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Zoo receives $10,000 for mountain lion exhibit; Safari Club International offers kick-start for zoo’s master plan

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Herb Atkinson shakes the hand of Marge Woods, zoo superintendent, shortly after Atkinson and the Southern New Mexico Chapter of the Safari Club International (SNM-SCI) presented a $10,000 donation to go toward the interim mountain lion exhibit at Spring River Park & Zoo. Mayor Dennis Kintigh, Jalene Wenner (SNM-SCI board member) and Kim Talbot (SNM-SCI president) smile at the large crowd celebrating the announcement. (Alison Penn Photo)

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The city of Roswell on Thursday evening accepted a $10,000 donation from Southern New Mexico-Safari Club International for the interim mountain lion exhibit at Spring River Park & Zoo.

David Adams, 12, and his brother Samuel Adams, 5, hold their free snowcones in front of the Herschel-Spillman carousel at Spring River Park & Zoo. After a $10,000 donation for the interim mountain exhibit was presented, David Adams exclaimed that the announcement was “amazing.” David Adams said the longhorn was his favorite animal and Samuel said he would like it if the zoo had penguins. (Alison Penn Photo)

“We’re really excited about the new zoo plan that has been adopted and we are excited about the future for our zoo,” Marge Woods, zoo director, said. “This zoo has been in existence for 80 years — over 80 years. It started back at Cahoon Park back in the 30s, it has been at this site since the mid-60s. We hope that the next 80 years are as fruitful as the last 80 years. We hope that this goes on and on and on.”

Last April, the zoo faced the scrutiny from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) when actress Ali McGraw wrote a letter asking for the bears and mountain lions to be released. In August, the city rejected PETA’s offer of $10,000, from an anonymous benefactor, to release the bears. The city determined an entire reevaluation of the zoo was needed.

The city council voted on March 15 to adopt a zoo master plan created by Morrow Reardon Wilkinson Miller Landscape Architects (MRWM) of Albuquerque to improve quality of life for the animals and the visitor experience at the zoo. Robert Loftis, an MRWM consultant, said the immediate needs were estimated to cost $1,000,000 and the inflated and potentially variable budget ranged between $27,000,000 and $36,000,000 for completion of the entire plan.

Improvement ideas for the zoo came from public forums, a survey and insights from zoologist Jay Pratte and other professionals. Brittany Peet, PETA’s director of captive animal law enforcement, spoke at the March meeting and said that PETA approved of the master plan and the zoo’s rescue model.

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Mayor Dennis Kintigh said Thursday he was “grateful beyond belief” for the first large-scale donation for the zoo’s master plan and for the whole team — made up of community members, organizations and the city — ready to unite to improve the zoo.

Woods said she has been the zoo director for a year and a half, which had been her dream after 42 years in the zoo business. Woods acknowledged her staff’s hard work and dedication, the community’s support, and “tenacity and fairness” of Jim Burress, director of Parks and Recreation.

Woods welcomed Herb Atkinson, representing SNM-SCI. He is on the board of directors, and said all of the funds are raised locally in southeastern New Mexico. Of SNM-SCI, he said the worldwide club is a leading organization protecting hunters’ rights and promoting wildlife conservation.

Referencing a muntjac, Atkinson said zoos are important for youth to see local and international species in their natural habitat.

“We feel like the zoo is a great place for people to get introduced to the existence of these species around the world and perhaps take an interest in their conservation,” Atkinson said, adding the club has an interest in improving the mountain lion exhibit.

“The mountain lion is an iconic animal in New Mexico and all across the west … We want the children to see what a mountain lion looks like. They’re very secretive and nocturnal animals — and it’s very unusual to go out in the wild and see a mountain lion.”

Atkinson said it was privilege to help with this project and hoped that other organizations will contribute to the future of the zoo. Hud Rhea, one of the SNM-SCI directors and charter members, said the organization has given donations exceeding $300,000 to support local activities. Rhea said the club was a major sponsor for the Game and Fish event last week at the zoo and the idea to help with the mountain lion exhibit began when the information on the master plan was released.

“The sweat we put into gathering dollars for projects like this is important to me,” Larry Marshall, SNM-SCI treasurer, said. “I can envision bringing my grandson here one of these days and looking at the new exhibit that is all finished up. It’s a pleasure to be here today.”

Burress thanked City Manager Joe Neeb for his help in navigating the creation of the master plan and said that now is the beginning of a campaign to raise funds and memberships. Burress said the zoo was voted one of the top 10 parks in the state by Best Things NM, and thanked his staff for their care for the zoo.

He said he appreciated SNM-SCI’s donation and called it “quite a start.”

“This is going to take everybody,” Burress said of implementing the zoo master plan. “I need your help — every individual, every child, every business — I’m going to need you.”

Elizabeth Gilbert said the city will update plans for the exhibit and wait for the end of the city’s budget schedule. As far as ground-breaking plans, Gilbert said the city will know by the end of July.

Woods said the donation was significant and Gilbert said other donations will help achieve the goal. Of SNM-SCI Gilbert said she, “couldn’t appreciate them more” and that, hopefully, there will be something started by the end of summer for the mountain lions.

“We’re going to need the community support,” Gilbert said. “We really won’t be able to do it without them. We love having them here. We love seeing all the kids and the smiling faces and we want to keep that for Roswell.”

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