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Work Continues on Alabama’s ’The Little Zoo That Could’

When completed, the project will have one important feature that makes it unigue among zoos across the world.

Wed April 03, 2013 - National Edition
Cindy Riley

An Alabama zoo that made national headlines in the midst of two hurricanes is poised to make history again. Land has been cleared for the new Gulf Shores facility that will become the world’s first environmentally sustainable zoo.

“It won’t be conventional in any sense,” stated noted builder and architect Dennis Thomas, who designed the vertical zoo. “This is about thinking outside the box and creating a place that’s safe for animals and good for the environment.”

The new Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo will sit on elevated terrain protecting it from flooding due to hurricane storm surge, and the entire facility will be constructed to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds. It will aim for the highest recognition in environmental sustainability through LEED, which is Platinum certification. Structures and materials used will be non-toxic, natural or organic, biodegradable and recyclable. Alternative power sources will be used including solar panels, wind turbines, ground source heating pumps, ultraviolet light and propagated algae as a biofuel.

“It’s off the grid and totally green,” said Thomas, who has worked on projects all over the world and helped design parts of the San Diego Zoo, as well as the Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. “We’ve tried to keep the natural flow of the land. We’ve got about 43 total acres of property, and we are extremely excited to have the opportunity to build a zoo that will be user-friendly and show people how they too can have a positive impact on the environment.”

The new zoo, which has received the official go ahead from the Gulf Shores city council, will use the latest green technologies behind-the-scenes during daily operations and will offer educational displays and exhibits to help visitors understand how the future is being brought into the present.

According to zoo Board Chairman Steve Jones, “A significant amount of groundwork has been performed at the new location, and an evacuation building has already been constructed. A number of funding grants have been submitted and are under consideration, and we have two individuals out seeking donors and funding from sources well outside this area. This project will gain worldwide attention once we begin going vertical, and we believe that will trigger other interests that want to be a part of this amazing new project.”

All of the earthwork has been completed for enough zoo to be built and opened. The maintenance building is the current office of new zoo development and will serve as construction offices and storage. The lakes are in and parking has been laid. During construction, crews used primarily John Deere equipment to complete a variety of tasks. Two large track hoes were used to dig the lakes, while front-end loaders relocated the soil that had to be moved in place. Close to $2 million has been spent on land preparation.

Construction was overseen by David Hall, who said the new zoo will be like nothing visitors have experienced before. In preparing the land, crews had to deal with long-abandoned farmland that included small ponds and oaks, much like a pasture.

“We left the area pretty much as is, because it looked like an African plain, said. Thomas. “For some of the work we relied on a flatblade dozer, a road grader and an aggregate for the road itself.

“With the lakes, for example, we had to lay things out and determine the amount of earth to be removed, which was around 3,000 cubic yards. One lake is five feet higher, and there are two lemur islands. The lemurs don’t swim, so the keeper, wearing rubber boots, will use a two-foot deep sunken walkway to service both islands.”

Jones pointed out, “The first goal will be to build enough infrastructure to move the animal population and get the operation up and running. That would entail night houses, a couple of exhibits, the gift shop and staff areas. The major larger areas of the zoo will grow as revenues allow. The entire project is not designed to be built out all at once, as the construction of new things is part of the evolution of the zoo. It lends interest and keeps things fresh for visitors. We’re hopeful that by end of this summer some funding sources will have been identified, materials can be ordered and construction can commence.”

Located less than a mi. north of the Gulf of Mexico, the current zoo was threatened by rising waters during 2004’s Hurricane Ivan and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. A total of 270 animals had to be evacuated to zoo director Patti Hall’s Elberta home before both storms. The full-scale evacuation even prompted a prime-time Animal Planet series that generated record attendance and donations to the nonprofit park. The show inspired local business owner Clyde Weir and his daughter Andrea Weir Franklin to initially donate 25 acres, so the zoo could relocate to a flood-resistant area just north of Baldwin County 6.

According to Hall, who appeared on “Good Morning America” and was named ABC News’ Person of the Week after the evacuation, “We all knew what our purpose was and that was to save those animals’ lives, no matter what. All that we’ve gone through, everything we do now is for the well being of our animals, first and foremost. They are unbelievable motivators.”

