While standing in what will be a concrete viewing area, Ken Nieland waves his hands excitedly as he describes the rocks and plants that snow leopards will soon play on in an exhibit at the Micke Grove Zoo.
Nieland, the zoo's director, said he has been waiting for the improvements since the zoo lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2006.
"We have done a lot to change the appearance and image," he said. "There has been a real significant change from old-style exhibits to contemporary exhibits."
The snow leopard exhibit will feature a large informational touch screen that some snow leopard aid groups donated to the zoo, and an area where kids can compare their leaps to a leopard's jump.
There will also be a new Asian small-clawed otters exhibit, where people will be able to watch the otters swim. The goal is to have it completed in late 2010.
The project is one of the main features that could help the zoo get back its accreditation, Nieland said.
But the project has been more expensive than expected, and the Micke Grove Zoological Society plans to hand the project over to San Joaquin County.
The foundation will have spent $2.2 million on the project, which included removing old buildings, updating or adding utilities under the exhibits, and constructing new buildings, said Claude Brown, the foundation's previous president.
The project cost more than expected as it evolved, he said, and the slowing economy has also hit the foundation.
"We want this as quickly as possible for the children of the community, instead of waiting for money to come in," he said.
The county knew the foundation might run out of money for several months because of a decrease in donations, County Administrator Manuel Lopez said.
The county's Board of Supervisors would have to approve taking over the project, Lopez said. It would take about $2.5 million to complete the project, which the county would pay for by pulling together several accounts designated for park improvements, he said.
County staff will recommend the money be spent because the project is at a point where it would not make sense to leave it unfinished, Lopez said.
"It's absolutely a major focal point of the park. … If this project gets completed, it will be a major boon to the zoo," he said. "If they have attractions and bring in people, it will be a boon to the park."
Even though the foundation is backing off this project, it will continue to collect money and support the zoo in other projects, Brown said.
The major violations that prevented the zoo from keeping its accreditation included a lack of capital improvements, not enough staff and the need for an improved animal health area.
The zoo has increased staff, including having the veterinarian spend more time at the zoo, Nieland said. The new exhibits will show that the county is investing money into the zoo. The zoo has also bought new equipment to create an entirely separate surgery room in the veterinary building, to improve animal care.
Zoo history- It opened Aug. 9, 1957, along with the county museum, Fun Town, Japanese garden and golf course in the San Joaquin County park.
- Julia and William Micke donated a 65-acre oak grove, including the land for the park, to the county in 1938.
- The first animals included several spider monkeys and a lioness named Nimbi.
Zoo at a glanceLocation: 11793 Micke Grove Road, between Armstrong and Eight Mile roads, Lodi.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; open until 6 p.m. weekends and holidays from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Admission: $3 for adults, $2 for children, free for children 3 years and under from May through September.
For more information: Call (2090 331-7270 or visit www.mgzoo.com.
- News-Sentinel staff
After spending many years participating in the accreditation of other zoos, Nieland said he is familiar with the process and is confident that the zoo will receive the designation once again.
With accreditation, the zoo will have an easier time obtaining animals, because agencies give blanket permits to accredited zoos since they already have met regulatory requirements, Nieland said. Also, some collections are only available to accredited zoos. Occasionally, there is also funding only available to zoos with the designation, he said.
In the future, if the zoo is not accredited, it could be restricted to surplus animals, instead of actively participating in preserving endangered species, Nieland said.
It can be hard for smaller zoos to receive enough funding during tight budget years, said Ed Hansen, the executive director of the American Association of Zoo Keepers. Governments often focus on core services required by the state, like police and fire.
While Nieland said it is always a concern that funding will be cut, the zoo takes up only a small percentage of the county's budget. When looking to save millions of dollars, it doesn't make sense to focus on the zoo, he said.
Also, throughout the years, Nieland said the zoo has relied less on funding from the county by starting to raise its own revenues. He said the zoo has increased its entry fee while the traveling lorikeet exhibit is in town, and is selling cups of nectar for $1.
He also hopes the new expansions will further that goal, he said.
"When you have gibbons swinging through the trees and otters swimming and people trying to find the snow leopard, they will stay here longer and then say, 'Hey, it's lunch time,'" he said.
While the zoo has a master plan with improvements listed for years to come, Nieland, who has been with the zoo for 30 years, said the zoo has come a long way since he started.
The updates have been gradual as zoo culture has shifted from people seeing animals in concrete cages to wanting to see animals in their natural habitat. Now, many zoos have exhibits like the lorikeets, where patrons interact directly with the animals.
Nieland said that before, people could see from end-to-end while in the zoo because there was little or no vegetation. Now, he said, the animals' cages have plants and trees, and the walkways are shaded.
"We always hear from the public that you can bring small children to see a variety of animals, but it's not a drain on energy and the pocketbook," he said. "At a large zoo, you can't have a short, quality experience."