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Archive for Monday, September 6, 2004

Preserved animals newest attraction at Salina zoo

September 6, 2004

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— Michael Panzer was up on an automated lift taking careful measurements of what will soon be the exhibition area at the Rolling Hills Zoo & Wildlife Museum.

His work was exacting.

"This will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people," said Panzer, the zoo's construction engineer.

For the past five years, the zoo has specialized in exhibits featuring more than 85 species of exotic and endangered animals.

Now, zoo officials are working on an expansion that promises to make it the caretaker of one of the world's largest preserved -- or mounted -- animal collections.

The new museum is scheduled to open in January. It will take visitors on a walk around the world -- through Africa, the Far East and North America -- and introduce them not only to exotic animals but to plants and cultures as well.

One of the rarest animals in the collection is the Saiga antelope. The museum's has one of the few mounted Saiga antelopes in North America. The antelopes are usually found in the steppes and semi-deserts of Russia and Mongolia.

Through the placement of more than 1,500 mounted animals, careful landscaping and automated robots telling stories, visitors will see animals gathering at an African river, the Great Wall of China and in the Arctic.

They will see a 14-foot-tall bull elephant, polar bears, hippos, zebras, tigers -- and much more.

Less than a decade ago, when the zoo was built, officials came across mounted animals in museums that were for sale and needed care.

"We decided in 1997 that we would build a small museum of preserved animals to show the animals we can't keep -- such as the moose and polar bear -- and do it tastefully," said Bob Brown, director of the zoo. "At that time, we thought it would be a 10,000-square-foot project."

The largest collection came from a museum in California whose director wanted to see his collection remain together rather than being dismantled or even destroyed. Brown said Rolling Hills wanted to preserve the preserved animals.

"He had the largest full-mount specimens in North America," Brown said. "He was ill. It was a beautiful collection that would go to waste and ruin.

"I told him I will give these animals the honor and dignity they deserve. Ten thousand square feet suddenly became 64,000 square feet."

Brown said he's convinced that when the museum opens in January, it will be the best wildlife museum in the world.

"There is nothing like it anywhere," Brown said.

As Kathy Tolbert, the zoo's marketing director, explains it, zoo officials wanted to let the average landlocked Kansan learn about animals and habitats they might otherwise never get a chance to see.

"In this museum, people can sojourn through a rain forest, past the Great Wall of China," Brown said. "It allows our visitors to experience nature in new kinds of ways."

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