The Spring Spruce-Up
How Zoos Get Ready for the Summer Season

In San Diego, where the seasons barely change, spring spruce-up at the zoo has little to do with a break in the weather or breaking out the paint brushes. Preparation for the coming tourist season is more about finishing up the new Australia Outback Exhibit – featuring the largest breeding population of koalas outside of Australia.
Meanwhile the Pueblo Zoo staff in Colorado is very much watching the weather reports to help decide when it’s safe to plant annual flower beds and begin repairing ice damage in the irrigation systems. The Pueblo staff is also finishing up a shuffling of exhibit spaces that will bring the bald eagles and a couple of other species close to the main entrance.
For zoos across the country, weather defines the busy season and shapes the opportunity to dress up the grounds. And with many zoos staying open year round, downtime for maintenance is pretty much a thing of the past. While painting and planting keep the visitor areas attractive, new species and upgraded exhibits do as much or more to keep the whole experience fresh.
“We have two full-time painters who work year-round,” said Joseph Wilkes, operation manager for the Phoenix Zoo.
While zoos in northern states wait for a thaw, the Phoenix operation is pretty much ready for the crunch, Wilkes said in March. Busy season starts with the first pitch of Major League Baseball’s Cactus League spring training and picks up throughout March, as Spring Break liberates kids from school. The Phoenix Zoo will have seen its busiest weeks by the end of March or early April. The onset of the hot Arizona summer – typically over 100 degrees every day from late April or May until fall – will slow attendance.
To extend its draw as the temperatures rise, the zoo has added two splash pads where children can cool off in the fountains. The splash pads are heavily used and this year the zoo has upgraded the original pad, Lumpy Lagoon, with fiberglass frog, alligator and log statues featuring embedded spray nozzles.
“The splash pads are very popular,” Wilkes said. “The kids put on swimsuits and run around and cool off. Mom or dad can sit in the shade and read a book.”
The Phoenix Zoo has an ongoing capital budget with annual projects including upgrades to buildings and exhibits, Wilkes said. Over the winter the zoo completed a new look for the main gate and ticket booth, which allowed it to convert the old ticket office into an education and events center. The next project will be to remodel the main bathrooms to double the number of stalls in the women’s room from seven to 14. Past projects include the addition of a komodo dragon exhibit in 2009 and an orangutang exhibit in 2010.
At the San Diego Zoo, administrators also try to add new features in advance of each year’s peak season. But they don’t have spring training or the summer heat Phoenix does, so the timing is a little different. In May, the zoo will open its Outback area, with expanded outdoor exhibit area for its koalas. The $7.4 million project has taken four years from groundbreaking and has required hundreds of contract workers and 20 to 25 outside consultants, according to zoo architect Steve Fobes. The 3-acre exhibit features 10 1,000-square-foot habitats for 10 male koalas, who must be separated from each other and from the females; and two 6,000-square-foot “harem” habitats for the females.
“We’re a couple of weeks away from being done,” Fobes said in March. “This morning we did a walk-through with a construction list and looked at everything that needs to be done. We’re still doing things like finishing putting in all of the plants.”
The zoo is built in the undulating landscape common in San Diego and was constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Several areas were directly accessible only through long stairways carved into hillsides. Whenever the zoo upgrades an area, it must make it ADA compliant, Fobes said. Last year in the first phase of the Outback project, workers made a 600-foot section of walkway wheelchair accessible. This year the second phase will add “another 600 or 700 feet,” he said.
“With our hills and canyons, there are some challenges to making the zoo ADA compliant. And we try to do a little more than the ADA requirements to make it universally accessible, friendly to everyone, mothers with strollers, senior citizens, not just accessible to someone in a wheelchair,” the architect said.
Cold weather zoos face a tighter timetable with Spring coming later. March offers time for planning and surveying winter’s damage so that when the good weather finally arrives, workers can quickly move through a checklist.
In Pueblo, spring offers an interesting challenge and opportunity this year,  general curator Marilyn McBirney said. Spring is a common time for giving birth. This year, the maned wolves produced a litter of pups, providing 2013’s new feature.
The challenge is that the pups may prove to be a popular draw, but the parents require privacy. To juggle the conflict between the admiring public and shy parents, the zoo has set up a closed circuit camera and monitors so visitors can get a live view from a distance.
Workers were finishing building a new, more prominent, space for the bald eagle exhibit, featuring eagles who have been rehabilitated after injuries.
At the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, the zoo’s visitor services officer, Karen Auman, is preparing for her 19th spring. She and others have been walking the grounds of the 1,500-acre “walking zoo” to fine-tune their “housekeeping checklist.”
“We make sure the parking lots are striped and handicapped spaces identified. We identify the trees that need to be trimmed. We’ve got miles of handrails. It’s a punch list. It’s so automatic by now that it’s hard for me to stop and list everything.”
The zoo’s buses and trams have been tuned up and refurbished. Most of the construction is done during the winter and the final work is wrapping up before the busy season starts.
“We had a crane in here today,” Auman said in March. “We’re putting new trees in the lemur exhibit.”
The zoo is putting together a honey bee exhibit, which will require planting large numbers of annual flowers.
“We’ve had a couple of nice days and it’s tempting to start thinking about planting,” she said. “But if you put your fingers in the soil, it’s still pretty cold. It’s still winter here.” –

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