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$8.5 million expansion gives NC Zoo’s polar bears more room to roam

Patches, one of the North Carolina Zoo’s polar bears, gets some love from Krista Pittman, 9, bottom,  and Natalie Whitley, 10, through the safety of thick glass as the girls are among the first visitors to the N.C. Zoo’s newly opened polar bear exhibit. The girl’s from Goldsboro’s Rosewood Elementary were on a field trip.
Patches, one of the North Carolina Zoo’s polar bears, gets some love from Krista Pittman, 9, bottom, and Natalie Whitley, 10, through the safety of thick glass as the girls are among the first visitors to the N.C. Zoo’s newly opened polar bear exhibit. The girl’s from Goldsboro’s Rosewood Elementary were on a field trip. cliddy@newsobserver.com

As Patches the polar bear checked out her new $8.5 million enclosure at the N.C. Zoo on Thursday, it was the children pressing their hands to the glass who were held captive.

Released from buses and vans that brought them to the park on field trips, freed from strollers pushed by parents, they crowded the window that looked out on a 2-acre addition to the zoo’s original polar bear exhibit and stared into the face of the 700-pound Ursus maritimus.

“It’s almost like the keepers told them, ‘Come close and put on a show,’ ” said Ken Powell, a volunteer docent who normally serves at the zoo’s gorilla exhibit but helped out in the Ice Cave for the polar bear grand opening. “They’re really on their best behavior.”

Both the zoo’s polar bears were on exhibit Thursday, though they were segregated, with Patches in the expansion and Anana, who arrived last month from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, in the original exhibit. The two have not been introduced to one another and, because polar bears tend to be solitary animals, they may never be in the same enclosure at the same time.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be alone. Considered among zoos’ “charismatic” animals, polar bears are a top attraction anywhere they are displayed. And crowds will now have twice as many viewing areas from which to observe the bears in a setting designed to look like Hudson Bay, off Canada, where they might live in the wild.

Gov. Pat McCrory helped open the expansion Thursday by cutting an ice-blue ribbon and announcing that the state should set a goal of doubling the zoo’s visitation. Though the park has long hoped to top 1 million visitors, it averages about 750,000 people a year, about a third of whom are schoolchildren. Zoo officials and supporters have said that to significantly increase attendance, they would need to add a major new exhibit, possibly a small-scale Australasia, featuring such species as Asian red pandas, Malayan tigers, binturongs, koalas and kangaroos.

Zoo advocates also have suggested that the park be given some autonomy from the regular structure of state government to allow it to develop partnerships with private developers, who might build compatible attractions and hotels on land near the park.

The zoo could be the centerpiece of a major economic development engine, McCrory said.

“I want ideas. I want a vision,” McCrory said, without committing to any particular strategy.

Zoo supporters across the state feel a sense of ownership in the place. Like much of the work that goes on at the park, the new exhibit was paid for with a combination of state funds and private donations raised by the N.C. Zoo Society. Over three years, schoolchildren collected 3,276,238 “pennies for polar bears” – nearly $33,000 – to help with the project.

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