Topeka — Unrealistic cost estimates and substandard design planning has forced the Topeka Zoo to modify some new exhibits and place several planned exhibits on hold in order to meet internal standards and federal regulations.
Construction on the hyena exhibit, which is approximately $15,000 from completion, has stopped. The Creatures of Darkness and African Aviary projects have also been delayed. Meanwhile, the pool in the river otter display — part of the Kansas Carnivores exhibit opened in September — is being replaced, as it most likely doesn’t meet federal standards, said zoo director Brendan Wiley.
All four projects are part of the $5 million Zoo Tomorrow campaign.
The need to go back to the drawing board is in part due to what Friends of the Topeka Zoo executive director Kate Larison said was lackluster communication from previous zoo management.
“We were relying on the former management to provide us what we needed,” she said, “and we’re finding that we have to go back and make some modifications to these exhibits to ensure they meet guidelines and make sure they provide good safety for the animals.”
These problems aren’t completely surprising to those near the Topeka Zoo. In January, an Association of Zoos and Aquariums team criticized the facility for its exhibit planning.
The three-member team’s report said not including zoo staff members in the design process resulted in inadequate consideration of animal care needs on the front end and costly fixes on the back end.
The report also said zoo staff members shared a common concern that new exhibits were getting “fast-tracked with mediocre quality.” That was certainly true of the Kansas Carnivores exhibit, Wiley said.
“I don’t think there is any doubt it was done on the cheap,” he said.
Part of the problem is in the funding process for new zoo exhibits.
In municipalities, Wiley said, you often get support for a project based on a preliminary cost estimate. When the zoo realizes a project actually costs more, “it starts looking for corners to cut.” That reality, Wiley said, can make for some tricky conversations with donors that think their money is covering a certain amount of a project when it isn’t.
The hyena exhibit could be completed for about $15,000, Wiley said. But that is for a bare-bones exhibit.
“I believe people don’t just want animals behind a fence,” he said. “They want an experience.”
That experience could be achieved by creating more continuity between the hyenas and the nearby lions, a segue between the two that better tells a naturalistic story.