Zoo Boise plans expansion, hopes to further conservation mission

A rendering of a portion of the new Zoo Boise expansion. Courtesy Zoo Boise.

A rendering of a portion of the new Zoo Boise expansion. Courtesy Zoo Boise.

For the first time in more than 35 years, Zoo Boise is expanding its footprint in Boise’s Julia Davis Park - with big plans to revamp portions of the existing facility in the process.

A young zoo visitor feeds animals during a visit this spring. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com

A young zoo visitor feeds animals during a visit this spring. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev.com

The zoo just completed a $9 million capital campaign and is in the process of putting together final plans with hopes of beginning construction in early 2018.

More than just a fresh coat of paint and new exhibits, the expansion is centered on the zoo’s evolving mission to help drive conservation funds and increase education for zoo-goers about the challenges the environment and many species of animals face.

“What we want when you come to the park - is yes, we want you to have a good time.  We also want you to learn about animals and ecosystems and all that,” Zoo Boise Director Steve Burns said. “Unfortunately it’s not enough anymore. The world needs more than that.”

A decade ago, the city-owned zoo added a small conservation fee to gate admission - the first zoo to do so in the country according to Burns.  It also added some upcharge experiences once inside - including the ability to feed the zoo’s giraffes or take a solar-powered boat ride - with those funds also going to conservation efforts. In all, more than $2.3 million has been raised for the effort.

“We have turned the act of visiting the zoo into a conservation action,” Burns said.

Site plan of the new Gorongosa area of the zoo. Click to enlarge.

The expansion will focus on two key conservation partnerships.  The first is the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique - an area ravaged by conflict.

“It was this incredible park that was destroyed in 25 years of war in that country,” Burns said. “In the process, that park was destroyed and pretty much all of the mammals were killed and most of them were eaten by hungry people - hungry soldiers.”

Idaho-born philanthropist Greg Carr has dedicated his life and wealth toward restoring the park.  Carr built a career in the high-tech industry by developing an early voicemail system and serving as chairman of internet service provider Prodigy.  He was born in Idaho Falls - and helped bring Zoo Boise into the effort to restore Gorongosa.

Now the zoo is planning to bring a piece of Gorongosa to Boise. The zoo will bump out into Julia Davis Park and add another 1.5 acres to its footprint on the side of the zoo furthest from the entrance.  The new area will be combined with an area currently used for events like Boo at the Zoo, allowing for the Gorongosa exhibit. New animals like Nile crocodiles, hyenas, baboons, warthogs and nyala will be featured.

Site plan of the new entry area of the zoo. Click to enlarge.

At the front part of the zoo, the current primate house and aviaries will be removed - areas built in the late 1960s.

“They were good exhibits at the time, but we just can’t do anything to bring them up to modern zoological standards,” Burns said.

That space will be reimagined into a new area with visitor amenities and a few new exhibits -- right up front where attendees enter the zoo.

The exhibits here will focus on another conservation project - helping to protect the Annamite Mountains between Vietnam and Laos.  Teams of teens at the zoo have been working for several years on a project to fight poaching in that region.

“By featuring animals from the Annamite Mountains, it gives those teams a larger platform to deliver their conservation message,” Burns said.  The gibbons who currently reside in that portion of the zoo will get new digs in the Annamite Mountains exhibit.

A new event space with a stage, picnic facilities and more will be placed near the entrance to replace the current spot in the back of the zoo.

Right now, the zoo jockeys with the Sun Valley Resort for the title of most-visited paid attraction in the State of Idaho - and is consistently the most-visited spot in the Treasure Valley.

Nearly 350,000 visits were made to the zoo in 2016, and Burns hopes the additions will begin to nudge attendance toward the 400,000 mark.

More visitors will help drive the zoo’s conservation drive even further.

“Visitors have generated about $2.3 million for conservation,” over ten years according to Burns. “We have turned the act of visiting the zoo into a conservation action. We don’t want to build any more exhibits that aren’t tied to our existing conservation projects.”

Beyond the far-flung efforts in Africa and Asia, some of the conservation funds are going to projects close to home.  

“Last year when Table Rock burned, we put $100k in conservation fees toward the restoration,” he said. He hopes that’s the first of many projects.

“People love the foothills. The sagebrush steppe ecosystem where we live is one of the most endangered in the country. We hope to partner with Boise Parks and Recreation on the foothills and open space and get more involved in restoration efforts and habitat efforts.”

Friends of Zoo Boise is one of the 700 causes that is signed up for Idaho Gives 2017. Donors can make a contribution online on May 4th with proceeds going toward the zoo. Throughout the day, random donations will be matched from an award pool. (Disclosure: Day365 which operates BoiseDev is also handling media and PR services for Idaho Gives).

The expansion will further cement Zoo Boise’s spot in the heart of Julia Davis Park - just a short walk from Downtown. The zoo expansion will join a complete revamp of the Idaho Historical Museum, a new walkway connecting the park to 5th Street and other projects.

“Julia Davis Park is a unique park in the city,” Burns said. “It’s the cultural attractions park of Boise. We would hope that if the City continues to grow and our cultural attractions get better, we’re right here in the middle of all that. It’s great to be right downtown - you can see the giraffes sticking their head up over the fence.”

If everything goes well, plans will be presented to the City of Boise’s building and planning folks this fall, with the expansion fully open after a year of construction and four months of theming by summer of 2019.