Zoo officials tease that while they feature all kinds of footprints, none of them will be of the carbon kind. The construction materials and sustainable practices of a green zoo make it less costly to build and maintain. Structures built to house not only the animals, but also to serve visitors, incorporate gradient heating and cooling which reduce utility expenses and keep everything produced by the zoo at the facility. For instance, waste water is treated and used elsewhere in the facility and used to grow food and fuel for the animals. Solid animal waste can be converted to fertilizers and nutrients that can be sold or used internally.

“As far as animal safety, the structures that will be built can be designed and constructed to more accurately reflect the animals’ native environment,” Jones stated. “They’ll be able to be in closer proximity to the visitors, which they enjoy. Animals need as much interaction with the public as much as we desire to see them.”

Funding for the new zoo, however, remains a key issue.

“Our project worksheets total between 25 to 28 million dollars for the entire project, were it to be built all at one time. For the initial construction, that would facilitate relocating and opening at the new location. We are in the neighborhood of eight and ten million dollars,” Jones said.

“Our designers tell us that with enough funding we could build enough zoo within a year. The most challenging part of the process is being patient. Each day that passes at the current location is a risk, because each season may bring a potentially devastating storm that could require another evacuation. Also, keeping the excitement level where it needs to be for this to happen has been difficult, as over time, many in the area have come to believe this project will not happen.”

Jones continued, “It’s taken a long time to get to this point. During that time there have been economic crashes nationally, major storms, the Deepwater Horizon Incident that threatened to destroy the entire economy of the Alabama Gulf Coast, and, of course, the challenge of searching for and being unable to secure funding for this project. It’s a multitude of things, but were it not for some of these delays, we would not have the grand plan that this zoo has evolved into.”

Jones stated that tourism will be a big part of the new zoo, which has experienced numerous obstacles.

“The ’Little Zoo That Could’ series captured the hearts of people all over the world. Fans of our zoo understand the fragile nature of the current location and want to see their beloved animals and friends in a safe place. As for the Gulf Coast, we are a region of doers. Although this area is vulnerable to natural disaster on a regular basis, each time we are challenged, what emerges is a stronger, more innovative community that is even better prepared for whatever happens. This one-of-a-kind project, first of its kind that we know of, will encourage not only zoo enthusiasts, but also design and construction engineers from around the world. This fascinating operation will draw visitors all year long, not just during the heavy summer tourism season.”

The new facility also will offer educational opportunities for veterinary, construction and engineering students.

“We can envision educational curriculum that uses the zoo as a living, working laboratory for the future of construction and animal care. It’s mind boggling to consider, but we would hope that a major university would express an interest in building an additional campus in close proximity, in order to have course offerings not available anywhere else.

“As far as day-to-day operations,” said Thomas, “Right now we’re maintaining what we’ve already done as far as preparing the property. We tried to keep the flow of the land and support the wildlife already there. When developing vertically, you can have a positive impact on the land itself.”

The zoo will supply its own water using captured runoff collection in basins, wells and reservoirs, in addition to growing some of its own food through special gardening. Waste and sewage management will be controlled onsite through composting, recycling and incineration and has been described as becoming its own eco-system.

According to Thomas, it was important not to become overwhelmed by the design process, which called for an off-site building for maintenance and an animal hospital to be constructed early on. For Thomas and his team, long hours were invested in hopes of mapping out the appropriate designs.

“I’ve learned a lot from being involved in this line of work for about 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of mistakes made. I know what works and what doesn’t. The whole idea is about developing land that doesn’t have to destroy the environment and that can actually improve it. Also, consumers can learn from this new zoo, as far as applying these techniques to their own homes. If it can work here, it can work anywhere.

“We’ll take the existing population at the old zoo and have a nice environment to come to, relocating them the first year to the new site and then closing the old one. Among the new exhibits will be one featuring the black rhino and a tiger splash. We’ll use a freight container for housing the tigers at night. There’s a tunnel that keepers can use like a cave. The outdoor structure is like a giant mountain with waterfalls, and you’ll see this Indonesian-style rock that’s weathered and eroded. The container is great because it’s recycled and already built. It’s safe for the animals because it’s strong, with a weight of 643,000 pounds.”

Zoo officials even unveiled a billboard on Alabama Route 59 announcing their plans for the new zoo, while also introducing a pair of rare Bengal cubs that make the zoo the only one in the country to boast a tiger in each of the species’ four color variations. Right off the same highway, a $3 million indoor water park also is being planned on 27 acres of land. Developers say Oceans Park will complement the zoo. The indoor water park will reportedly include everything from diving, snorkeling and up close marine life. Once zoo construction begins, the water park will follow.

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