Africa! exhibit at Glen Oak Zoo opens Saturday

DeWayne Bartels
The new Africa! exhibit at Glen Oak Zoo opens to the public Saturday.

The giraffes were wary, but they kept inching closer.

Curiosity, it seems, about the two people seated near them brought the pair closer and closer to the observation deck just above their eye level Thursday at the new Africa exhibit at Glen Oak Zoo, but they kept inching closer.

During an advance sneak peek of the entire yet-to-be-opened Africa exhibit at Glen Oak Zoo, the giraffes, and a pair of white rhinos, lounged lazily around their pens. 

The sky was overcast and the air cool, yet the sight of these animals brought a touch of Africa to mind.

Dawn Petefish, curator of collections, smiled as the giraffes inched closer and closer.

They, she said, seem to be getting more and more comfortable with their surroundings.

“I’d say we’re ready for opening day Saturday. We’d like a few days of sunshine to dry the mud in the rhinos pen, but other than that, we’re ready,” Petefish said. “I’m very excited to share what’s been created here with everybody.”

Petefish had no hesitation naming her favorite aspect of the new exhibit, which covers seven acres, doubling the size of the zoo.

“I think the greatest thing is that in one view, visitors will be able to see giraffes, lions, rhinos and zebras,” Petefish said. “That’s unique, even among zoos.”

Petefish, still seated near the giraffes, surveyed the exhibit. From that perspective, she said, it is not possible to view the entire exhibit.

“I think how big it is will blow people away. There’s music, the animals and more. We are going to immerse people in an experience,” Petefish said. “I don’t think anyone has any idea how much is back here.”

Petefish said zoo officials have no idea how many people to expect Saturday.

“We know it’s going to be a lot. The community has been waiting for this,” Petefish said.

The project is budgeted at $32 million. The project is two-thirds done. So far, $27 million has been spent. The remaining portion of the project to be completed is a new 7-acre entrance. Zoo supporters are raising another $5 million to complete the entrance.

When the exhibit is opened, there will be about 40 animals to view, not counting some very large insects in one of the exhibits.

“We’ve had limited tours. Everyone who's seen it has been impressed. We can’t wait,” Petefish said.

The exhibit is large enough that it seems to be a zoo unto itself. Petefish said that future plans call for the existing portion of the zoo to have a divided continental focus — that being Asia and Australia.

For that reason, most of the animals at the Africa Exhibit are new. Even the zebras are new. The zebras at the existing portion of the zoo were sent to another zoo, and a different type of zebra more comfortable with the rhinos were purchased.

From the observation area where one views the lions, giraffes, rhinos and zebra, a wooden boardwalk will take them into a forest setting with a canopy of trees overhead. Visitors, Petefish said, will be able to feel a drop in temperature as they move into the forest creature portion of the exhibit. It is here that the Red River Hogs, Mandrills, “George” the tortoise (a transplant from the existing zoo) and Colobus monkeys will reside.      

The Africa Exhibit opens Saturday. The price is $7.95 for adults and $4.25 for children and includes admission to both the existing zoo and the Africa Exhibit.