The Sacramento Zoo, in a pivot from its announced plans for a $75 million renovation at its current location, now is exploring moving from its longtime Land Park home to more spacious digs elsewhere in the city.
Citing the institution’s lack of parking, its landlocked location and concerns about its ability to house and breed certain species under increasingly strict standards, the zoo’s new director said he intends to pursue the construction of a zoo in more expansive quarters.
“The question we all asked ourselves when I came on board was, ‘Is it better to invest money to rehabilitate our current site, or build a much larger destination with capacity to house more species and educate the public about them?” Jason Jacobs told The Sacramento Bee. “The best option is to look to expand.”
The project remains in the discussion stages, with no firm plans for location or funding, said Jacobs and Elizabeth Stallard, president of the zoo’s board of trustees. The city contracts with a nonprofit group to run the zoo. Any major changes would require city approval.
Other cities have funded zoo improvements through taxes, capital campaigns, surcharges and land donations. Past discussions about future locations for the Sacramento Zoo have included the Natomas area and Sutter’s Landing Regional Park.
“This is a big idea, and we will need some big helping hands,” Stallard said. “It will take a public commitment to make this happen. We don’t have a concrete plan yet, but we have an urgent need to address certain issues. We can’t do right by the animals with the current footprint.”
Jacobs, who most recently oversaw the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, took the helm in Sacramento in January. His predecessor, Kyle Burks, departed for a new position in New Orleans shortly after announcing a $75 million renovation of the zoo that included a new “biodiversity center” and an emphasis on smaller animals.
Members of the institution’s board of trustees said at the time that they were committed to the vision outlined by Burks. But Stallard, an attorney and longtime board member, said she agrees with Jacobs that an expansion makes more sense, and would be impossible at the zoo’s current location on 14 acres in the heart of the city’s Land Park neighborhood.
Stallard and Jacobs said recent surveys of zoo visitors made clear that people want to see “iconic” animals, such as rhinos, tigers, chimpanzees and other larger creatures. Rhinos and tigers have been phased out of the local zoo because of space restrictions, they pointed out. Sacramento still has chimps, but can accommodate only five of them and cannot breed them because of a lack of exhibit space. The zoo recently has had to send animals to other institutions to give other species more room.
The Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which inspects institutions and oversees conservation efforts under the Species Survival Plan, has told Sacramento officials that it must upgrade its facilities or risk losing its status with the group.
In a letter that followed a November inspection of the facility, the AZA warned that although the zoo received accreditation, “we are very concerned that unless significant renovations, replacements and modern improvements are made,” the institution’s status with the organization could be in jeopardy. Losing AZA accreditation would be a hit to the zoo’s prestige and credibility, and would negatively affect its ability to house and breed certain species.
Jacobs said he worries that families might stop coming to a zoo that features mostly smaller creatures, although the facility’s attendance has held steady at about 500,000 per year for decades.
“We do great with the western pond turtle and the giant garter snake,” he said. “Our staff and veterinarians are excellent. But people love the exotic animals. They look for great apes, big cats, pachyderms.
“Who goes on vacation and wants to see the best small zoo in the country?”
Local zoo officials have been visiting other institutions and talking with architects and animal experts around the country about the new vision, Jacobs said. He said the Sacramento Zoo could double or even triple in size, depending upon its new location and financing.
“People want experiences that connect them to wildlife,” said Jacobs. “We could potentially build one exhibit that would be larger than our entire current zoo, with a lodge where you could go and look out at the animals,” and a large pool where hippos could frolic. “School groups could look at African species and learn about them.”
“I’d love to bring rhinos here,” he continued. “It would be wonderful to have a big troupe of chimpanzees, a herd of giraffes. This is what the community wants us to be.”
Jacobs said the bulk of the project likely would cost $120 to $150 million. “The zoo turns 100 years old in 2027,” he said. “It would be marvelous to get it done by then.”
Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he supports the project. “I love the vision,” he said. “It is consistent with my call for creating more destination amenities for Sacramento. We have a wonderful zoo. It’s a treasure. But it is very clear it’s outgrown its current space and structure.”
Steinberg declined to discuss funding for the project in detail. But he said the passage of Measure U in November could help finance such economic development projects. Measure U is a 1 cent sales tax proposed to fund city services. Other sources, such as hotel taxes and private sector donations, could also be pursued, he said.
City Council member Angelique Ashby, whose district includes Natomas, said the Land Park institution is outdated and “insufficient” for both animals and people. She said she believes the new plan would better serve the zoo’s mission to display and breed animals that are at risk, and engage the public about species that are endangered or threatened in the wild.
“I want this to happen. I want it to work for our kids, for the animals and for the world,” Ashby said. She said Natomas could be an ideal location, but “the zoo is going to do its due diligence to look at all possibilities” around the city.
Council member Steve Hansen, whose district includes Land Park, was more dubious about the proposed project.
“The zoo presented a plan to the City Council to stay at its current site, and now they’ve decided to ditch that plan” without proper discussions with the neighborhood and the city, he said.
He said he views the proposed expansion and move as “a flight of fancy” that is unlikely to become reality.
At least one longtime zoo observer disagreed with Hansen.
Maria Baker, who served as the zoo’s director from 1989 to 1999 and lives in Land Park, said “it’s time” for some big changes at the beloved institution.
“Accreditation standards have become much more strict, for the benefit of the animals,” she said. “You’re going to have to start choosing between animals, and you’re going to see a reduction in species.”
Given Sacramento’s growth and the zoo’s limited parking, “how long can it stay there and sustain itself?” she asked. “It’s time to vigorously pursue acreage some place else.”
Baker said she believes the zoo can secure financing for a new zoo.
“I look out there and I see the Golden 1 Center being built, and Crocker Museum raising the money for its expansion,” she said. “Everything is about timing, and I think it may be the zoo’s time.”
Jacobs cited the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s recent expansion and makeover as a role model for Sacramento. That zoo has dramatically increased attendance since installing major projects including a Sea Lion Cove, a Malayan Tiger exhibit and an African Adventure feature. The projects have been financed with money from Measure Z, a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax collected in Fresno County.
“Sacramento is the capital of the best state in the union,” Jacobs said. “We should have one of the best zoos in the country. If places like Fresno can create magnificent new facilities and we can’t even have great apes anymore, what does that say about us?”