Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s 13-acre African Adventure a Roaring Success

Lions lazing on a rocky outcrop. Wildebeest roaming the savannah. Scenes familiar to tourists on an African safari.

Except this isn’t Africa, it’s California. Welcome to the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s Director and CEO, spoke to Blooloop about the new $56m dollar exhibit which opened in October, doubling the size of the zoo and attracting 6-7000 visitors every weekend.

scott barton coo fresno chaffee zoo with elephant

Roaring Success: the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee ZooBack to Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Barton, who has a degree in biology from California State University, has been involved in conservation projects in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. He has also led several tours to Africa, South America and the Galapagos. In 2013, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) elected him to its Ethics Board.

Barton grew up in Fresno and was given his first zoo job by Dr Chaffee, after whom the zoo is named.

Years later, in 2009, having worked in zoos all over the country, including Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Reid Park Zoo in Tuscan Arizona and a five-year stint at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Barton returned to Fresno as Executive Director of Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

Roaring Success: the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo

The Fresno County sales tax funds capital improvements

Five years previously, the struggling zoo approached the community of Fresno in the hope of securing an agreement to levy a tax to help support new zoo projects and programmes. A 73% majority enabled the introduction of ‘Measure Z’ – a Fresno County sales tax of 1/10th of one percent. In reality, this meant that one dime out of every $100 spent on retail transactions would go to Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s capital improvements.

“That allowed us not only to be financially stable on an annual operating budget, but also to do some really extraordinary exhibits, ” says Barton.

“So, in 2012 we completed Sea Lion Cove, which won the 2014 Top Honour Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and then we also started building African Adventure.

“It’s a 56 million dollar project, total budget, covers about 13 acres, and includes a number of species, including African elephants, lions, cheetahs, wildebeest, kudu, impala, springbok, ostrich – all sorts of African species, and we have a beautiful African lodge where you can sit on a patio and look out over the area as if it were the savannah in Africa.”

Roaring Success: the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo

An exhibit with Disney quality

The exhibit opened on the 15th of October, to universal acclaim.

“People’s comments have been fabulous. They have said it’s Disney quality, which is high praise to somebody who used to work at Disney, and that they don’t feel as if they’re in California. It’s been a very rewarding project: the team did an extraordinary job. We moved animals from all over the country; two rhinos came from Florida, elephants from Arkansas, lions from Atlantic, cheetahs from Omaha, a lot of animals from the San Diego Zoo safari park. So, anyway, it’s come out very well, and really even better than hoped for.”

Visitors are afforded close-up views of lions and elephants, separated from them only by a triple-thick pane of glass. A large waterfall provides a backdrop to the multiple acre elephant area, where the elephants live in a typical matriarchal society as they do in Africa.

Reclaimed water is used to irrigate grassed areas, and a specially designed underwater wall separates certain species from each other in a sizeable lake.

Roaring Success: the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Naturalistic theming by COST of Wisconsin

The exhibit was designed by the Portico Group out of Seattle, and built by a local contractor. COST of Wisconsin, industry leader in theme and specialty construction services, was subcontracted to do all of the artificial rock and tree work: the project features real trees, artificial trees, artificial rocks – some of which are heated – and artificial termite mounds.

“That work was extensive in this 13 acre project, including large rock outcrops and a huge baobab tree, ” says Barton.

The rock facings accurately reflect what is seen in Africa.

Rather than bringing in bulldozers and starting with a clean canvas, care has been taken to preserve and work around existing established trees, so the finished naturalistic exhibit has a feeling of permanence and harmony with its surrounding landscape.

“So far, it’s all been very successful. We had a few days of members’ previews, and the comments from our members were extremely good, and then we opened to the public for the first time. It’s been exciting.”

Fresno Chaffee Zoo certainly benefits from its proximity to tourist magnet Yosemite National Park. In 2014, the zoo attracted visitors from nineteen countries around the world. Barton hopes the quality of African Adventure will build on that, and even more people will visit from Europe, Asia and  Latin America.

