The high-pitched song reverberates like water droplets falling rapidly into a pond, but with a volume no mere drip could achieve. From a mile off, you can hear it heralding the morning awakening of nature. Yet no birder would recognize it.
It echoes in only one place in Knoxville: the zoo. The gibbons are calling.
But the long-limbed apes are hard to find in a turn-off almost hidden behind a zoo restaurant. “Here’s the funny guy!” one mom tells her child as they find the gibbon enclosure, where two of the small apes dangle from a chain-link dome. The dome radiates from the crown of a fake tree in the center, a web of ropes and poles extending outward.
A major expansion will soon move the gibbons and their neighbors the tigers, now almost hidden behind mesh and chain link, to the new “Asia Trek” section of the zoo. The physical overhaul will not only be the zoo’s largest in a decade, but also signifies broader changes in the nonprofit’s vision and identity. The newly-renamed Zoo Knoxville aims to almost double its annual visitation, becoming more financially stable.
Zoo officials argue that, as the No. 1 tourist destination in the county, the zoo drives economic growth that benefits local governments, businesses and taxpayers—even residents who never set foot there or hear the gibbon’s call.
Knoxville politicians appear to be sold on this argument. City Mayor Madeline Rogero held her annual budget announcement at the zoo’s upgraded event tent, touting the city’s commitment of $10 million in bond funds to help finance the new and improved animal exhibits.
Last year, the city finished reconstructing Prosser Road, one of the streets that accesses the zoo entrance. The $1.2 million overhaul relieved flooding problems and created a bike corridor connecting several neighborhoods to the zoo.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett (whose daughter already convinced him to pitch in hotel/motel tax revenue to build a winter home for the zoo’s giant tortoises) is asking County Commission to commit $5 million over five years to the cause; that vote is slated for next week.
The money would help foot the bill for a master plan that aims to not only add new exhibits but broadly overhaul the visitor experience.
We knew the Knoxville Zoo. But what will Zoo Knoxville look like?
The New Zoo
The process of rebranding, renaming, and revisioning has been overseen by director Lisa New, who became zoo CEO and executive director in 2013. New, who has a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee in animal behavior, had spent her entire 22-year career at the zoo, first working with apes, then as director of animal collections and conservation. She still looks more comfortable in a zoo polo shirt than executive dresses. Although her office features animal-print chairs and couches, she doesn’t spend much time sitting on them. She’s more likely to be answering a call on her walkie talkie and keeping tabs on what’s happening out her big window: Earth movers shifting mounds of dirt to build the new Tiger Forest exhibit. Staff say she’s always out on zoo pathways, on the lookout for maintenance problems or any sign of something that’s not right, anything that erodes the quality of “the visitor experience.”
A tiny woman, New doesn’t look like she could hold her own with a gorilla. But she is vice-chair of the executive committee that manages the species survival plan for gorillas (and chimps), which governs their housing and breeding in U.S. zoos. This group had to decide to allow Knoxville to start breeding gorillas, paving the way for the birth of babies Ubuntu and Obi last summer. The tiny siblings, who are now wrestling and being flown around in games of “airplane” by their dad, drove visitation to a record 440,000 and helped drive the zoo to profitability for the first time in years.
Taking notice, the zoo is now planning to breed endangered Malayan tiger cubs. And a third gorilla pregnancy was used this winter as the peg for the zoo’s rebranding and renaming—putting “Zoo” before “Knoxville.” New says the name will market well with other similar Knoxville tourism entities such as Visit Knoxville and Outdoor Knoxville; it also stands out from most other zoos. The accompanying “Wildly fun!” brand is a whimsical swirl of animal and human figures.
New says these changes were made after market research showed that, although members saw the zoo mostly as a destination for fun, non-members saw it as primarily educational (implied yawn). The research also showed 53 percent of its guests travel from outside a 50-mile radius, which is unusual for a zoo. The majority of those tourists are on vacation in Gatlinburg, Dollywood, or the Smokies, says New.
Armed with this and more survey results, she and the zoo board worked with Zoo Advisors LLC to develop a strategic plan, then a detailed master plan for the next five years. Tiger Forest comes first. The 1.6-acre space, set to open in spring 2017, will include climbing structures and a swimming area for up to six critically endangered Malayan tigers, which visitors will be able to view both above and below the water. If approved by the national group that manages the species survival plan, a female would be added to the two tiger brothers the zoo currently owns, with cubs soon to follow.
The zoo master plan also called for a new reptile house, a new second entrance, Kids Cove bathrooms, and new living space for the zoo’s “ambassador animals” like Einstein the talking parrot. These animals visit school groups and perform in shows, and today they live mostly in a trailer. Their new digs will have to wait, however, because the zoo is seizing opportunities that arise as the tiger area is developed: space to move gibbons and add an enclosure for langurs, a tree-living monkey species that will be new to Zoo Knoxville. That section of the zoo, which also contains the red pandas, will be the re-dubbed Asia Trek.
After the Asia section is finished, the zoo plans to focus on a new reptile house closer to the entrance, in an area where the bird show amphitheater is now.
The current reptile house is about 40 years old and was designed with no input from the reptile keepers, says Michael Ogle, curator of herpetology (herps) and birds. It houses both reptiles and amphibians in acrylic enclosures viewed from outside the nondescript building. The terrariums fog up in winter so what’s inside is hardly visible—even if the acrylic could be cleaned. But it can’t, and the enclosures can’t be replaced, they don’t fit well any more, and they break easily.
Despite these limitations, Zoo Knoxville has the ninth-largest reptile collection among American zoos and is a world leader at breeding endangered tortoises from Madagascar. New says she wants the new reptile house to be designed so that visitors can see some of this cutting-edge work, much of which is now housed in a nondescript building referred to as “the kitchen.”
“More and more we realize we want and need to be as transparent as we can about what we’re doing,” New says. “The average guest now wants to know the animals they’re seeing are part of something bigger.”
Although the zoo’s reptile collection is one of its gems, just 10 percent of it is on display. Many of the “hidden” animals are baby tortoises scrambling around in plastic tubs. But other animals also remain out of the public eye. For example, a 14-foot, 48-pound reticulated python sways her head high in the air, inquisitively sniffing with her tongue, in an enclosure only staff can see.
The new reptile house, estimated to cost $10 million to $12 million, will include a variety of indoor display areas, New says. Dark halls would house small animals in lit tanks like the ones found in aquariums, while bright, sun-lit rooms would display multiple species together in large tanks. An outdoor area would include a native bog habitat and classroom space, she says.
These projects will probably wrap up around 2020, and what follows is more open-ended. New says new species will likely to targeted to the Africa section, which will need updating by then. The zoo is considering a redesign of its elephant habitat, possibly moving them daily among more enclosures (such as where the rhinos are now, and/or in the empty back of the zoo) and providing them more water features.
Other animals might shift as the zoo continues to try to consolidate, because the consultant indicated the zoo is too spread out. That’s one of the reasons Tiger Forest is being located next to the entrance instead of in the area across from the lions. It’s also likely the zoo will eventually move the otters nearer the front, closing the entire upper wing, New says.
This consolidation means that the 56-acre zoo has plenty of space for the next 10 to 15 years, New says.
The Financial Jungle
Zoo Knoxville began in 1934 as a 4-acre “birthday park” for poor children, funded by donations. It languished and closed briefly before the city helped reopen it as a “birthday park zoo” in 1948, and the zoo’s financial dependence on the city began. For several decades Knoxville operated it directly before a nonprofit was created to take it over in 1971.
Today, the zoo covers around 86 percent of its costs through operating revenue from tickets, gift shop and concessions sales, and special-event rentals. The city contributes most of the rest through a contract renegotiated every five years, and leases the land to Zoo Knoxville for $1 a year.
The city contract that will expire in July provided the zoo $1.2 million in operating funds a year, and a total of $3 million in capital support. But in 2013, the city issued $10 million in bonds to support capital construction over five years. (As a result, the city won’t be including extra capital dollars in the contract renewal currently under negotiation, New says.) The city bond funds provide a springboard for the zoo to raise the remainder it needs to fulfill its master plan.
Until the last few years, Zoo Knoxville operated slightly in the red; its expenses have tended to exceed income by $1 million to $1.5 million since the Great Recession began in 2008. In 2014, for example, the zoo’s 990 tax form indicated it had revenue of $9.5 million and expenses of $10.5 million. But New says if depreciation and a loan against pledges is excluded, the zoo basically broke even.
New says the zoo managed a slight surplus of $100,000 in 2015 due to “the highest revenues in the zoo’s history:” $9.9 million.
Until last year, the zoo’s attendance numbers had been fairly steady at 380,000 to 400,000 visitors a year, New says, but it hasn’t grown along with Knoxville’s rapidly increasing population. “It was catching up with us in terms of operating costs and needs,” New says.
A bequest of about $820,000 from the estate of Nadine Brantley Dempster helped by paying for basic capital improvements like paving, painting, improved restrooms, and a new phone system. (For two weeks, New says, she ran the zoo on a cell phone.)
New credits last year’s financial success partly to these upgrades, which gave the park a better look and feel. Other factors were reducing the number of animal shows in favor of creating more face-to-face “encounters” between visitors and animals on zoo pathways, and improved TripAdvisor ratings due to weekly staff meetings aimed at responding to individual visitor feedback.
Zoo Knoxville’s vision is for attendance to climb close to 800,000 a year by 2025, starting with a 17 percent attendance jump when the tiger exhibit opens. New says the zoo depends on members, who buy an annual pass and then visit repeatedly, to bridge the cold winter months when visitation drops. The master plan calls for growing membership from about 11,000 households to more than 15,000.
New says one way to drive membership is by adding non-animal attractions, a trend at zoos. “People want a variety of options for a variety of age groups,” New says.
A look back at Zoo Knoxville’s expansion investments shows the biggest bucks this decade were spent not on an animal habitat but on creating the Kids Cove play area in 2005 for $5.2 million.
