July 30, 2008

Zoo 'vine-cutting' opens new exhibit space

Follow the red path -- but be aware the 'roos can jump that fence

A vine-cutting ceremony -- no ribbons for these guys! -- opened the Racine Zoo's new Gateway to Adventure entrance and Walkabout Creek Australian exhibit Wednesday night.

The event was for members only, but the public is invited to explore the new $2.1 million project, begun last November, at its official grand opening ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 2, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Visitors Wednesday night walked along a dark red path to observe the animals that can wander through Walkabout Creek, which is located on the southeast corner of the zoo next to the new main entrance. The entire exhibit is surrounded by a tall wooden fence, but inside that fence the animals are free to roam, separated from visitors only by a split rail fence that they can easily jump over. (The sign said that kangaroos can jump up to 25 feet.) The zoo’s current wallaroos will be joined by kangaroos, black swans, emus and egrets. A zoo volunteer explained that the only difference between kangaroos, wallaroos and wallabys is their size; they are just different sizes of basically the same species.

The animals seemed a bit shy -- the emu was pacing back and forth along the wall -- as they are still adjusting to their new home and the sights and smells of humans. Walkabout Creek covers about two and one-half acres and although the animals are all accustomed to the changing seasons, a state-of-the-art all-weather shelter house on the west side of the site allows the six species to enjoy indoor accommodations when they wish.

Meanwhile, the new entrance pavilion at the corner of Main and Goold includes restrooms, and a Zootique gift shop filled with cute stuffed animals -- an extensive collection of kangaroos, koalas and emus (go figger). There's also Max and Jenny’s Jungle Grill restaurant, located in the former zoo gift shop and named after the zoo’s most famous residents, orangutans Max and Jenny. It will serve hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream, soda, water and snacks.

The Benstead Discovery Center will include numerous amphibians as well as various saltwater creatures originating in the Red Sea. It moves from its prior location in the Vanishing Kingdom building into the east building at the new entrance. The anchor is a 1,500-gallon saltwater fish tank, “much larger than anything we’ve ever done before,” said Jay Christie, Zoo president, “and representative of tropical saltwater ecosystems that have spectacularly colored fish and invertebrates.” Exhibits in the center will change periodically.

Saturday's grand opening will offer many activities, including cookie decorating from O&H Danish Bakery, face painting, animal chats, live entertainment from Radio Disney and the appearance of all five of the Milwaukee Brewers’ Racing Sausages.

Zoo admission prices for the Grand Opening are the regular summer admission prices: Adults- $4; Children ages 3-15, $2; Children 3 & under, free; Seniors, $3; and Zoo members, free. The Racine Zoo’s hours are from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., with the last admission of the day taking place at 7 p.m
Meet one of the zoo's wallaroos
The new project, Phase 3 of the Zoo's strategic plan, added about 3,000 square feet of indoor space to the zoo’s campus. The City of Racine provided $300,000, Racine County gave $250,000 and the remaining $1.55 million came from private donations, according to Christie. Phase I, the Charles and Jennifer Johnson Land of the Giants, home to the giraffes and black rhinos, opened on the north end of the zoo in 2002. Phase II, Heart of the Zoo, including Bear Ridge, Meerkat Manor and Mount Mouflon, was opened in 2005.

The Racine Zoo was founded in 1923 by a local dry goods merchant who donated three monkeys to establish the Zoo at Island Park. Guests during that first year could view monkeys, two deer, two badgers, two gray foxes and several Rocky Mountain goats. As more animals were added to the collection, the zoo grew too large for its locale and was moved to its present location on Lake Michigan. The zoo now houses 250 animals in 76 species, 24 of them endangered.

The zoo is visited by more than 100,000 people each year.

The Zoo's new entrance building at Main and Goold

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