Sunset Zoo exhibit to help conservation efforts of endangered species

The sun sets behind Sunset Zoo on Nov. 5, 2017. (Archive photo by Regan Tokos | Collegian Media Group)

Leopards and tigers and bears, oh my.

With the goal of conservation for endangered species, Sunset Zoo’s $4.3 million project — Expedition Asia — is opening in spring 2022. The two-acre addition will be home to Amur leopards, Malayan tigers, and sloth bears.

Savannah Brethauer, head keeper at Sunset Zoo, said protecting these species is one of the project’s main objectives.

“We do want to breed for conservation when it comes to all three of those species,” Brethauer said. “The Amur leopard itself is the most critically endangered large cat in the world. So, anything that we can do to help with the conservation of these species, we try.”

Melissa Kirkwood, marketing and development officer at Sunset Zoo, said the exhibit set-up would also care for the animals’ offspring.

“Every single exhibit will have birthing dens because that is the overall plan or mission, to not only care for these species but also to be able to breed and further the species in that way,” Kirkwood said.

Sunset Zoo has been an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for over 25 years. The association governs breeding practices for hundreds of zoos and aquariums worldwide.

Kirkwood said the AZA recommends partnering animals from different zoos for breeding.

“They’re tracking the genetics of each animal we have so that there’s not crossbreeding, and there are no health issues, but that an animal is at the best health quality it can be,” Kirkwood said.

Besides helping with the conservation of these species, Brethauer said Expedition Asia would be a place for the public to see these animals in a new way.

“It will be unique in its own way because we have a lookout deck that we will be hosting events for,” Brethauer said. “That lookout deck is actually in the center of all three of these exhibits towards the back. So, you’ll be able to look directly out into the yards of all three of these species.”

Not only will Expedition Asia be a unique experience for the public, but Brethauer said it would be unique for the animals living in it.

“The cool part about it is our tiger and sloth bear exhibits are actually going to be something that our animals can be shifted back and forth from. Not at the same time, but for enrichment purposes,” Brethauer said.

Kirkwood said Expedition Asia will demonstrate how far zoos have come in constructing exhibits for their animals.

“The project is really bringing forward modern zoological standards for animals,” Kirkwood said. “That’s what we’re working towards … bringing atmospheres that bring you closer to the animals but also give the animals room to explore.”

The zoo has plans to continue building exhibits with these aspects going forward.

“These are the exhibits of the future,” Kirkwood said. “We want to create new homes, not only for animals we already have, but we’d love to create homes for animals we don’t have.”

The groundbreaking for Expedition Asia took place on Sept. 25, 2020, and should conclude later this fall. However, the exhibit will not open to the public until April 9, 2022, as the animals will need to adapt to their new homes. Some of the animals are already at the zoo, while others are coming from other zoos.

“Through the late fall months and winter, we are going to spend time with our keepers and animals to acclimate them,” Kirkwood said. “So, pretty much November through March, we will be doing training with the animals.”

The zoo also chose April 9 to open Expedition Asia to be ready for Earth Day, Kirkwood said.

“We celebrate Earth Day here in a big way, but we wanted to be open as early as we could in the spring for our families, our members, our visitors and also make sure that it was warm enough for everyone to come enjoy the exhibit,” Kirkwood said.

Of course, the project could not have happened without proper funding. Janet Cooper serves as president of the Sunset Zoological Park & Wildlife Conservation Trust. She said Expedition Asia is the largest project the zoo has ever done at one time.

“We had the start of a $500,000 gift from a donor, and we also had leftover funds from a city tax that had gone specifically to city pools and the zoo,” Cooper said. “From that, we still had to raise a lot of money.”

Even with the gift and the city’s funds, the total amount of money for the project needed to be raised before construction could begin.

“We ended up raising $2.2 million,” Cooper said. “It took a while but we are pleased with the participation we got, especially the interest in the community.”

The $2.2 million came from individual donors, community trusts and foundations. Kirkwood said the multiple sources of funds helped build Exhibition Asia.

“This was a very unique partnership of private and public money going to ensure that this exhibit happens,” Kirkwood said. “We are so thankful to have a zoo like Sunset Zoo in Manhattan. It’s all because of our community that we do have Sunset Zoo.”

Joel McCormick, Manhattan resident, said the new exhibit is beneficial for the community.

“I think it’ll be a great addition to the zoo and something the people of Manhattan can look forward to,” McCormick said. “Plus, I think it’ll be awesome to have sloth bears here.”

This excitement from the community is something Brethauer said she is looking forward to. She said it will create an opportunity to showcase the education opportunities in the exhibit.

“I’m hoping the public comes, and I’m hoping that it will open the public’s eye to what the keepers do,” Brethauer said. “I’m really hoping to educate the public on how far zoos have come and how much we do contribute to the natural world and conservation.”

Through it all, however, Brethauer said the animals are the most important aspect of Expedition Asia.

“It means a lot to us because, obviously, we love our animals and anything that can be state of the art for them is just so exciting,” Brethauer said. “We want what’s best for them. We love the idea of getting to breed and help contribute to conservation as much as possible.”

Donations to the Expedition Asia project or Sunset Zoo can go to the zoo’s guest services inside the gift shop or on the Sunset Zoo website.