Construction began almost two years ago on an ambitious project: the creation of a state-of-the-art zoological exhibit at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Final touches are now being made; animals are being moved; and hardhats are moving out. We're on the eve of the opening of the African Rift Valley.
And what an exhibit it is! Since its founding in 1926, our zoo has grown from Spencer Penrose's collection of exotic animals to a habitat for over 650 creatures, representing approximately 142 species, 30 of which are endangered. The African Rift Valley exhibit will house a herd of reticulated giraffes, the largest herd of any zoo in the world, two species of antelope, four kinds of ground birds, two red river hogs and a gang of meerkats.
The exhibit starts at a small plaza where you are greeted by giraffe sculptures bearing spots personalized with donor names. Two African-style totems, the first of many interactive features meant to educate and delight, stand at the entrance to the boardwalk (made of African eucalyptus wood). Farther down the boardwalk is a simulation of a research station in the bush that will catch the imagination of all children.
A drawbridge between the boardwalk and the holding building allows visitors to watch the herd leave their building each morning and return at night. Some giraffes, shy and sensitive creatures, are still more comfortable staying inside. Or maybe they're just watching over the newest member of the herd, a youngster not yet named, born on Mother's Day at a whopping 155 pounds.
For those who want an even closer look, there is the Safari Discovery Trail winding its way within the animal yard. The zookeeper-led walks along the trail are expected to be quite popular; reservations are recommended. The emphasis on these walks, as throughout the exhibit, is on education with a thrill. The zoo's mission, after all, is "Every Kid, Every Time, Goosebumps."
There are some clever hands-on interpretive elements throughout the exhibit. Kids learn about the languages, wildlife, climate and topography of the Rift Valley, comparing it to the Pikes Peak region. Within the giraffe's holding building one can get the "feel" of a giraffe's tongue. A closed-circuit camera mounted on a life-size model gives a giraffe's eye view. One of the giraffes has been "taught' to wear a small camera while she wanders outside, offering an even better point of view (like when she approaches you for a cracker ...).
Ah, yes, crackers. While feeding zoo animals is generally forbidden, the reticulated giraffes seem to have their own little scam going. Somehow they've persuaded their keepers to allow visitors to give them crackers; in the interest of education and research, visitors can try to identify each giraffe by their unique spot patterns (there's a mug book for help), and record their cracker consumption. There's something about those limpid dark eyes and long lashes that will render you powerless in their gaze. "Another cracker? Why, sure ..."
Though the giraffes are the stars, they are just one species in the African Rift Valley. The exhibit has barriers so skillfully hidden that animals will appear to range freely, each with an appropriate habitat. The meerkats, for example, have an extensive underground tunnel system and a built "ant hill" on which to perch and keep watch. The red river hogs have a giant baobab tree beneath which they can root around while visitors watch from within.
All this has all been accomplished without our support. A ballot issue a few years back proposing a 1/20 of 1-cent tax increase to fund the zoo failed. Of 208 accredited zoos nationwide, five receive no local tax support; ours is one of them.
Discouraged but not defeated when the ballot failed, the zoo pressed on with an ambitious capital campaign, a grass-roots effort that has raised $11 million dollars thus far. The African Rift Valley exhibit is the first project in the very long-range master plan: without tax support projects that would have been completed in 10 years will take 20 to 30 years to fund.
-- Nancy Harley