After months of uncertainty, the Buffalo Zoo now is convinced it will be able to come up with the money to construct a new polar bear exhibit.
The zoo’s board of directors is expected to formally approve construction of the Arctic Edge attraction today, even though the fundraising still has to close a $1.4 million gap to reach the $14 million needed. That effort got a significant boost Monday when Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, announced that the Assembly has designated $400,000 toward the exhibit.
“We don’t have all the money, but we’re close enough to honor our commitment to start this fall,” said Donna Fernandes, the zoo’s president. “We’re confident that we will be able to complete the campaign but are still actively seeking contributions from supporters.”
Fernandes said that includes the City of Buffalo, which is expected to set aside several hundred thousand dollars in its 2014 capital budget, as well as the state and private donors.
Starting construction also will reduce the risk of losing Luna, one of three polar bears born in a U.S. zoo in 2012, or Kali, the orphaned Alaskan bear that belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums had indicated that if the Buffalo Zoo didn’t move forward in a timely fashion, it could recommend that the two bears be sent elsewhere.
Polar bears are in demand because many are getting old and dying in zoos, the Central Park Zoo among them. The St. Louis Zoo is building a new polar bear exhibit slated to open in spring 2015, and the North Carolina Zoo is spending $8.5 million to renovate its exhibit even after losing one of its two bears.
“We can’t ignore that there is a lot of demand for polar bears and that they deserve to be exhibited in quality habitats,” Fernandes said.
Ryan, D-Buffalo, with help from the entire Western New York delegation in the Assembly, delivered the $400,000 to help build Arctic Edge. That matches what State Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and others in the Western New York Senate delegation provided in July.
“We need to keep our polar bears in Buffalo, and this funding will help us to achieve our goal of a world-class polar bear exhibit,” Ryan said, adding that a successful zoo is an “economic catalyst” for the city and region.
In the meantime, a $238,000 demolition of the former bear exhibit is expected to begin in November and carry through January, with about 25 percent of the old stone to be saved for use in the new habitat.
The construction process will begin the following month, with trenches built under the bedrock for utility installation. Fernandes said she hopes the exhibit will open in September 2015, after the coniferous plants that will provide a more natural setting for the bears have become established and are able to withstand the rough treatment they’ll be subjected to by the bears.
As the fundraising effort continues, people wishing to contribute can go to buffalozoo.org.
“We hope the public will help us get over the goal line and please support us in our final push to get this done,” Fernandes said.