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The prospect of a new home in Buffalo for polar bear cubs Luna and Kali drew $400,000 closer Wednesday, thanks to a contribution from state coffers for the Buffalo Zoo’s planned “Arctic Edge” exhibit.

On the same day, zoo President Donna M. Fernandes thanked public and private donors for making possible the new entrance, which officially opens today. The footprint of the former entrance will become the new polar bear exhibit.

“The zoo is delighted by the support announced by Sen. Mark Grisanti on behalf of the bear exhibit, and we hope we are able to complete the last $2.4 million left in the campaign in the next two weeks so we can move forward with construction,” Fernandes said.

Grisanti, chairman of the State Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, said he obtained the money for capital improvements set aside for municipalities with the help of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, has established a reputation in the State Legislature over the last year as a leading advocate for animals, having sponsored legislation to clamp down on puppy mills and strengthen penalties for animal abuse.

Grisanti said that there is an urgency to keeping a polar bear attraction in Buffalo, and is hopeful that Luna, who was born at the zoo, and Kali, the orphaned Alaskan cub who came May 15, will remain. The cubs could be transferred to other zoos if construction on an accredited facility does not begin by September.

“We have to do everything we can for these bears and to see that this exhibit gets built – especially now with the movement of the former entrance and the whole area ready and primed for development of the new bear quarters,” he said.

The new entrance, adjacent to the zoo’s parking lot, features a new ticket office, including five general ticket windows and two for members, a new cafe, an expanded gift shop and banks of restrooms. A large sign with the zoo’s logo greets visitors.

Once visitors enter the zoo grounds, they will come upon the new Great Lakes-themed fountain and garden area. The entrance leads to the “Sea Lion Cove” in one direction and a new exhibit, “Kookaburra Korner,” in another.

The latter exhibit features two each of laughing kookaburras, golden pheasants, Lady Amherst pheasants, Mandarin ducks and Bennett’s wallabies.

Fernandes praised architect Gwen A. Howard of Foit-Albert Associates for creating something new out of a barn built during the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“She preserved the character and integrity of the original building, but really created an incredible entrance. When I see people already posing their children in front of the entrance, I know it’s a home run,” Fernandes said.

Fernandes said she’s hopeful that the Assembly will join with the Senate and come through with funding.

Some private donors also have indicated they could be helping in the near future.

Still, Fernandes said although $1.6 million has been raised over the last 4½ months, there’s still a long way to go if the zoo is to meet its goal of bidding the project in August and getting shovels in the ground right after Labor Day.

While thanking Mayor Byron W. Brown and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz for the city’s and county’s support of the zoo and the “Arctic Edge” exhibit, she playfully chided them to dig deeper to help make the polar bears’ new home a reality.

email: msommer@buffnews.com