Blake Rhodes, 9, sipped from a soda cup with an opening as big as his face as he pondered the bobcat sleeping in front of him at a new Oklahoma City Zoo exhibit.
"That's something that surprises me,” he said of the fact that there are bobcats in Oklahoma, "because I've never seen one before. ... Pretty much that's why.”
Rhodes and about 12,000 other animal lovers browsed the zoo's new Oklahoma Trails exhibit, which consists almost entirely of animals that either live in Oklahoma now or were once native to the state but were driven out by urban expansion and hunting.
The exhibit opened Saturday.
The bobcat in front of Rhodes lounged in the shade of a tiny pinion oak tree that was planted as part of the exhibit. The tree and the bobcat are native to western Oklahoma, which is where the zoo's Oklahoma Trails thematically begin.
The project features 836 animals of 140 species and takes viewers on a compressed walk across the state — starting in the arid Panhandle and ending in the mushy swamps of southeast Oklahoma.
It's a whirlwind tour of a state that is more biodiverse than almost any other in the nation.
Sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains and the hills of Arkansas, Oklahoma boasts 11 regions with distinct plants and soil, according to the zoo.
The Oklahoma Trails strut proudly through each one, showcasing some animals you might see in your backyard, and some — like the bobcat, roadrunner or alligator — that you might not know lived here at all.
The exhibit cost $10.3 million and was much delayed. Tara Henson, spokeswoman for the zoo, said construction took longer than expected because of the intricacies of building a massive exhibit — perhaps the zoo's largest undertaking — that attempted to preserve as many of the trees and plants at the zoo as possible.
One oak tree that is 100 years old was saved during the construction, she said.
Oklahoma Trails wind along the banks of a small valley at the zoo. A wooden boardwalk carries zoo-goers above a ravine and creek at the exhibit's center, and puts people next to the wire and netted cages where the animals live.
Up close and personal
Henson said the up-close nature of the exhibit is one of its hallmarks.
Inside an aviary, pheasants and quail scuttle along the ground right next to your feet. Some birds are bound in separate cages because they might eat their new zoo-mates. The roadrunner, for instance, has its own area with a wood fence.
It bounced happily on and off of its planks as Nick Hentges approached.
"We've got roadrunners on our street,” said Hentges, who is from Edmond.
Some animals of the Oklahoma Trails are familiar. Others are rare, either because they are endangered or threatened, or because they live in a particular corner of the state.
Alligators, for example, are found in the swamps of southeast Oklahoma. That's the furthest northwest they live in America.
Visitors have the rare chance to see a bald eagle up close and personal.