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Niabi Zoo is a work in progress

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Niabi Zoo has come a long way in the past year. Since August alone, the zoo has made $400,000 worth of improvements.

COAL VALLEY -- What's new at the zoo? Plenty, says Niabi Zoo director Thomas Stalf, and there's much more to come.

``We've made $400,000 worth of improvements since last August and it's just the beginning of our master plan to renew several animal exhibits and other features here at the zoo,'' he said.

The most publicized improvement has been around the undisputed queen of Niabi, Kathy Sh-boom. The new elephant enclosure has given the Asian pachyderm five times the space she had before, allowing her to play in the mud, sunbathe on the grass and take a dip in her own pool.

Her improved indoor digs allow her three times the space of her former refuge, making dinner and bath times much easier for handlers and Kathy.

``The space was so tight in Kathy's old enclosure, when we bathed her we would sometimes get almost smashed up against the wall, a potentially dangerous situation,'' Mr. Stalf said. ``We now have ample amount of space and can clean one half of her stall while we feed or bathe her on the second half.''

Kathy Sh-boom's enclosure was just the beginning of what you'll see changed when the zoo reopens April 18. All of Niabi's roads and walkways have been repaved. ``There's no more gravel,'' Mr. Stalf said. ``It's really very nice for everyone. Now there is access to all the exhibits for the handicapped and for strollers.''

A new African savanna exhibit allows four times the space for a small herd of zebra and their soon-to-be new housemates -- several ostriches and gazelles.

``We are looking at making more and more of our exhibits interactive, with several different species co-habitating as they would in nature. Our new savanna is a large grassy area that includes trees and natural scenery.''

Many of the bird exhibits are works in progress as they get a face lift and new painted backdrops that reflect the flora of their natural habitat. An Amazon rain-forest exhibit will have the neon-hued nanaday and sun conures paired with cottontop tamarins, small primates with long silky fur. ``Just like you'd find it in nature,'' Mr. Stalf said.

Niabi's river otters also have a new, roomier outdoor enclosure that puts children eye to eye with the two as they romp through their new pool and waterfall. ``Before, all the otters had was a small pool inside the primate house. This new enclosure is more like their local natural habitat,'' he said.

The former elephant enclosure is being remodeled for a new tapir exhibit. Tapirs are large, hoofed, hog-like mammals that originate in the Malayan peninsula and tropical America.

Come spring, there'll be some shifting around of animals who will be paired with other animals from their own natural habitat. A new emu exhibit, for example, will be found next to the wallabies, making for a little corner of Australia.

One of Mr. Stalf's favorite new improvements will be the duck-pond area. ``Our aim is to get the public as close to the animals as is safe for them and the animals alike. And we want to make exhibits interactive whenever possible.''

A new walkway will lead from Kathy's new home to the north end of the pond, where a landing will allow visitors to feed Japanese koi and any visiting birds.

``I need to stress that our policy does not allow the public to feed any of the animals except in the petting zoo and now in the duck-pond area,'' Mr. Stalf said. ``And all that is allowed is the restricted diet we offer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates how zoo animals are fed, and we must comply. No popcorn or any other concession food can be fed to any of the animals here at the zoo.''

When spring comes to Niabi, visitors can expect to see many new babies, including baby deer, elk, antelope, different types of primates, birds and ducks, to their roster of 400 animals.

``Zoos are focused on conservation, education, research and preservation,'' Mr. Stalf said. ``If it wasn't for the conservation efforts that have been spearheaded by zoos for years, several species now thriving in zoos would have become extinct, and there wouldn't be any animals left in the wild at all.''

Niabi also serves as a refuge for abused wild animals, he said. ``We have two wolves in residence that were brought to us by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. They were rescued from a private home where they were being used to breed with domestic dogs, which is against the law. The state was going to euthanize them, but we were able to act as a refuge. They have a wooded, fairly secluded enclosure on the west side of the zoo and are doing very well.''

Eventually, Mr. Stalf hopes to have new enclosures for all the animals and to do away with the heavy black bars on several of the cages. ``We want to have the animals as accessible and visible to the public as we can possibly make it,'' he said.

The zoo will continue a new feature initiated last November, when the zoo hosted a three-week African safari to Kenya and Tanzania. ``It was a big success and so much fun,'' Mr. Stalf said. ``A total of 26 people went with us as we visited several zoological parks. The price was unbelievably low and included airfare, hotels, everything.''

Although Niabi Zoo is owned and partially funded by Rock Island County, it depends upon additional revenues from the Niabi Zoological Society to maintain the zoo and make improvements.

``Niabi is a community zoo and it relies on support from the community,'' Mr. Stalf said. ``The zoo can only be what the community makes it. We serve a population area of 400,000, but we have only 600 members in our zoological society. All I can say is, please become a Friend of the Zoo.''

Membership in the Niabi Zoological Society is $15 for an individual membership and $35 for families. Memberships allow free admission to the zoo for one year, the quarterly ``ZooNooZ'' newsletter, discounts in the gift shop, and free train tickets. Contributing memberships of $50, or patron memberships of $100, have additional benefits.

To become a zoological member, write Niabi Zoological Society, 12908 Niabi Zoo Road, Coal Valley, Ill. 61240.

-- By Lisa Mohr (January 22, 1998)

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