Natural growth: Zoo wants to expand Asia exhibit to show off elephants

By Christie Tapp

The Journal Record


OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma City Zoo plans to expand its elephant exhibit to accommodate a surge in growth.


“The Asian exhibit has been widely popular for the last couple of years, so we’re hoping to expand on that,” said Dwight Lawson, Oklahoma City Zoo executive director.


The expansion includes a rhino and Komodo dragon exhibit with a two-story restaurant overlooking the elephants. Lawson said the last time a restaurant was built, in 2000, the zoo saw 600,000 visitors a year. Since 2014, the zoo has seen more than 1 million visitors every year, he said.


“We’re trying to continue that trend and catch up to provide amenities such as food service and air conditioned spaces for guests,” Lawson said. “The rationale was not only to provide an exhibit but to also produce revenue-generating operations like food service.”


Torre Design Consortium President Ace Torre, who designed the first phase of the Asian exhibit, said there will be small exhibits centered on a broad concept.


Torre said the exhibits will start with the Komodo dragon exhibit, which will have cranes and primates on either side of the entrance. As people walk through the first exhibit there will be the Thai temple that will include a restaurant, he said.


“This exhibit is at the farthest end of the park, so at that point you’ll probably be hungry or thirsty,” Torre said. “So we’ll give them air conditioning and a great place to sit and watch the exhibits. And a place where the kids can play and have fun, so it’s a great destination.”


Torre said the first phase just included elephants and rhinos separately; now they could roam together.

“Based on compatibility, we might run the outside exhibits together,” Torre said. “If you find compatible groups, then it’s interesting to see in the exhibit, what goes on in the wild.”


Torre said he also has to consider lighting and space to make sure each animal is comfortable and safe.

“We’re designing these for exotic animals, but we’re also designing for the creatures that buy tickets at the gate,” Torres said. “Giving each one a comfort and a multitude of activities is important.”


There will also be a splash pad for children near the exhibits, and the temple can be turned into an event center, he added.


“It will be a wonderful facility both in the daytime and at night,” he added.


Torre said when the expansion is completed it will be 15 acres that could be expanded to 20 acres without breaching the zoo’s property or other exhibits. The estimated cost is $13.5 million, and it’s expected to open in 2019.


Lawson said phase II is part of the zoo’s long-term master plan that began with the elephants and will expand to other sections of the park.


“We’re working on the next big project for where the rhinos are and turning that into the Africa exhibit, and the pachyderm building will be event space,” Lawson said. “We’re also looking into what’s next for the aquatics building that needs some TLC.”