Phoenix Zoo revitalizing facilities, building improved habitats for Arizona’s big cats

Jan 24, 2023, 4:05 AM

(Facebook Photo/Phoenix Zoo)...

(Facebook Photo/Phoenix Zoo)

(Facebook Photo/Phoenix Zoo)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Zoo is developing several projects to upgrade and add to its facilities, including new habitats for two of Arizona’s native predators.

The private, nonprofit zoo recently surpassed its fundraising goal to give its mountain lions and jaguars significantly larger homes, raising approximately $4.2 million. The goal was to collect $3.8 million. The plan is to break ground during the summer.

Updating the big cat enclosures was in the zoo’s strategic plan for the future, but a grant from the Arizona Department of Tourism as part of the Visit Arizona Initiative provided a jump start to the process.

“We had never received any, like sponsorship or financial support from them, and based on the guidelines that they have, we really felt that we could meet what they were interested in funding,” Lorraine Frias, the zoo’s vice president of development, said.

“As I understand it was some federal funding that they had received through COVID. The purpose of these grants were to help create and attract tourism to Arizona.”

The jaguar and mountain lion are the two largest cats native to Arizona. Only one jaguar is known to live in the state currently, a male named Sombra in the Chiricahua Mountains Mountains of southern Arizona, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. But the northernmost edge of the spotted cat’s range extends into the Grand Canyon State.

“When people think about top predators or big carnivores, they often think of exotic species like African lions on the Serengeti or Amur tigers of Siberia, but Arizona has really amazing animals, including mountain lion and jaguar,” animal curator Drew Foster said.

The cats will be the focal point on the Arizona Trail exhibit, the first stop for many visitors, and zoo leaders felt that the local tie made a difference in applying for a tourism-based grant.

The Department of Tourism awarded the zoo $768,000, and the nonprofit went to work fundraising to cover the rest of the cost.

With the help of trustees and new donors, the zoo surpassed its goal ahead of schedule.

The two Jaguars, Species Survival Plan participants which ensures healthy zoo populations, will get a habitat increase by more than double their current living situation. The pair of mountain lions’ – sisters found as abandoned orphans in South Dakota – will get a new space approximately five-times the size of their current home.

“It’s going to be a unique habitat in that with the Jaguars, they’ll be able to actually walk over a pathway that our visitors will be walking to go into another exhibit,” Phoenix Zoo President and CEO Bert Castro said.

“There’ll be two exhibits for Jaguars but what we plan to do in the future is have the ability to move animals back and forth. Eventually, you’ll see cougars over on the other side, and they’ll have access to the third exhibit. So we want to make it pretty flexible and versatile. And it’ll be extremely large and tall with a lot of vertical space for them to climb and exhibit all their natural behavior.”

The construction is expected to take 9-10 months, with another month or two for the animals to acclimate before people can visit, although Castro said it’s possible the exhibit opens early.

The new habitats are part of what the CEO called a needed revitalization of the Phoenix Zoo, with several other undertakings in development. One includes another upgrade to an existing trail. Prior to the opening of the Big Cats of Arizona exhibit will be the six-acre Predator Passage, a new section of the African Trail for lions, leopards, meerkats and hyenas, which is scheduled to open in late April.

Castro also explained what he called the zoo’s biggest project to date, a $24 million medical facility where visitors can see and learn about wild animal care. The funding will come from philanthropic dollars.

“We’re hoping on that project to also have some public access to the veterinary medical center where people can actually go in and watch some of the health procedures that are being done on our animals,” Castro added. “We’ll be working with some local universities, as well.”

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Phoenix Zoo revitalizing facilities, building improved habitats for Arizona’s big cats