Zoo director presents his vision for new bear exhibit

John Wright, left, director of the Spring River Zoo, talks about possible improvements at the zoo Thursday morning during a meeting of the Roswell City Council finance committee. The committee voted unanimously to recommend to the full board approval of a cost estimate of $ 720,000 for security upgrades and design services for the new exhibits. (Photo by Juno Ogle)

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A new home for the two bears at the Spring River Zoo would likely be in a different location from the current exhibit and include a more natural area to explore and better viewing for visitors.

John Wright, director of the zoo, gave members of the Roswell City Council finance committee more details on the vision for the bear and farm animal exhibits as well as the safety improvements at the committee meeting from Thursday.

If the vision comes to fruition, the zoo could see a total of around $ 6 million in improvements when completed, city officials said.

The vision is still in its infancy, however, and to begin with, Wright is asking city council to approve cost estimates of $ 720,000 to increase the height of the perimeter fence, add security cameras and design work for a 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 to the full board at the January 9 meeting.

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The zoo master plan adopted by the city in 2018 called for the bear exhibit to be demolished and replaced on the same site.

“The bears should be moved and we should demolish the entire exhibit and build another exhibit. It could take a few years, ”Wright said.

Wright said zoo staff would like to build a new bear exhibit where the audads are now located. The “baling cradles” – the round cages – where the coatis and raccoons are now located could be a similar retention area to the building for the new mountain lion exhibit. Wright said it could be designed as a decorative element to resemble a cave and give visitors a view of the bears through a pane of glass, as the mountain lion exhibit does.

“We would be able to build and move our bears to a new exhibit and a new habitat that would have enough space for the climbing structures, the natural substrate, remove them from the concrete,” he said.

The exhibit would include grass and other plants and climbing structures.

The farmland exhibit would include educational exhibits on the area’s agriculture and the land animal space of the current ranch. 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 tax bonds. The city also plans to use US federal salvage law money for the project.

At this point, the zoo is asking design companies for funds to create the design and construction drawings for the exhibits – $ 60,000 for the bears and $ 400,000 for the exhibit and farmland entry, or about 10 % of total expected costs for each.

Once the projects are completed, they could represent around $ 6 million in improvements for the zoo, noted Councilor Judy Stubbs. Stubbs is not a member of the Finance Committee but attended the meeting. She asked where any additional funding for the projects would come from.

City Manager Joe Neeb has confirmed that final costs for the exhibits could run up to around $ 6 million. He said the city will seek other funding such as donations, sponsorships and legislative funding, as it has done with the Mountain Lion Exhibit, but needs to first a plan to present.

“In order to engage individuals’ interest in contributing, we need to have the plan in place. I think this is where we are going. We’re trying to put the pieces in place, ”he said.

“When we get the support of the community, the project becomes so much stronger,” said Neeb. “I will tell you that there are bear advocates who will help us create a better home for our bears. “

A representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who criticized the state of the zoo’s exhibits and efforts to acquire more animals, urged the city to speed up construction of a new bear exhibit and ask advice.

Rebecca Smudzinski, a senior PETA captive wildlife specialist who lives in Taos County, spoke via GoToMeeting.

“If the board approves the funding request, PETA urges the board to demand a strict and swift schedule for the completion of plans and construction and an assessment of the plans before approval by reputable bear experts, ideally the Bear Care Group, which is a non-profit organization run by the world’s foremost bear experts, ”she said.

She said PETA is also urging the city not to acquire more animals for the zoo until all exhibits can be improved so as not to monopolize limited resources, and said if the city decides not to not fund the improvements, the city would have to transfer the animals to reputable facilities. .

Councilors praised the plans and what they mean for the zoo. Jacob Roebuck said that while working on the zoo grounds in November to prepare for his company’s Christmas railroad, he saw more visitors to the zoo than he remembered seeing in six years.

He said the city is now taking a step forward in transforming the zoo from a dying asset to a community benefit through educational and tourism activities.

“I am excited about the future of the zoo, what it will bring to our community. This will increase 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 away, what kind of reaction we might get for it because it just just got a fix on here.” I think we are doing our best to resolve the issues that need to be addressed and keep the zoo in our community, ”she said.

She said she hopes the public will understand that it will take time and money to achieve the level of excellence the city has set for the zoo.

Wright noted that a small improvement will arrive at the zoo in an 18-by-50-foot portable building that will be used as a ticket office and gift shop at the entrance to replace the pop-up tent that has been used since the zoo began charging for the zoo. ‘admission in March 2021.

The purchase order was approved for the $ 30,000 building and Wright said he expects its finish to bring the total to around $ 45,000.

“The goal is for people to enter from the side of the building to the ticket office window, walk around the zoo and then exit through the gift shop,” he said.

When a new entrance is built, the temporary building could be moved to another part of the zoo for another use, such as 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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