After deciding to stay in its current habitat for at least 20 years, the Sacramento Zoo is reshuffling its space, introducing quirkier creatures and embracing its cozy atmosphere.
The zoo will soon make over one of its oldest structures and settle in six new species, including aardvarks, mongooses and fruit bats.
The latest changes at the Land Park institution are part of an ongoing shift from more glamorous, big-ticket animals, such as elephants and hippos, to smaller, exotic animals in spacious modern pens.
"Aardvarks are incredible," said Harrison Edell, general curator at the zoo. "Sure, they're not as classically appealing as elephants. But they are really interesting when you start to learn about them."
Sacramento Zoo, the smallest accredited zoo by far among similarly sized cities nationwide, had toyed in recent years with relocation or expansion, but the costs of moving were high, and many neighbors opposed the idea of the zoo encroaching on other parts of Land Park.
In 2010, the zoo board committed to make do on its current 14-acre complex for at least 20 more years.
The newest project is the third in three years to make the most out of limited space and keep exhibits fresh, Edell said.
"The old days when we could just put animals out where people could see them, those days are gone," Edell said. "Now, we really have to be active and intriguing. We have to create a cool experience, where kids can get 2 inches away from an aardvark's nose, one that will bring families back and bring guests from out of town."
A slice of the East African plains will materialize at the zoo in a couple of months, as it begins a $500,000 update of its small-mammal house in the heart of the zoo.
In the Small Wonders of Africa project, a row of six cages previously housing porcupines, lemurs and parrots will be remodeled into three larger and swankier quarters for six new species gleaned from other U.S. zoos, mostly in breeding pairs.
The project will double the total size of the old house and behind-the-scene areas, from 2,000 square feet to more than 4,000. The most obvious improvement will be the replacement of old metal wire screen mesh with modern stainless steel and glass for optimal viewing of creatures.
The newest residents of the zoo will be a pair of aardvarks, a pair of banded mongooses, a pair of red-billed hornbills, a pair of Wolf's guenons (a type of monkey), a few crested guineafowl and about 15 straw-colored fruit bats.
"These are some of the lesser-known animals that people don't think about much," said Mary Healy, zoo director. "People think of the more charismatic animals – like the lions, giraffes and zebras – when they imagine East Africa, but we've tried to open up a whole region and all the animals that depend on each other."
The exhibit will present the challenges of conserving wildlife in the 19 countries and territories in East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda.
The project follows the $2 million update and expansion of the giraffe yard, which opened in 2010, and the $175,000 construction of the North American river otter exhibit, which opened in 2011.
Edell said the zoo's close quarters make it difficult to house large animals without dramatically reducing the number of other animals. For instance, current zoological standards call for 8 to 10 acres for an elephant in captivity.
"We'd love to have an elephant, but we would have to decide which 250 animals would go elsewhere," Edell said. "People expect to see an elephant at the zoo. But which half of the animals could you live without? We would lose a lot of diversity in our collection."
Edell said many of the half-million annual visitors to the zoo appreciate the intimate setting where there are no lines and humans can get close to animals.
The zoo raises funds for new exhibits individually, Healy said. So far, it has raised about $350,000 of the $500,000 price tag for the East Africa renovation. Healy hopes to raise enough money to break ground on the habitats by mid-February or early March.
The animals, born and raised in captivity, will come from zoos nationwide that belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, whose 6,000 members cooperatively manage threatened and endangered species.
The Wolf's guenon monkeys, a male named Eddie and a female named Mimi, have already arrived and are awaiting completion of their new digs.
The lemurs, roadrunners and parrots previously living in the enclosures will be moved elsewhere in the zoo, while the two female African crested porcupines went to other zoos, where they found mates.
For more information on the renovation, or to donate to the fundraising campaign, go to www.saczoo.org.