LINCOLN PARK — Big cats are set to return to Chicago this fall, as Lincoln Park Zoo has nearly finished construction on the $41 million renovation of its lion habitat.
The zoo hasn’t had lions since spring 2019, when they were sent elsewhere so the Kovler Lion House could be renovated and a new habitat for lions could be built. The facility is now called the Pepper Family Wildlife Center, and it will also have habitats for snow leopards, Canada lynx and red pandas.
“We cannot wait to welcome Chicago to this fantastic new habitat for lions,” said Maureen Leahy, the zoo’s vice president of animal care and horticulture. “This project is all about innovation and providing animals with choices. We used science and collected data on the lions before they left Lincoln Park Zoo to understand what they preferred and what options in the habitat they really wanted to utilize.”
A Zipline, Plenty Of Shade In New Habitat
When the lions’ savanna-style habitat officially opens in the fall, the space will include several new environmental features. The outside space spans the full northern side of the Kovler Lion House and will have elevated rock formations, one being a large pride rock. There also will be climbing tree structures and deadfall.
Among the other changes: The large moat around the old lion habitat was removed.
Ziplines that bring food to the lions, simulating prey, also will be a feature.
There will be embedded warming and cooling elements in multiple areas. More shaded areas and hiding places for the lions were built into the new habitat, as well.
“We found that our lions actually liked options for shade-seeking,” Leahy said. “You think African lions would be well-suited for hot weather, but, actually, as temperatures started to get closer to 75 or 80 degrees, they started seeking shade.
“… With this habitat and all of the climate-control features, sheltered areas — the lions will have choices of all of them.”
Additionally, tall, savanna-style grasses and prairie-style plants will be featured in the habitat’s interiors.
Updating A Chicago landmark
The lion house also got updates. The zoo worked with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks and other preservation groups to make sure the most historically significant parts of the building’s exterior were preserved while fixing cracks and weathering.
Dave Bernier, the general curator for Lincoln Park Zoo, said there were some challenges in renovating and updating the lion habitat, especially since the lion house’s landmark status meant the building had to remain structurally unchanged. It was built in 1912.
“The design phase was probably the toughest because we had the historic building, that we couldn’t change its shape, and we had to figure out how were we going to incorporate animal holding and exhibits and a historic building all at the same time,” Bernier said.
A lion loop connects everything, Bernier said.
People will be able to enter the center of the lions’ habitat.They’ll view lions from below, while the lions can observe them from above.
Lions can also travel across a rock structure visible just before the lion house’s six historic windows, giving those inside the building a view of the animals when they’re outside.
The lion house also includes a new holding cell for the lions. That area is closed off to visitors.
“As a person who’s been involved with the building design, it’s kind of the most fun part of the project to work on,” Bernier said. “This is where the animals spend time when they’re not on exhibit and it’s where the animal keepers [will] interact with the animal very closely.”
The lion-holding area features a tail port, an area of holding cell that can be opened for blood samples from the lion, elevated tables for ultrasounds to monitor pregnancies, platforms, ramps and stairs. The holding cells are also all linked to each for easy movement for the lions.
Currently, the lions are being housed at other institutions. Once they return, they will enter a 30-day quarantine in the lion house before being allowed in their new habitat.
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