Over five years, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry wants $5 million spent annually on the city-owned Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, with the zoo’s providing an equal match.
Jacksonville Zoo Executive Director Tony Vecchio said the total $50 million would mean big changes to how the zoo looks and feels. He said a visit to the zoo is more than just looking at animals nowadays — zoos are becoming more interactive and educational.
The mayor’s proposal comes at the perfect time as the zoo has just finished its master plan, he said.
“We have, kind of, the next 10 years of the zoo mapped out,” Vecchio said.
And the changes will start right when the public walks in. A new entrance with a state-of-the-art manatee exhibit with underwater viewing would highlight the zoo’s conservation and animal welfare mission, he said.
“Most zoos that have an entryway, have some big, dramatic first impression exhibit at their entrance,” he said. “We don’t have that. We would like to have that.”
The zoo is currently laid out in a long, one-way path, but it’ll be transformed into two loops. One will provide access to the train, and the other loop will have a separate feature, which hasn’t been decided.
“Many young people on the staff really like the idea of zip lines,” Vecchio said. “Or we could do something else maybe more traditional like a ferris wheel.”
While he said the zoo’s award-winning exhibits, like the tiger and jaguar enclosures, probably won’t change, others will be revamped. That means a new lion exhibit, for instance.
“We’d like all of our big cats to be at that level,” he said.
He also wants to finish the Asia loop, adding more animals like orangutans, gibbons and another big mammal, which hasn’t been decided. He said an Asian bear or rhino could be in the cards, but said it’s too hot in Florida for pandas without an indoor space.
He also said the Africa area will probably be upgraded. And there will be brand new Wild Florida and Australian areas with additional animals, which haven’t been decided.
Vecchio said the zoo also needs a new veterinary hospital. He envisions it as a wellness center that visitors would be allowed to tour.
“We’re one of only four zoos in the country that have full-time, paid staff working on animal wellness issues,” he said.
The zoo will also expand into some undeveloped land it already owns. And practical changes would include improved parking.
Vecchio said there’s a lot of work ahead on the zoo’s part to raise the $25 million match over the next five years.
The Jacksonville City Council will also have to approve this upcoming year’s proposed $5 million allocation.