“This year becomes a game-changer for Fresno Chaffee Zoo, ” he says.

Roaring Success: the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Active conservation and breeding programmes

The zoo’s conservation programme helps support field conservation projects all over the world, including the Tarangire Elephant Project in Tanzania where they have identified over 1, 000 individual elephants, creating the largest elephant database; the Grevy’s Zebra Trust in Kenya;  Action for Cheetahs , also in Kenya, the Malayan Tiger Initiative, the Ape Taxon Advisory Group, Pantanal  Giant Armadillo Project, and several others.

“Each year we have a number of grants that we give out, as well as having long-term partners with about eight projects – we’ve been working with some of them for several years.

“Our involvement with conservation has been growing each year since I’ve been at the zoo; we’ve tripled the amount of money that we give to conservation, and we hope to continue.”

The zoo also runs an active breeding programme.

“Last year, we bred Malayan tigers (there are only about 500 Malayan tigers remaining in the wild) and had four cubs, two of which went off to San Diego Zoo to begin their own breeding programmes.

“We breed a variety of birds and reptiles and animals and work closely with the breeding programme directors for AZA, the species survival plan and population managers. We breed a number of animals. We had warthogs born last year, and also Chacoan Peccaries: only around 3000 remain in the wild.”

Roaring Success: the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Barton hopes to breed several species in the new African exhibit.

“We’re hoping to breed lions, white rhinoceros and African elephants. The elephants we’ve acquired are of breeding age and we hope to begin a breeding programme with them, which is a bit unusual: there aren’t a lot of African elephant breeding programmes in the country.”

Good for the animals, good for the staff

With new exhibits, the zoo focuses on three elements: the animal habitat, the guest experience, and on trying to make it a good place for the staff.

“As far as the animal habitat is concerned, we look at a spacious exhibit, a very enriched environment, with things for the animals to do, and natural social groupings. For instance, the elephant exhibit that we built is on multiple acres. It has thick grass for the elephants to graze. It has pools and mud wallows. It has palm trees that they can shake when they are in fruit. They have a lot of enrichment feeders, so instead of just having a bale of hay dumped on the ground, they have to forage more and stay busy throughout the day.

“Also, they benefit from their interactions with keepers. We do a lot of talks and training, which I think the elephants enjoy; and they live in a social group so they have other elephants to play with. It’s great fun to watch the elephants playing in the mud wallow together.

“I think all those things work together for animal welfare, as well as good nutrition programmes and a good veterinary programme.”

Roaring Success: the 13-acre African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“We get the same thing with our Sea Lion Cove exhibit; it’s a spacious exhibit, and with both Africa and Sea Lion Cove one of the most common comments we hear is that the animals seem so happy. In our Africa area, if you just watch wildebeest grazing on grass or zebra grazing on grass for most of the day, or lying in the shade of a tree, you can see they’re really doing what they would do in the wild, so that’s very rewarding.”

For the future, improvements and enhancements to the zoo are on the cards. There are still some older exhibits that Barton and his team want to improve. For the next year, the Asia exhibit will be under scrutiny.

The plan is to increase the size of the tiger exhibit and move more into breeding endangered Malayan tigers.

The team also intends to create a new sloth bear exhibit:  “ …and again, while we’re building those, we’re looking at very spacious exhibits: for sloth bears, places for them to climb and explore are key – they’re very curious and intelligent, so really giving them a lot to do is important.”

In around three years, the zoo hopes to open an African river exhibit, which would involve underwater viewing of hippos and Nile crocodiles.

“And we’ll just keep moving onward – in our future is redoing the South American area, and we’ve never had penguins, so we’ll be doing a penguin exhibit.

“The support from our community has been incredible, ” says Barton. “It’s really allowing us to think, what’s the best thing that we could do for the animals, for our guests and for our staff – and to really dream big.”

All images, video kind courtesy Fresno Chaffee Zoo