The improved zoo makes its debut

March 23, 2012 - 7:10pm

The late winter flurry of snowflakes at the zoo can barely match the flurry of design and construction activity seen at the zoo this winter. Commitments made to the community are becoming reality on the ground, as new facilities open, designs for others are refined, and new projects are launched. Here's what's new at the zoo:

Designs for the new elephant habitat are nearly finished. The design team is working with zoo officials to make a few final changes before crafting construction drawings and refining the construction schedule. Construction will begin next spring and is carefully phased so that the elephants will remain at the zoo in their familiar setting while their new home is constructed, and important seasonal zoo activities won't be unduly disrupted. The new habitat will encircle the entire eastern portion of the zoo grounds. Several projects must be coordinated to make this possible. The zoo will build a perimeter road to keep big trucks, bulldozers and other heavy machinery outside of visitor areas. Then, they will build a new track for the zoo train. Next comes construction of the southern meadow portion of the habitat, including Forest Hall. The northern wooded habitat will be last. First phase construction is scheduled to begin in spring of 2013. This March, the City of Portland provided land use approval for all of these projects.

Meanwhile, designers are refining plans for the new condor habitat to be located between Trillium Creek Family Farm and Cascade Canyon near the current cougar exhibit. This project was also approved by the city. Construction will begin in autumn 2012.

Last December, the new penguin water filtration system bubbled to life. The system improves water quality for the birds, saves keepers hours of upkeep and is expected to conserve millions of gallons of water each year. The project hit a small snag when keepers switched the exhibit heating and cooling system back on in preparation for reopening and discovered it wasn't working properly. The exhibit will reopen later this year when repairs are completed.

The shiny, new Veterinary Medical Center opened on Jan. 19 to rounds of applause from officials, donors and staff. Replacing a dated and worn out clinic, the new center topped the list of the zoo's priorities. Designed with animal comfort and healing in mind, the new center accommodates the needs of its wide variety of finned, feathered and furry patients. The building exemplifies the zoo's conservation ethic, with features like natural lighting, harvested rainwater, recycled construction materials and native landscaping.

All of these improvements are guided by the zoo's new 20-year master plan. In March, zoo staff worked with experts to develop a zoo-wide interpretive plan that will establish themes and appearance of much of what visitors experience and learn at the zoo. Interpretation is the guidance provided to zoo visitors to help them find their way, understand what they see and hear, and process the stories of the animals they encounter. Throughout the zoo, the information on signs, shared by keepers and presented in videos will all be guided by this important plan. Download the master plan.

Oregon requires that publicly funded construction projects invest one percent of their budget in art. In conjunction with interpretive planning, the zoo is taking hold of this exciting opportunity to integrate art into the zoo campus and consider how art enhances the visitor experience.

As a wrap up to this busy year, the Oregon Zoo Bond Citizens' Oversight Committee will present its second annual report to the Metro Council on April 5. The committee represents the voters who supported the bond measure and apprises the Council on whether bond funds are being managed appropriately and goals are being met.