A crowd of almost 200 people gathered at the gate of the zoo’s new African Grasslands, hoping for a glimpse of something that feels just like Africa.
The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s largest, most expensive and perhaps most anticipated exhibit officially opened to the public Friday morning.
It promises a savanna teeming with animals living together, just as they do in Africa. Elephants will share a watering hole with zebras and impalas, giraffes will share a yard with rhinos and ostriches, and lions will roar out from atop the former Pachyderm Hill to the valley below.
The zoo delivered on its promise to open the 28-acre, $73 million exhibit by Memorial Day weekend, but rain and construction delays meant that many of the marquee animals had to be held away from their outdoor spaces and, in some cases, out of sight completely.
“I can’t risk the animals. That’s all it is,” said Dennis Pate, the zoo’s CEO and executive director.
Elephants and giraffes stayed indoors most of Friday because of slippery conditions, while lions, zebras, impalas, rhinos and others were off-exhibit altogether. Construction workers were still installing the fences needed to keep the lions, impalas and zebras enclosed.
Elsewhere, shy cheetahs stayed put in their overnight barn, despite having full access to an outdoor yard. And bongos snuggled up in the shade, hard to spot. Missing meerkats — due to a permit problem — were an absence largely unnoticed by visitors.
The lack of animals in some sections didn’t raise much protest from visitors. Most marveled at the convincing African landscape. They petted African pygmy goats, watched sable antelope perch near the fence and, of course, crowded into the elephant building to see five of the zoo’s six new African giants (male elephant Warren is nursing an ankle injury).
“It’s beautiful. It’s going to be unbelievable,” said Brandi Gerhardt, who arrived at 8 a.m. and was first in line.
“It would’ve been cool” to see the lions outdoors, he said, “but it’s still great and enjoyable.”
Gerhardt’s son, 9-year-old Ryder, hoped to see African spurred tortoises — turtles are his favorite animal — but the animals had been removed from their enclosure while workers installed sod. Still, he said, he sort of felt like he was in Africa.
“It feels like a zoo (that’s) building Africa,” Ryder said. “It feels like Africa is here, but where it makes it feel like a zoo is the fences.”
Just after 10:30 a.m., Pate took the microphone in front of a dense crowd of onlookers, donors and a humming drone overhead. He, Omaha Zoo Foundation President John Boyer and City Councilman Garry Gernandt joined 19 children from the zoo’s summer camp in cutting the ribbon on the exhibit.
“I came to what was back then called the Riverview Park Zoo,” Gernandt said before the ribbon-cutting. “They had three animals. There was a hairless monkey, a bear with no teeth and, to this day, I can’t figure out what that third one was.
“But now I’m a 70-year-old kid, and this is awesome!”
The zoo’s summer campers made their way through the exhibit, snaking past the giraffe and elephant yards; past a pygmy goat kraal, where a little girl brushed a goat of equal size; past a Columbian mammoth sculpture, across a new lagoon bridge and up a hill; past bongo, the empty cheetah yard, a rock trail with fossils and the future home of the lions.
“It’s really cool,” said one of the students, Ria Vootla, 10. “The rocks look real, and how they’re stacked, it looks like it was actually in Africa.”
The zoo hasn’t hidden its new project from the public during construction. Visitors have been able to meander through most of the area throughout the build, and some animals, such as the African elephants, made their debut long before the exhibit’s grand opening.
But on Friday, the ribbon-cutting unveiled the rock kopje and all of the exhibits atop the former Pachyderm Hill for the first time.
Pate said he expects the rest of the animals to go on display over the next few days. A week of rain was simply too much burden on a sunrise-to-sundown construction crew.
“You go through phases of an exhibit where sometimes you don’t feel like it’s ever going to get done,” he told the crowd. “And then when it’s close to getting done, you always wish you had a little bit more time.
“That’s just the nature of the beast.”