In more recent years, Zoo Knoxville has added a tiny train, a popular splash pad, and (this year) a gem-mining feature. New says the zoo’s topography would also lend itself well to a zip line and ropes course, potentially increasing the zoo’s appeal to teens.
New acknowledged that while these activities aren’t directly related to the mission of animal conservation, “If we don’t have any margin, we don’t have any mission.”
An Evolving Mission
Zoos have changed dramatically in the last quarter-century, and Zoo Knoxville is no exception.
Dr. Edward Ramsay, who has been a veterinarian for the zoo for decades, remembers a very different collection of animals in the early 1980s. Many were kept in small, sparse cages. (Example: three apes in a corn crib.)
“There were 60 big cats in the collection when I came,” Ramsay recalls. “Now there’s about 10.”
Often, the animals were chosen based on what ridiculous “pet” a local resident had purchased in its infancy. That’s how the Knoxville Zoo got its very first animal, Al the Alligator. The zoo also purchased animals that had been taken from the wild, many of which died, Ramsay says.
“Zoos have gotten rid of those Noah’s Ark-type collections, which I think is a good thing,” says Ramsay, a frenetic, weathered man with a slightly grizzled beard who rattles out witty observations in a machine-gun staccato. (A quick comparison based on your house cat: “If you get two litters out of a [tiger] queen a year, pretty soon you’re going to have tigers out the ying yang.”)
Ramsay first came to the University of Tennessee in the early 1980s to pursue a doctorate in animal reproduction, but that trend ended poorly. “Animals are made to have babies, and if you keep them right, they will have more babies than you want,” he says. Today, zoos worry more about contraception.
In the old days, the Knoxville Zoo sold the “surplus animals”—mostly older adults who weren’t cute any more—to animal dealers. “Thirty years ago, (these animals would) go to hunting ranches, wildlife auctions, or some guy in Texas with more money than fencing,” he recalls. Today, zoos have gone so far in the opposite direction that they have to carefully share common farm animals like rabbits and goats, Ramsay says.
Being a zoo vet now is less about breeding than gerontology. Old animals can’t be hawked to dealers, and are now valued more because wild replacements aren’t possible. Captive animals often have twice the life expectancy they would in the wild, so zoos have increasingly aging populations, with all the accompanying health-care complications. Ramsay’s list of animals that are actually sick is much shorter than the one of “chronic cases” that need maintenance medications for arthritis, heart disease, and thyroid problems.
Zoo trends related to the visitor experience are also evident in Knoxville: “Immersion design,” with barely-visible dividers between people and animals, and exhibits that reflect the art and culture of animals’ native habitats. Ramsay (like other critics nationally) questions some of these trends, particularly what he calls “the Disneyfication of the zoo.”
“We no longer have a lion enclosure,” he says. “We have a lion ‘experience.’”
That experience doesn’t come cheap—look at the $10 million tiger price tag, more than triple what the zoo spent on the elephant exhibit in 2002. (Zoo Knoxville has spent about $26 million altogether on capital improvements since 1994.) Ramsay questions what such an investment could mean for endangered animal populations in the wild, compared to keeping six tigers in a zoo.
“We are supposed to be a conservation organization,” he says. “Where’s the conservation? We breed a lot of gorillas, but none of those are going to go to Africa. We build larger ‘experiences’ instead of focusing on our core mission.”
New acknowledges some of Ramsay’s points, but says locals won’t necessarily donate $10 million for conservation in the wild, as they will to see tigers up close.
“The other thing I would say is, we certainly have to be a living, breathing, viable organization before we’re able to just give money away to conservation efforts,” New says. That means regularly operating in the black, with a surplus.
The zoo’s “quarters for conservation” program” donates a quarter from the price of every ticket to conservation and sometimes helps zoo staff travel to help with research on wild populations, like tortoises and Komodo dragons. The zoo has also been breeding and releasing critically endangered bog turtles in Tennessee for 25 years.
In 2015, Zoo Knoxville gave about $71,000 to wild conservation initiatives (including projects like local butterfly gardens), New says. She acknowledged that’s less than 1 percent of the zoo’s budget. The goal is to reach 3 percent.
“We engage the community to care more about wild life and wild places, and how do we put a price tag on that?” New says. “Part of that ‘Disneyfication’ is to make people fall in love with wildlife, and them having a great time points to that.”
At the gibbon enclosure, kindergarteners in matching T-shirts are hopping up and down and yelling, “Cool!” Profoundly disabled children rock excitedly in their wheelchairs.
A child points to a faded sign depicting a thermometer. “What does that mean?”
His mom reads the sign. “They’re endangered,” she says.
“What does that mean?” he repeats.
“It means there aren’t many of them in the wild,” she says.
Kids yell, “Hey monkey! Hey monkey!” but the golden gibbon doesn’t respond. Its whooping call is silent now. It clings to the chain link in a corner, staring off into the world outside its enclosure, an impossible distance.
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