Goodbye reptile house. Sacramento Zoo embarks on ambitious $75 million renovation

Sacramento Zoo at 90: A celebration of the animals in pictures

As a tribute to the animals as the Sacramento Zoo celebrates its 90th birthday, here's a collection of pictures taken over the years by Sacramento Bee photographers.
Up Next
As a tribute to the animals as the Sacramento Zoo celebrates its 90th birthday, here's a collection of pictures taken over the years by Sacramento Bee photographers.

The aging Sacramento Zoo is ramping up for a $75 million transformation that will give it a modern look and place a renewed emphasis on animal welfare and conservation.

As the Land Park institution turns 90 years old this week, officials announced plans for a “re-imagined” zoo, which will be built in phases over the next 15 to 20 years.

In keeping with a trend that is playing out across the country, the new facility will be more keenly focused on biodiversity, species management, conservation efforts and public education about animals that are threatened or endangered, said zoo director and chief executive officer Kyle Burks. Part of that effort involves creating more natural environments for captive creatures.

The zoo’s main entrance already has received a fresh coat of neon green paint, and updated signage has been installed featuring a new signature animal, giraffe Shani and her offspring Rocket. A giraffe is featured on the zoo’s redesigned logo. Previously, the logo featured a lemur.

“The zoo is changing,” Burks said in an interview. “We’re not ‘the little zoo in the park’ anymore.”

The Sacramento Zoo’s planned Central Lodge Courtesy of the Sacramento Zoo

The changes are aimed in part to give visitors a more interactive experience with the zoo’s animals, which will be housed in exhibits with features that seek to replicate their natural habitats, Burks said.

“We want to give our animals the best, most natural space possible, from small insects to giraffes. And we want to tell their stories,” he said.

The zoo is run as a private, nonprofit organization, but will need city permission to proceed with each phase of the renovation. Soon, the institution will launch a campaign to fund the first project, a $4.5 million “biodiversity center” destined to replace its bleak, outdated reptile house. Construction on that building will begin as soon as the zoo receives approval and the money is in hand; perhaps within 18 months, Burks said.

An outside agency currently is conducting a “feasibility study” for the zoo that will help it develop its fundraising strategy, said zoo spokeswoman Tonja Candelaria.

biodiversity interior
The Sacramento Zoo’s planned Biodiversity Center Courtesy of The Sacramento

The biodiversity center will feature natural light, wide walkways and an aquarium with fish and other creatures native to California, including Western pond turtles. It will also have a breeding program aimed at boosting the wild population of the turtles. A “living, working honeybee colony” will dangle from the center’s ceiling, said Burks. Another section of the exhibit will feature animals that hail from the South American rainforest, such as small crocodiles known as caymans.

“You’ll be able to see species above and below the water,” Burks said. “We will be immersing you in their habitats.”

Future exhibits are likely to include a “walk-through aviary,” in which visitors will be able to commune with exotic birds. The zoo’s tigers will be able to roam in space five times the size of the current exhibit, and saunter across tree limbs high above patrons walking on a trail. The zoo likely will phase out lions to accommodate the larger space for tigers, Burks said.

zoo tiger habitat 2
The Sacramento Zoo’s planned tiger habitat Courtesy of the Sacramento Zoo

Since the early 1980s, the local zoo has taken part in the Species Survival Plan, an organized effort to manage selected species at zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The idea is to help ensure the survival of animals that are threatened or endangered in the wild.

“In the past decade, we’ve seen an evolution in thinking about modern zoo facilities,” said AZA spokesman Rob Vernon. “The Sacramento Zoo’s Master Plan is very much a reflection of a growing philosophy based on science and knowledge about how to better care for animals at our facilities.”

As part of the plan, the zoo intends to bring a variety of new species to its 14-acre compound, including African painted dogs, long-legged canines native to sub-Saharan Africa. The dogs are named for their mottled coat, which features patches of red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. They are known to be extraordinarily social.

“They’re very fun and boisterous,” said Burks.

Dr. Ray Wack, senior veterinarian at the Sacramento Zoo, talks about health care for the animals and how the zoo’s conservation goals aim to sustain education about animal welfare for generations to come.

The new animals will fit in with the zoo’s existing African and Asian exhibit themes.

Malayan tapirs, native to the East Indies, may also make their way to Sacramento. The animals, which resemble small rhinos, are “hugely aquatic,” Burks said. “They have incredible diving and swimming abilities.”

The newly configured zoo is expected to have a much a larger hub for educating youngsters about wild animals, including a multilevel “tree house” that will include classroom space. Plans call for a larger chimpanzee forest and a new main dining facility with a deck that looks across an exhibit depicting “the savannahs of Africa,” Burks said.

The zoo plans to solicit input from the public as the project moves along, its director said.

“Throughout our history, we’ve been beloved by the community,” Burks said. “But people have been telling is that the zoo needs to be updated, and our homes for animals need to be expanded. We are listening.

“We are the capital of this amazing state,” he said, “and we should have an amazing zoo.”

Herkimer, a desert tortoise who has emerged over the decades as one of the Sacramento Zoo's most popular residents, chomped on a delightful food treat presented by zoo staff in honor of his 90th birthday on Thursday, June 15, 2017. His birthday co

Randy Pench

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert