COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Building a new zoo exhibit certainly doesn’t happen overnight, especially when you’re pulling off some firsts in the world.
Plans for Water’s Edge Africa, the latest exhibit at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, actually started years ago, though guests are just now getting the first glimpses at it.
“It normally takes us a couple years to do design, a couple years to do fundraising and a couple years to do the construction on an exhibit,” said Bob Chastain, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo President and CEO.
Chastain said one of the goals of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is to become the most modern zoo possible.
“We really only feel like we’re a couple exhibits away from that,” he said.
A big step towards meeting that goal is the completion of Water’s Edge Africa.
“To our knowledge, there’s a number of firsts in this exhibit,” he said. “We think we’re the first zoo in America or the world to do a penguin exhibit where it can be a walk through. There’s people who do penguin parades, but in an exhibit where the penguin can choose anytime to come into a public area or not, we think we are the only one doing that.”
Chastain said he also believes they are the only zoo in the world with an infinity edge hippo pool.
“We’re really excited about that,” he said.
The zoo’s drive to think outside the box gives visitors incredible access to the animals.
“Exhibits like our wallaby exhibit, our budgie exhibit, and our giraffe feeding exhibit have been so popular that we started asking ourselves in what ways could we let people get closer than ever to animals?” Chastain said.
Not only are the experiences unique, but so are the animals themselves.
“There’s only about 37 zoos in the country that have hippos,” said Chastain.
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s two original hippos are back home in Colorado after an extended three-year vacation to the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri. Chastain said now that the girls are back, they are hoping the herd will grow.
“Really shortly here we will be getting a male hippo, so you’ll start to hear from that,” he said. “He should be showing up shortly this summer and then we hope the magic happens.”
The zoo’s previous penguins have found new homes throughout the country, and the staff is excited to welcome a new group to the neighborhood.
“Zoos and aquariums, while we can own animals, we’ve agreed to collectively manage them for the best of the species,” he said. “So when our penguins went away, for example, they went into that pool of available penguins and then other accredited zoos and aquariums that were looking for those penguins integrated them into their group.”
Like any large undertaking, this project was not without its setbacks.
“We had set aside about $10 million to do the exhibit,” Chastain said, but the zoo later found out that was nowhere nearly enough.
“We went through the design process and as you know Colorado Springs has been in a boom right now so construction costs were very expensive,” he said. “The first estimate we got on this complex was $25 million, so what we did was really went back to the drawing board and changed a number of things.”
The redesign came in at a cost of about $14 million, but Chastain said they are very happy with how it turned out.
“I actually think and everyone involved thinks we got a way better exhibit. We worked very creatively with our team at GE Johnson. They had a crackerjack estimating team that helped us really get to this and the team and the community should be really proud of what GE Johnson was able to do with us here,” he said.
Unlike many zoos, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo doesn’t receive any tax support, so this exhibit truly is a labor of love.
“The community got more and more excited as we built new projects, and our donors have been fantastic,” Chastain said.
He said the zoo is a gathering place for the community.
“About 40 percent of our people are coming now without kids, so there’s kids of all ages in all of us, and we’re starting to be able to see that,” he said.
It’s an exciting attraction with more exciting things to come.
“Really though the genesis of new concepts starts well before even the finish of the last one, so we’re already talking about what’s next,” Chastain said. “I’m already a year into that thinking. My team is starting to do meetings just now, so that cycle is starting all over again.”
Chastain wouldn’t divulge any specific details about what is next, but he did say the next area they are focusing on is the monkey/bear area and a new gorilla exhibit.
He is hopeful that project will be completed by 2025 so it’s ready for the zoo’s centennial celebration in 2026.