- ABOUT US
The Oklahoma City Zoo’s newest exhibit crosses continents to bring home the importance of conservation.
By Megan Rossman
Photography by Lori Duckworth
Published November/December 2018
People love animals, but save for a few intrepid souls, most of us aren’t going to trek through the icy heights of Nepal or wade through the underbrush of an Indian jungle in search of them. Love has its limits, and transcontinental travel is costly. Fortunately, Oklahomans have two nationally accredited zoos in their state. And this September, as part of its continuous mission to inspire and educate visitors, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden opened its newest exhibit, known as Sanctuary Asia. The $22-million site in the southwest section of the zoo is home to new animals and habitats, Asian-themed gardens, a splash pad, and the two-story Lotus Pavilion with a restaurant.
“With the mix of stuff going in, Sanctuary Asia will anchor that side of the zoo,” says Oklahoma City Zoo executive director and CEO Dwight Lawson. “Once you make it out there, the kids can cool off in the splash pad, you can get a drink or a meal, get in the air conditioning, see some new things, and enjoy the rest of your experience.”
South of the popular Oklahoma Trails exhibit, Sanctuary Asia merges space with the elephant habitat, adding another 6.6 acres to what already is a sprawling park. In fact, at 140 acres, the Oklahoma City Zoo’s land area surpasses that of the famous San Diego Zoo. Now, animal residents and visitors have even more room to roam. The elephants and Indian rhino in particular have seen an upgrade to their living quarters. The addition of three and a half new acres and a road crossing gives the pachyderm giants a total of eight acres, essentially doubling their space. Ponds, waterfalls, large shade trees, natural substrate flooring, and plenty of snack-worthy plantings are essential creature comforts here.
“Animals in human care get all the luxuries: sand areas, heated floors, heated buildings, and the cooling features outside,” says Nick Newby, assistant curator of large mammals. “It all comes together. That’s our job—to provide them with the best care and welfare possible.”
Other longtime residents who’ve made the move to Sanctuary Asia are red pandas, whose home is reminiscent of alpine forests, and the Komodo dragon, whose new digs simulate the dry grassland environment its wild counterparts occupy in Indonesia.
Red pandas are not actually in the panda family, but like their namesakes, they have a pseudo-thumb for holding and eating bamboo.
Newcomers are Francois’ langurs, wily black and white monkeys found in Vietnam and China; tanuki, furry canids known as raccoon dogs because of their striking resemblance to raccoons; a Burmese black mountain tortoise; and a breeding pair of southern cassowaries, large flightless birds with a penchant for jumping and kicking.
Overseeing the welfare of these young cassowaries is assistant bird curator Holly Ray, who helps manage the zoo’s ninety-six bird species. Cassowaries are solitary dwellers that will be housed separately and unite only for breeding once they’re sexually mature after three years. At that point, they’ll stand a little more than five feet tall and are expected to weigh around 150 pounds.
“I’m so excited for our guests to see them,” says Ray. “They have amazing personalities, which people can see in the training sessions.”
The zoo hopes to include the cassowaries in its Keeper Connections schedule at some point in the future after the birds have settled into their new home. This free daily program consists of fifteen-minute educational presentations that take place throughout the day with various animals and their caretakers. For an additional fee, guests may schedule a thirty-minute Wild Encounters experience that puts them up close with fan favorites such as elephants and rhinos.
While animals obviously are the zoo’s main attraction, plants play a crucial but often more subtle role in shaping the atmosphere. The trees, shrubs, and grasses in the exhibits are painstakingly selected with the animals’ natural habitat in mind, while garden areas create a backdrop for guest experiences.
“Animals are the rock stars of the zoo, and the horticulture and gardens are the roadies,” says horticulture curator Lance Swearengin, who oversees this collection of flora. “Our goal is to create an environment where people can appreciate the interconnectedness between plants and animals.”
The zoo is an accredited botanical garden with thousands of plants in its care. In Sanctuary Asia, Swearengin and his staff were faced with the challenge of creating a botanically diverse oasis within Oklahoma’s Hardiness Zone Seven reality. They planted between seventy-five and a hundred species of plants.
“Asia is a big chunk of real estate,” he says. “There are a lot of different ecosystems and forests.”
Zoo improvements like Sanctuary Asia are funded by a one-eighth-cent sales tax passed by Oklahoma City voters in 1990.
Several types of bamboo, mimosa and magnolia trees, and ornamental grasses set the scene throughout Sanctuary Asia. Complementing these is the architectural centerpiece of the exhibit, a two-story event space and restaurant that, with a pagoda-style roof, looks a like a modern Chinese temple. Pavilions and water gardens bearing enormous Queen Victoria lilies add to the sense of old-world grandeur, while tides of ecstatic kids chowing down on burgers and hot dogs root visitors firmly in the twenty-first century.
While Sanctuary Asia is a fun spot on any itinerary by day, it’s available after hours for private parties and weddings. Komodo dragons and elephants can act as unofficial witnesses to matrimonial vows, or companies can rent the gallery-style conference room upstairs, where the windows overlook the elephant and rhino habitats. The zoo’s hope is that, in addition to attracting die-hard animal lovers who want to celebrate life’s milestones among wildlife, the new facility will encourage people who haven’t visited in awhile to experience it in a new way.
“There’s an ah-ha factor,” says Candice Rennels, the zoo’s director of public relations. “The elephant habitat already blows you away, and when you see the whole exhibit, it’s amazing.”
Komodo dragons and southern cassowaries are just a couple of the types of residents guests can expect to see in the 6.6-acre Sanctuary Asia addition.
Sanctuary Asia is the most recent step in an evolution of property and preservation. By 2021, the zoo hopes to open the exhibit’s African-themed counterpart. In the meantime, it continues with its mission to help create sustainable populations of animals through its breeding programs and outreach work with other organizations. Staff members regularly assist in conservation efforts locally and throughout the world, whether it’s to help with the rescue of turtles in Madagascar or track Texas horned lizards alongside the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife in Midwest City. Along with providing volunteer support, the zoo supplies substantial financial donations to conservation organizations around the globe. Even the Round Up For Conservation program, in which guests are asked if they want to round their purchases to the nearest dollar, has raised almost $400,000 since 2011. Over the last seven years, this spare change has, among other things, purchased thousands of protected acres for wildlife in Asia.
“The reason we’re here is to connect people to wildlife,” says Newby. “So we try to do that any way we can. People are more apt to go home and visit the International Rhino Foundation website or the International Elephant Foundation website, because they hear us talk, and they hear the passion in our voices. Hopefully, some of our passion will rub off on them, and they’ll want to change the world as well. That’s the number one take-home message: It’s about the people. If you can get the people’s commitment to saving animals, that’s what’s going to help.”
Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, 2000 Remington Place in Oklahoma City, (405) 424-3344 or okczoo.org.