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Happier trails for Spring River Park and Zoo; Architect offers new ideas to improve zoo quality and visitor experience

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Zoo staff Andrea Cole and Harmony Gedde along with community member Judy Stubbs, gaze on the current map, the second phase of development, and a final conceptual plan made by MRWM Landscape Architects at the General Services Committee workshop at the end of the meeting on Tuesday night. (Alison Penn Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

On Tuesday evening, Robert Loftis, landscape architect, presented the zoo master plan with practical changes and future potential for Spring River Park and Zoo at the General Services Committee’s workshop with 47 community members in attendance at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Based out of Albuquerque, Loftis is a consultant at Morrow Reardon Wilkinson Miller Landscape Architects (MRWM), the firm that drafted the zoo’s master plan.

With current conditions, Loftis said there is a fork in the road for the zoo. Loftis said the daily upkeep by the zoo staff is immaculate and shows care from the staff, but the infrastructure is in dire need of an update. The previous forum meeting took place Oct. 25. Surveys about admission and thoughts on the zoo have also been sent out by the city.

The zoo has been under scrutiny from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) focusing on the black bear and mountain lion exhibits as covered previously by the Daily Record

“Everything I have heard from every meeting and every comment from people is that they really love the zoo, and they want to support it,” Loftis said. “I don’t think anyone is surprised that it is going to take a big effort. The overall budget number isn’t something that should paralyze us because it is such a pie in the sky future vision. There are immediate things that we can focus on that are attainable.”

Potential changes

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In the presentation, Loftis shared an overview of the current 6-acre zoo, recommendations for improvement, a bold vision for the future and interim steps to keep the zoo progressing.

For primary updates, Loftis suggested creating one entrance to aid security measures and to gather data and monitor who is using the zoo. Charging admission and closing the perimeter is another change encouraged by MRWM to help fund the changes.

“I think the community would get behind the admission if it meant helping the animals and helping the community as a whole,” Harmony Gedde, another zookeeper, said. “A dollar here or $5 for your family is not going to put most members of the community down.”

Cohesion in signage written in English and Spanish and features such as trash receptacles, benches and picnic tables are another part of the vision to give a sense of continuity and organization. Loftis suggested new shade features throughout the zoo and compliance with American Disabilities Act for parking lots and paths.

Mapping out the utilities is another imperative action that may be required in the future since there is no precise survey according to Loftis. The state of the Siberian elm trees, the state and safety of the play area, and chainlink fence were some of the issues Loftis presented in the 50-page report.

Historic theme

“Modern zoos are a series of carefully planned experiences,” Loftis said. “They are designed to give the visitor an emotional connection with the animals. The goal is that this connection along with an educational component will encourage visitors to help support conservation and that is why we can justify having zoos.”

Perhaps an unknown fact to the public, the zoo has a historic theme of the Capitan Trail with mostly local animals and a few exotics with an idea of “plains to mountains” journey according to Loftis. City Councilor Barry Foster was present and suggested that theme could additionally align with the history of cattle baron John Chisum. A prairie for the bison is an idea for the southeast corner of the zoo, which could start influencing the theme.

Loftis showed architecture displayed in the PowerPoint and said the potential inspiration for the maintenance buildings and night houses for animals came from historic pioneer homesteads, ranches, adobe and torreons.

Loftis said the zoo was made in the ‘60s, additions were made in the ‘90s without any investment since, and this is the reason the zoo is poorly perceived by the public.

Loftis said sticking with the theme would create an experience for visitors and create a new space for the animals in need. Suggestions of celebrating regional elements of Roswell such as the dairies, agriculture and old west history were provided by MRWM to enhance the experience for visitors and celebrate local culture and history.

Blue sky budget

Recognizing the progress can seem unattainable, Loftis encouraged the crowd that improvements can be accomplished by focusing on immediate needs and knowing the budget is flexible over time.

He said the interim improvements would be for the mountain lion and black bears exhibits, which must be changed to comply with USDA regulations. A temporary holding for large carnivorous animals is not present, but if built, could serve for hosting animals during future developments. Lofits estimated cost for constructing these exhibits would be $700,000.

Loftis said the zoo’s current rescue model would have to be examined and potentially changed if the new amenities are going to be implemented. What he called the Phase 1, which included changes with bear and cat exhibits, signage and admissions, would change public expectation, bolster staff morale and lead community support, financial and otherwise. Loftis estimates these more immediate needs would cost closer to $1,000,000 with current animals and realistic improvements.

“If you were to bulldoze the whole thing and build the Disneyland version of the plan that we showed — it would be $36,000,000,” Loftis said.

Once again to clarify, Loftis’ $36,000,000 budget is if the zoo were torn down and rebuilt from scratch. He also said the budget is inflated for contingency for unforeseen circumstances and this budget could range between $27,000,000 to $36,000,000. Flexibility can be found in the pedestrian areas, like the walking paths and playgrounds, but Loftis said the animal exhibits must be provided with adequate living facilities. Loftis also said the improvements could be laid out in a plan of 10 to even 30 years and with studies to assess the ongoing process, financial feasibility and how the zoo is operating.

Community support 

Two community members, Rita Kane-Doerhoefer and Larry Conolly, signed up to speak at the end. County resident Kane-Doerhoefer said she grew up near the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, hoped the zoo would have more restroom facilities, wanted to see more education implemented to help the zoo receive grants, and more programming for the community. Connolly said everyone should forget the $36,000,000 and clarified he was joking.

Andrea Cole, a senior keeper at the zoo, attended the meeting and said the zoo staff was excited about the changes.

“We really hope that the community will support it,” Cole said. “We’ll be able to go forward because we really do love the animals, and so we want the best for them. This would be really great for them — and it would be great for the community, too.”

City reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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