HOUSTON — On a muggy August morning, even some of the tropical animals at the Houston Zoo looked weary of summer, draping laconically over rocks or huddled in the shade.
By this time next year, however, the zoo’s three jaguars, along with its tapirs, anteaters, capybaras, rheas and macaws may feel slightly more at home. They will have new digs in immersive exhibits that mimic South America’s Pantanal, their native habitat. A family of giant river otters and a giant anaconda coming from other zoos will join them.
Occupying 55 acres, the Houston Zoo is relatively small — half the size of the San Diego Zoo’s main campus, about one-fifth the size of the Bronx Zoo, and far more intimate than the 750-acre Zoo Miami. But in the 21st century, bigger doesn’t automatically mean better.
The standard of excellence now is to exhibit fewer animals in realistic, immersive native habitats that inspire visitors and encourage support for conservation programs. And in those capacities, Houston’s operation is fast becoming a leader.
Ahead of schedule with a $150 million fundraising capital campaign that will transform nearly half of the zoo in time for its 2022 centennial, president and CEO Lee Ehmke already is talking about Phase II of the organization’s 20-year master plan to reconfigure the rest of the campus into experiential zones based on geographic ecosystems rather than animal types. Those improvements are subject to another round of major fundraising.
“Houston is a city that gets things done,” Ehmke said, noting the help of patrons who have been more generous than expected.
He obviously gets things done, too. A landscape architect known for his ability to balance zoo experience for animals, visitors and staff, he helped pioneer the move to native habitats with a landmark Congo exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1999. “Place-based design,” as he calls it, doesn’t just give captive animals more humane living conditions. It also teaches visitors about relationships between species and ecosystems.
Each space he has designed has had different parameters, Ehmke said. After years of working in the huge, urban environs of the Bronx Zoo, he directed the 500-acre Minnesota Zoo for about 15 years. Almost every square inch of the Houston Zoo’s land is built on already, and it has nowhere to grow. “It’s a fun challenge, especially while keeping our front door open,” Ehmke said.
The zoo’s evolution began before he arrived, after the operation was privatized in 2002. Houston Zoo Inc. has invested more than $135 million in improvements since then. That includes $123 million raised since the centennial campaign launched in April 2018, but also includes previous developments such as the African Forest exhibits that opened in 2010 and 2015 and enhanced elephant habitats that opened in 2008 and 2017.
Native Houstonian Michele Cruz was recently at the zoo with her friend Michelle Ellis and Ellis’ two young children to see the temporary dinosaur exhibit. She also was using her membership for the first time. Cruz said she has been coming to the zoo since she was a kid, and she appreciates the changes. She wants the animals to be comfortable. She does not miss the polar bears, who were long ago deemed inappropriate for Houston. She also remembers when the gorillas were enclosed in a concrete room with no natural light.
“I do kinda miss when it was free, but you could tell it was free,” she said.
Its significant transformation puts the zoo’s progress on par with other cultural projects that have elevated the city in the past decade, including the reinvention of its biggest parks, major museum expansions and the building of performing arts facilities such as the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston and the Houston Ballet Center for Dance.
Phase I projects include last year’s expansion of the black bear enclosure and major upgrade of the Cypress Circle Cafe; the Texas wetlands exhibit that opened in May; the Pantanal exhibit, due around Memorial Day next year; a reconfigured aviary coming in 2021; and a really big splash in 2022 — a dramatic rethinking of the entrance, featuring a Galapagos Island experience that will be the first of its kind.
The internationally recognized, 64-acre Fort Worth Zoo also has a $100 million improvement campaign underway, with spectacular new African exhibits, including a hippo habitat that may be one of the best in the world. With the guarantee of more to come, however, Houston Zoo’s efforts look particularly ambitious.
“We have big zones mapped out but no details yet,” Ehmke said. The master plan calls for future exhibits inspired by tropical Asia, new African exhibits for savanna animals and an improved children’s zoo focused on Texas habitats. Ehmke also envisions a satellite zoo in the Houston region for hoofed animals who need more space to roam, akin to San Diego Zoo’s 1,800-acre safari park.
Beyond the building projects, the current campaign devotes about $5 million to conservation. All accredited zoos contribute to saving animals in the wild with their field work, and Houston Zoo’s efforts are both local and global. It raises and releases hundreds of endangered Attwater’s prairie chickens each year, for example, as well as endangered Houston toads.
But Ehmke also has adopted a somewhat new approach. The zoo supports nearly 50 projects initiated by others in focused areas around the globe, he said. “Our model is to find local organizations on the ground and find ways to support them.” That could mean just about anything: paying the salaries of biologists working remotely, guiding fledgling organizations, supporting volunteer and education programs or helping to design websites.
Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the nonprofit Association of Zoos & Aquariums, called Houston Zoo “a leader in the rapid evolution of modern zoos and aquariums.” With an engaging leader in Ehmke and a strong philanthropic tradition, it has seen results quickly, in ways that Ashe believes will inspire zoos in other cities. He cited Omaha, Nebraska’s top-ranked Henry Doorly Zoo, which has been heavily supported by Warren Buffett, as another rising star.
Zoo Miami, the Phoenix Zoo and the Monterrey Bay Aquarium also exemplify the association’s vision of an excellent zoo: “A purposeful, mission-driven conservation organization wrapped around an attraction,” Ashe said. “Houston Zoo lives that and drives it.” He adores Houston’s year-old slogan, “See them. Save them,” he added. “It represents what we want all of our members to be: places where visitors are entertained, engaged and leave with a sense of responsibility to help save animals in the wild.”
Houston’s commitment extends to its retail practices (no more single-use plastics) as well as environmentally friendly buildings and operations; while also making life better for its creatures. The zoo is home to about 900 species, with thousands of animals; but Ehmke aims to reduce those numbers. The goal is fewer species of animals in a better context, including natural social groupings, he said. “If you’re going to have elephants, you want 10, not just two, because that’s how they should live.”
The new exhibits make environmental sense, too. The Pantanal, which stretches across south-central Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay, was not a random choice. The zoo already supports the conservation of endangered jaguars, macaws and tapirs in the wild there.
While less familiar to many people than the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland, with a density of species rivaling that of Africa’s Serengeti. Like Houston, it has a hot, humid climate and open-plain grassland that floods dramatically. “We’re going with our strengths, to provide our animals with the best environments possible,” Ehmke said.
Chief operating officer Sheryl Kolasinski, who is managing the construction, sounded as enthused as a nature-loving 10-year-old during a tour of the Pantanal site in July. She stood in an expanse of mounded dirt with deep crevices where a maze of pipes were going in. “It takes a lot of engineering to have a natural environment,” she said. “The life-support system supports the behavior and health of the animals. Some want to be in water all the time. Some bathe in the water, use the restroom in the water.”
Kolasinski visited the actual Pantanal last year with Ehmke and others, a trip that inspired them to add an aviary to the plan. “The bird life was phenomenal and huge. We saw dozens and dozens of species,” Kolasinski said. “I’m not a birder, and I was totally enthralled and captivated by their behavior.”
While jabirus won’t be in the mix — those fascinating storks don’t travel — a huge nest atop a tree snag will bring a hint at their existence. (Three in-house exhibit fabricators have spent months sculpting faux limbs and roots in a barn that once held hoofed animals to create that and other new sights.)
Kolasinski also can’t wait to see the jaguars in their new habitat. “They are the apex predator, solitary hunters, out prowling the beaches along the river,” she said. “You’ll be able to see them at eye level and above you. A plank across the visitors path will allow them to go over you.
“We think it’s OK to have predator and prey see each other,” she added. “The jaguar’s principal diet in Brazil is caymans. Which seems like a really difficult lunch, doesn’t it? And river otters have been known to intimidate jaguars. They gang up and charge the shore and tell the jaguar to get lost. It’s a very exciting mix of animals.”
A few weeks ago, Kolasinski, Ehmke and other team leaders visited the Galapagos, partly to build a reference library of images that will help them refine details of the campaign’s signature project — so they can realistically replicate textures, colors and plants. Kolasinski was blown away by nature’s contrasts there — black volcanic rock covered in white guano; red and green iguanas, “and six colors of turquoise you can’t even name.”
“The reason it’s spectacular is that it is a place of animals,” she added. “Every plant is there because it depends on them in some way. It’s just a beautifully coordinated ecosystem.”
And almost nowhere else on Earth is the need for conservation as acute as in the islands that greatly influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The exhibit displays will contain copious messaging about reducing the use of plastics to conserve aquatic species — “a really a big story in the Galapagos,” Kolasinski said.
The zoo’s exhibit renderings show dramatic things coming with the Galapagos displays: a cliffside habitat for the sea lions; fresh ground for tortoises and iguanas and underwater displays with sharks and rays. As spectacular as it sounds, that project is also inherently practical.
“When you enter the zoo now, you don’t see any animals. This will bring our sea lions front and center, so you will be drawn in,” Kolasinski said. “It’s wonderful to have a species that’s in motion, active and playful, right at the front door. We love our African lions, but they sleep a lot.”
The redesign includes a new arrival plaza to smooth entry for the zoo’s 2.4 million annual visitors; a new event hall and terrace; a new casual café; and enhancements to the historic reflection pool and its garden. Shady viewing areas, as close as possible to the animals, are a given for making people more comfortable. But so is enhanced navigation, with wayfinding clues such as colored paths and coordinated plantings. The zoo may not be all that big, but visitors often get lost winding their way through.
“Realistically, we have to meet people where they are,” Ehmke said. “They are not necessarily coming to hike in nature. We’re in the middle of a city park. They bring strollers and babies.”