home for a long while. But one animal has already had to say goodbye to its brand new home.
Bailey, a giraffe born at the zoo in 2012, left for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs on Sept. 28. She’s related to the males here in Omaha, so in order to breed, she had to move.
“Bailey had quite a personality,” Hetherington said. Zookeepers called her “the shark” for her propensity to swoop in and steal food. “It was tough for some keepers to see her go. But it’s better for her to go.”
With Bailey’s exit come two entrances, however. Incoming giraffes Betty Francis, a 6-year-old from Cheyenne Mountain, and Buttercup, an 18-month-old from Miami, are settling in, never knowing what this place looked like just three years ago.