LINCOLN PARK — Lincoln Park Zoo’s beloved big cats have finally returned.
The zoo opened its Pepper Family Wildlife Center on Thursday after two years of work. The center houses a pride of lions, as well as two red pandas, two Canada lynx and two snow leopards.
“We know that being connected to nature, after this last couple of years with the pandemic, being in nature gives you hope,” Megan Ross, the incoming CEO of the zoo, said to a crowd at the center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It makes your stress levels go down and we’re so happy to be that oasis that people can go to in Chicago and connect with nature here.”
The zoo’s lion house closed in 2019 for a major overhaul. Their habitat has now doubled in size and is home to four lions: 3-year-old Jabari, a male; and sisters Zari, Cleo and Hasira. They explored their space for the first time Thursday as visitors looked on.
To celebrate the opening, the zoo will have activities for the public to enjoy and learn more about the new animals. Zoogoers can get lion-themed face paint, talk with horticulturists about the savannah-inspired landscape and watch the red pandas and lynx get special enrichment Friday-Sunday.
Tina Hone, the city’s chief engagement officer, said she grew up on the South Side and coming to the zoo was special for her as she grew up.
“She gave me a tradition that started with her mother, that every Labor Day we would get on the 151 bus … and we would come to the zoo,” Hone said. “And for me and for my mother before me and, I suspect, my grandmother, this was the escape. This was the chance to see the world in ways that you might not have a chance to see that world on the South Side of Chicago.
“This zoo allows so many members of our community, whether they live in Lincoln Park or the North Side — or wherever they are in the city — this is an oasis and an escape and a place to learn and love and grow.”
Mike Murray, the zoo’s curator of mammals, said “excited is an understatement” when it comes to seeing people enjoy the new habitat after years of renovations.
“It took us many years and a lot of hard work, and we are just honored to show this building and this state-of-the-art lion habitat to everybody,” Murray said. “It’s almost indescribable.”
The lion habitat has new rock formations, climbing trees, deadfall made from trees and cooling and heating elements. Renovations were also done to the lion house, which was given city landmark status in 2005.
The building was constructed in 1912. Major changes couldn’t be made to its structure due to its landmark status, but updates were made to the facade and several parts of the interior.
The lion house now features the Lion Loop, which allows visitors to see the outdoor lion habitat from the center of the exhibit.
Every day will be different for the lions so they can experience enrichment, and they will get positive reinforcement training, Murray said.
Lincoln Park Zoo used a behavior monitoring app, ZooMonitor, to collect data over several years on lion behavior, space use and preference to figure out how best to improve the habitat.
More complex rock formations and 16 climate-controlled environmental features were put in the savannah-style lion habitat, which spans the full northern side of the lion house. Half of the outside habitat includes shaded areas, a decision made after ZooMonitor showed lions like to spend time out of the sun.
“When we embarked on creating this habitat, we said, ‘Let’s give them more of what they like’ … and that’s how we facilitated making this design so dynamic and amazing for the lions,” said Ross, who helped create the app.
The Pepper Family Wildlife Center is named after Roxelyn and the late Richard Pepper, whose $15 million gift allowed the zoo to break ground in December 2019. The $41 million renovation of the lion house was the final phase of The Pride of Chicago, a $135 million campaign that began in 2012.
“We’re all about care, conservation and community,” Ross said. “Here at the zoo, our tagline is [‘For wildlife. For all,’] and that really encompasses all that we do here.”
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