The Buffalo Zoo has come a long way in the past several years, saving its accreditation, improving animal conditions and now moving to make things better for two of the zoo’s primary species: polar bears and homo sapiens.
For years, homo sapiens have had to leave their vehicles in a parking lot on the zoo’s south border and walk, often en masse, up Parkside Avenue to the entrance off the public sidewalk. It’s not that it was such an inconvenience, but it made no sense and did a poor job of handling larger groups.
With a new project to begin next month, the entrance will move to a spot off the parking lot itself. When that project is completed, the area occupied by the Parkside entrance will be converted into a new Arctic Edge exhibit.
That facility will house the zoo’s two polar bears and three new animals: an arctic fox, a Canadian lynx and a bald eagle. Without it, the zoo could lose the polar bears, according to standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2007.
There’s more good news, too, in that the new entrance will be located in a 75-year-old building. At one time, the zoo had planned to demolish the building, and already had permission from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to do so. Instead, construction crews will gut the barn-like structure and remake the interior.
When completed, it will offer visitors an introduction to the zoo’s emphasis on water, both to animals and in Buffalo’s history. To that point, the first two animals that visitors will see as they come through the new entrance will be sea lions and otters.
The project will cost between $3 million and $3.5 million. Contractors are bidding on the work now, with construction expected to get under way next month and be finished in time for the arrival of large school groups in late spring.
A zoo is a reflection on the character of the community that supports it. At one time, not so many years ago, the comfort of captive animals was considered only in passing, if at all. Today, most people would shudder at the thought of monkeys in tiny cages or elephants kept in small spaces without the companionship they need.
If, as a nation and as a community, we are going to maintain the tradition of zoos, we have to be prepared to construct and maintain them to ensure that animals do not suffer. Otherwise, what is the point? That is why the $3 million-plus that this project is likely to cost is worth the expense. Together with the new Arctic exhibit, the price tag is around $18 million.
The zoo is one of Buffalo’s primary attractions. It ranks with Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Buffalo Philharmonic and other features of the city’s cultural scene. It deserves adequate funding.
Maintaining those standards in a weak economy is no small feat, and Buffalo is fortunate to have Donna M. Fernandes as the zoo’s president and CEO. She left a few years ago for another opportunity, but came back to Buffalo. It is to the advantage of polar bears and homo sapiens alike that she wanted to come back.