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Zoo opening delayed until December

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The reopening of the Spring River Zoo has been pushed back from the end of this month, but city officials said it will be worth the wait.

“We were shooting for Nov. 20 but that’s not going to happen,” Mayor Dennis Kintigh said Thursday in a question-and-answer session with the Roswell Daily Record.

He expected the opening would likely be in December.

City Manager Joe Neeb said in an email to the Roswell Daily Record the goal is to open in mid-December, depending on the completion of projects.

Kintigh and Jim Burress, director of special services and parks, said zoo visitors can expect to see improvements when it does open.

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“I think the zoo community has been impressive in what they’ve stepped forward to do. I think when we reopen, we will have a significantly better experience,” Kintigh said.

The main part of that experience will be the new mountain lion exhibit.

Burress said the project is down to “knick-knack stuff” including landscaping for the outdoor enclosure.

Burress said the zoo’s mountain lion will be moved into the new space several weeks before the zoo’s opening to give him time to get acclimated. He declined to give an opening date, referring that question to City Manager Joe Neeb or Public Affairs Director Juanita Jennings. Neither responded to calls and emails by press time.

“I’m not sure he’s ever ran around on dirt. He’s got a huge enclosure, all kinds of cool stuff,” Burress said. “His night house, inside where you can watch him it’s all brand new and it’s fresh and there’s plenty of lighting. The water dish is heated so you don’t have to bust the ice. It’s going to be like a resort to him.”

There will be a couple of new exhibits as well, although Burress said he didn’t want to give too many details to spoil the surprise.

“Obviously everybody knows now that we have a beaver that got out,” he said.

On Oct. 12, the city announced that one of two beavers the zoo had recently acquired from the Pittsburgh Zoo in Pennsylvania had dug his way under multiple fences in an overnight escape.

The beaver, named Busy, is still on the loose, Burress said.

“I think he’s upriver there. He’s happy. They like moving water so that’s where he went,” he said.

Burress said eventually someone will likely notice trees being eaten and Busy will be found. Anyone who sees the beaver is encouraged not to try and catch it but should call Zoo Curator Andrea Cole at 575-626-1420.

Earlier this year, the zoo welcomed another new addition, an elk calf named Alexis. She was born to a pair of elk the zoo received last year from New Mexico Game and Fish after a game ranch closed. They were expected to be relocated to a new pen near the other hoofed animals.

The later opening date for the zoo will not affect the operation of the Roswell Christmas Railway, which is scheduled to open the weekend of Nov. 27, Jacob Roebuck, owner of Roebuck Entertainment, said.

“We’re using that facility but we use it on a different timeframe,” Roebuck said.

Speaking as a Ward 1 city councilor, Roebuck said he’s excited about the future of the zoo.

“We have a lot of work to do out there, but it has the potential of being a really first-rate experience,” he said.

“I appreciate the team out there. I’m really hoping we can get them some more support over the course of the next year as we get out of this coronavirus stuff, when we get our budget level. We’re going to get the fees passed at some point,” he said.

The City Council in October approved admission fees for the Roswell Museum and Art Center that will go into effect Jan. 1, but a proposal for admission fees to the zoo failed to pass when presented at the General Services Committee on Oct. 28.

The admission fees are part of a plan by the city to have departments cover at least some portion of their expenses. In June, the City Council approved creating special revenue funds for the museum, zoo and Nancy Lopez Golf Course at Spring River rather than fund them directly from the general fund.

“We created those special funds so they would capture and keep any money they generate,” Kintigh said.

Both Roebuck and Kintigh said they believe zoo fees will eventually be put in place.

Neeb said city councilors who were not at the presentation for the General Services Committee have expressed interest in discussing the proposal, but it has not been placed on the full council’s Nov. 12 agenda.

The city has always charged for several quality-of-life services, such as the golf course, swimming pools and the recreation center, Kintigh said.

Admission fees for the RMAC and zoo will benefit both, he said.

“The potential for an enhanced experience at both is what the fees represent,” he said.

Roebuck said the council will also ensure lower-income families are taken into consideration with any zoo admission fee.

“We will make sure the zoo is accessible to people of all income levels,” he said.

While the zoo is making plans to open, the adjacent pond will take a bit more time, Burress said. The next phase of its renovation will possibly start in the next week, he said, and will involve city utilities.

An 8-inch waterline will be put in underneath Atkinson Avenue from a residential line. That will be used to refill the pond and will be connected to an irrigation system for new grass and trees that have been planted around the pond.

“After that is electricity. We’ve requested some bids to bring power into that area on both sides of the pond,” Burress said.

The electricity will be used for lighting in the area, but Burress said he also hopes to be able to have electricity available in picnic shelters around the pond.

Once the pond is filled, the state Game and Fish Department will stock it, he said. The fish will be given a chance to acclimate to the pond before it is open for fishing.

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