Zoo director outlines vision for new bear exhibit – Roswell Daily Record

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
A new home for the two bears at the Spring River Zoo would likely be in a different location than the current exhibit and include a more natural area for them to explore and improved viewing for visitors.
John Wright, director of the zoo, gave members of the Roswell City Council’s Finance Committee more details of the vision of exhibits for the bears and farm animals as well as security upgrades at Thursday’s committee meeting.
If the vision follows through, the zoo could see a total of about $6 million in improvements when completed, city officials said.
The vision is just in the early stages, however, and to get started, Wright is requesting the city council give its approval for cost estimates of $720,000 to increase the height of the perimeter fence, add security cameras and the design work for new bear and farmland exhibits.
Council members voted 3-0 to recommend approval of the request. Councilor Juan Oropesa was absent from the meeting. The request will now go before the full council at the Jan. 9 meeting.

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The master plan for the zoo adopted by the city in 2018 called for the bear exhibit to be torn down and replaced on the same site.
“The bears would have to be relocated and we’d have to demolish the whole exhibit and build another exhibit. That could take a few years,” Wright said.
Wright said the zoo staff would like to build a new bear exhibit where the aoudads are now. The “baling cribs” — the round cages — where the coatis and raccoons are now could be a holding area similar to the building in the new mountain lion exhibit. Wright said it could be designed as a decorative feature to appear cave-like and give visitors a view of the bears through a glass panel, as the mountain lion exhibit does.
“We’d be able to construct and transfer our bears into a new exhibit and habitat that would have enough space for climbing structures, natural substrate, get them off the concrete,” he said.
The exhibit would include grass and other vegetation and climbing structures.
The farmland exhibit would include educational exhibits about area agriculture and space for the current ranch land animals. A new entrance to the zoo would also be part of the design. It would be funded in part by $2 million in payments in lieu of taxes from Leprino Foods from the sale of industrial revenue bonds. The city also plans to use money from the federal American Recovery Act for the project.
At this point, the zoo is requesting funds for design firms to create the design and construction drawings for the exhibits — $60,000 for the bears and $400,000 for the farmland exhibit and entrance, or about 10% of the expected total costs for each.
When the projects are completed, they could amount to about $6 million in improvements for the zoo, Councilor Judy Stubbs noted. Stubbs is not a member of the Finance Committee but attended the meeting. She asked where any extra funding for the projects would come from.
City Manager Joe Neeb confirmed the final costs of the exhibits could be around $6 million. He said the city would seek other funding such as donations, sponsorships and legislative funding, as it did with the mountain lion exhibit, but first needs a plan to present.
“In order to solicit interest in individuals to contribute to it, we need to have the plan in place. I think that’s where we’re going. We’re trying to get the pieces in line,” he said.
“When we get the support of the community, the project becomes so much stronger,” Neeb said. “I will tell you there are bear advocates out there that will assist us in making a better home for our bears.”
A representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been critical of the condition of the zoo’s exhibits and efforts to acquire more animals, encouraged the city to expedite the construction of a new bear exhibit and seek guidance.
Rebecca Smudzinski, a PETA senior captive wildlife specialist who lives in Taos County, spoke via GoToMeeting.
“If the council approves the funding request, PETA urges the council to require a strict and speedy timeline for the completion of the plans and construction and an assessment of the plans prior to approval by reputable bear experts, ideally the Bear Care Group, which is a nonprofit organization led by the world’s foremost bear experts,” she said.
She said PETA also urges the city not to acquire more animals for the zoo until all exhibits could be upgraded in order to not monopolize limited resources, and said that if the city decides not to fund the improvements, the city should transfer animals to reputable facilities.
Councilors had praise for the projects and what they mean for the zoo. Jacob Roebuck said that while working on the zoo grounds in November to prepare for his business’s Christmas Railway, he saw visitors to the zoo in larger numbers than he could recall seeing in six years.
He said the city is now turning a corner on turning the zoo around from being a dying asset to a benefit to the community through educational and tourism activities.
“I’m excited for the future of the zoo, what it’s going to bring to our community. It’s going to raise the quality of life in our community,” he said.
Margaret Kennard said the zoo can be a touchy subject in the community but should be preserved because of its history.
“I can’t imagine if you tried to take the zoo out, what kind of backlash we might receive for that because it has just been a fixture here. I think we are doing the very best we can to address the issues that need to be addressed and maintain the zoo in our community,” she said.
She said she hopes the public understands it will take time and money to reach the standard of excellence the city has set as a goal for the zoo.
Wright noted one small improvement will be coming to the zoo in an 18-by-50 foot portable building that will be used as a ticket booth and gift shop at the entrance to replace the pop-up-tent used since the zoo starting charging admission in March 2021.
The purchase order has been approved for the $30,000 building and Wright said he expects finishing it will bring the total to about $45,000.
“The goal is people will come in through the side of the building to the ticket booth window, walk around the zoo and then out through the gift shop,” he said.
When a new entrance is constructed, the temporary building could be relocated to another part of the zoo for another use, such as at the pond, he said.
City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or [email protected]

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