NAPLES — Imagine if you can, this scene in Africa after drought has forced ranchers to abandon their land. With nothing to keep them out, some of the region’s wildlife has taken over the home. Powerful lions have claimed the veranda and a herd of tall giraffe wander about the grounds.
Now imagine wandering through an entry portal and across a winding bridge to explore the ruined site. As you step inside the house, deadly snakes slither across the nearby floor or coil on the bed. Further inside, moving a curtain reveals a scorpion or a gigantic baboon spider crawling through the cupboards. In the servant’s house, playful monkeys explore the kitchen while leopards make their way through a fallen-down corner of the barn or lounge in the trees just over head.
Unlike any traditional day at the zoo, this thrilling experience will soon be part of an innovative and highly interactive new 5-acre, $3 million coastal Africa exhibit scheduled to open at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens sometime in 2013-14.
Though the idea of developing a section of the zoo dedicated to presenting coastal Africa has been under consideration for the past several years, the abandoned ranch is an all-new brainstorm that will allow guests to experience the animals and learn about the region more comprehensively than ever before.
“This new exhibit will make visitors feel as if they’ve been transported to Africa and are stepping in to an ongoing story that will both educate and delight them,” says Gail Garratt a member of the zoo’s board of directors. “It will provide guests with a very tangible experience that is completely new. I believe it will ultimately change the way that zoos everywhere create exhibits in the future.”
“This concept is completely original,” says the Zoo’s Executive Director, David Tetzlaff. “Our goal is to build exhibits that will excite a sense of curiosity and discovery. Coastal Africa will be chock full of experiences that will surprise the senses and create an element of what we call ‘safe danger.’”
The new area will be designed to allow for frequent changes in order to continually keep the display fresh and interesting.
Since the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens first opened its doors nearly half a century ago, conservation and innovation have been hallmarks of the facility that has traditionally sought to provide guests with an interesting and intimate window for viewing and learning about the natural world. That passion for presenting the planet’s most fascinating animals in environments that prompt curiosity and appreciation was a key motivation behind this latest and perhaps most pioneering plan for an animal exhibit to date.
According to Tetzlaff, the idea for the abandoned ranch was conceived by him and his wife, Kelly, the Zoo’s General Curator, while they were traveling several months ago.
“The original idea was to create a Coastal African-themed village that guests could wander through and explore,” said Tetzlaff. “But we realized that we would need more room to display small animals than the huts would have provided. The Abandoned Ranch idea finally hit me while I was driving down a long stretch of highway.”
Tetzlaff adds that the new exhibit continues the zoo’s tradition of innovation and education.
“The Black Bear Hammock which opened in 2009 was a preview of the originality that we are capable of,” he said. “The abandoned ranch concept will allow us to take that ingenuity much further. There is simply nothing like it at any other zoo anywhere.”
Tetzlaff said specifics are still being finalized, but the new exhibit will feature reptiles, mammals and birds that have never been displayed at the zoo before in addition the new giraffe herd and a 25,000-square-foot lion enclosure.
“Our new lion exhibit will be among the largest in the world,” said Tetzlaff, who adds that the plan is ultimately to build a full pride.
In keeping with their conservation initiative, the zoo plans to breed lions in the new area as well, and to use the exhibit as a vehicle for describing Africa’s conservation successes and failures over the past several decades. A meet the keeper and lion-feeding encounter will also be offered within the new exhibit as well.
According to Tetzlaff, the Abandoned Ranch will include a raised platform where visitors can feed the giraffe and view them at eye level. The current giraffe enclosure will be used as a behind-the-scenes area to care for the herd once the new exhibit is built.
Coastal Africa will be built on about 5-acres of land already managed by the zoo in the northeast area of the property. Based on current estimates, the new exhibit will cost an estimated $3 million and fundraising efforts are already underway. In addition to their annual Gala and support from donors, the zoo is also partnering with local community-minded firms to help raise the funds necessary to complete the project.
Owners of Culinary Concepts, owners of the popular Pazzo Cucina Italiana, Chops City Grill and Yabba Island Grill restaurants on Fifth Avenue South in Naples and long-time supporter of family-centered charities, are doing their part to help the zoo achieve its goal. From Dec. 5-11 the restaurant group will host the Zoo Crawl — a progressive dinner and cocktail safari to help raise money for the new project.
“The Zoo Crawl will offer a terrific gourmet meal with stops at each of our three Fifth Avenue restaurants,” says Culinary Concepts Director of Operations, Jennifer Chin. “There will be unique appetizers, a great selection of fine international wines and a choice of several delicious entrées.”
Culinary Concepts owner, Skip Quillen said he is happy to help the zoo raise funds towards their exciting new initiative.
“The zoo is a great organization that benefits everyone in the community,” Quillen said. “We’re very glad to do our part to help.”
For tickets or more information about the Zoo Crawl, call Culinary Concepts at 298-5105.