Originally Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2012, 6:44 pm
Last Updated: Nov. 11, 2012, 12:03 am

Elephants gaining space at Niabi; visitors get better view of cats

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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
A lion looks through the bars of its temporary cage at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. The lions are being housed in a smaller-than-normal enclosure while their new, expanded habitat is built.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
A new elephant exhibit is under construction at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
A spotted leopard is seen through the bars of its cage at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. The leopard enclosure will be updated with large viewing windows so zoo patrons can better observe the large cat.

Niabi Zoo is in the midst of tripling space for elephants Babe and Sophie and giving visitors an up-close look at the big cats.

Preparations also are being made for a $1.8 million lion exhibit, which could begin next spring.

In September, Niabi lost its accreditation status with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. One issue was the size of the elephant enclosure.

Zoo director Marc Heinzman said the elephant enclosure is expanding into adjacent space owned by the zoo, increasing the size of Babe and Sophie's enclosure from 10,000 square feet to more than 30,000 square feet.

He said the expansion is a temporary measure and not part of a planned larger elephant expansion, which could cost $5 million to $6 million.

"It used to be the old driveway for the zoo," Mr. Heinzman said. "We're expanding into that space for the time being to give them some more room for their outside yard."

Fence posts for the project are 8 feet above ground and 4 feet below ground because you can never underestimate the strength of an elephant, he said.

"The fence is made out of steel piping and 1-inch thick steel cable," Mr. Heinzman said. "It's definitely a sturdy enclosure. This will add much more variety to their lives."

Pine trees in the expansion area are being removed to prevent the elephants from being injured, although they probably would love those trees, Mr. Heinzman said. However, "they could pull them down pretty easily."

He said the land was flat, so they "built a big earth berm around it as a barrier. We expanded the perimeter fence and are building a new inside fence.We have to get the proper substrata down for the elephants to walk on."

Mr. Heinzman hopes to have the project done by year's end.

He said the Niabi Zoological Society is funding it, and several companies are donating time, equipment and material or giving discounts on equipment or materials. Zoological Society President John Ferrell could not be reached for comment.

Another project is designed to improve the viewing area for the four big cat house exhibits -- two snow leopards, a black jaguar, three lions and two leopards.

Mr. Heinzman said three 800-pound, 1 1/2 inch thick glass plates already have been installed on the snow leopard and jaguar exhibits, and the other two exhibits could be completed this winter or in early spring, weather permitting.

Sections of steel bars were cut out to accommodate the viewing glass, Mr. Heinzman said."You can walk right up to the glass and be face-to-face with them."

For now, there are orange cones and yellow tape preventing visitors from getting too close to the glass plates on the exhibit for the 180-pound jaguar.

The South American cat bellowed in a deep voice Thursday morning."He does this every morning," Mr. Heinzman said. "It's a 'this is my territory' kind of call.

"He's still adjusting to small children being up by the glass," Mr. Heinzman said. "Our concern is with his stress level. We're trying to get him slowly acclimated. It's a big change from the steel bars."

The snow leopards, which can jump 30 feet across, have adapted well to the viewing glass, he said.

"These guys are definitely built for jumping and climbing and cold weather," Mr. Heinzman said. "Their tails are long enough and thick enough, when they're sleeping outside, they'll wrap their tail all the way around their body to keep themselves warm."

The lions have been moved temporarily to the cat house with plans to start a state-of-the-art lion exhibit in 2013.

The exhibit -- one of the oldest at the zoo -- will be expanded and improved. Plans call for two buildings: one for a viewing area and another for classrooms with a holding area for the lions underneath.

"The goal is to start doing the demolition right now," Mr. Heinzman said. "We'll probably start building in the spring."

It may be a new experience for the giraffes nearby, he said.

"They can always hear the lions because they roar. I don't know if they've actually ever been able to see them. The lions will be up higher. It's hard to say how they (giraffes) would respond.

"I think those kinds of things are actually good for the animals. For both kinds. It's stimulating and keeps them active. Makes them think and gives them more natural stimulation of the wild.

"I think it will be a great project."

Today is the last regular admission day for the year.