Paint is drying, workers are laying sod, and the grizzly bears, Will and Wiley, are settling into their new digs. The Trails project opens Saturday after three years of building and $10 million worth of spending. Oklahoma Trails is the largest, most intricate addition to the zoo since it opened in 1904, spokeswoman Tara Henson said. More than 800 animals are part of the 8-acre exhibit. Construction hang-ups have caused delays, but zoo Director Bert Castro said the result is worth the wait. "I think the people of Oklahoma City are going to be very, very pleased with what we've done with their tax money,” Castro said.
Bigger, better, laterThe Oklahoma City Zoological Trust first approved a $6.2 million budget for a 4.3-acre exhibit in 2003. Construction was expected to take less than a year. Then came revamped designs, increased material costs and complicated construction work. A big slowdown, Castro said, was avoiding 600 old-growth trees on the land. "It's a very complex project,” Castro said. "This is not a flat parking lot, and we're not building a square building.”
Nose to noseThe zoo chose state "flagship species” for the exhibit. Of the 800-plus animals, about 100 are new to the zoo, including flying squirrels, coyotes, elk and badgers. Every animal is or was native to Oklahoma, except for the Mexican fruit bats. Zoo staff chose the fruit bats — which look like the native insect-eating Mexican free-tail bats — because they are easier to care for. Some of the animals, such as the grizzly bears and wolves, once lived in Oklahoma but were driven out by human settlement. The bears were killed off nearly to extinction, Castro said. The distance between human and animal is slim in the Trails. The goal is to immerse visitors in the Oklahoma wild, Henson said. A reinforced glass wall 1½ inches thick will separate a 700-pound grizzly from his curious fans. A friendly white-tailed deer licks the glass wall at the corner of his habitat. A rafter of turkeys waddle along the netting between their home and the visitor boardwalk. Visitors can walk through a netted-in aviary and see Oklahoma birds such as blue jays and scissor-tailed flycatchers up close. The sanctuary is one of the largest in the region, Castro said. "The whole idea is to get people up close and personal with wildlife,” Castro said.
Reflecting OklahomaThe exhibit travels through the 11 ecological regions of Oklahoma, starting in the Black Mesa of the northwest and winding down to the Cypress Swamps of the southeast. The storage buildings are disguised as a grain silo, a general store and other turn-of-the-century structures. Antiques such as a rusted-out Model T pickup dot the 8-acre area. Castro and grounds director Ernie Wilson traveled the state seeking antiques that would fit the zoo decor. They brought back more than 100. Some things were donated, like a plow from Scott and Ann Darnold of Norman, and washstand and wringer from zoo volunteer Nancy Tero. The DeBord family of Blaine County donated all kinds of farm equipment for the nocturnal barn. Castro and Wilson bargained for and bought the rest. Everything from the animals to the plants to the buildings is designed to reflect Oklahoma, Castro said. "Really this exhibit is a celebration of our state,” Castro said, "a celebration of the wildlife we have in our state.”
NewsOK.com has disabled the comments for this article.
Oklahoma City Zoo Director Bert Castro stands near a mountain lion at the soon-to-be-opened Oklahoma Trails exhibit at the Oklahoma City Zoo. BY PAUL HELLSTERN, THE OKLAHOMAN
Oklahoma Trails by the numbers
•1/8 of a centCity sales tax that paid for the exhibit and ongoing zoo operations.
•$10.3 millionCost to build.
•7.27Percentage of total zoo area occupied by exhibit.
•836Number of animals.
•140Number of species. Source: Oklahoma City Zoo
Brother bearsA hunting accident, a drive through Canada and a cross-country flight brought Will and Wiley to Oklahoma City. The brother grizzly bears are two of four bears that will be the centerpiece of the Oklahoma Trails exhibit, set to open Saturday. Black bears Woody and Maynard complete the hairy quartet. The bears complete a promise, zoo Director Bert Castro said, made to city taxpayers for the zoo ABCs: apes, bears and cats. An Alaskan hunter who shot and killed the mother of Will and Wiley rescued the cubs in May 2003. The hunter didn't know the bear was nursing young, and he called the state wildlife office. Officials there put the word out to see whether a zoo somewhere could keep the cubs. Though the Oklahoma City Zoo wasn't ready for the cubs just yet, spokeswoman Tara Henson said, the decision was made to take the brothers anyway. The trick: sending the bears 3,400 miles from Nome, Alaska, to Oklahoma City. Drivers brought the bears to Washington state, but temperatures were too high to drive any further. Zoo officials asked for help from Southwest Airlines. The result: Operation Bear Care. Castro and two others packed up the cubs in carriers and loaded them on the plane with the rest of the passengers. Each bear crate was buckled in to two seats in the cabin. The flight crew wore Bear Care shirts, and everyone on the plane got free tickets to the zoo. After a quick bathroom break in Kansas City, the brothers arrived safely in Oklahoma. The names Will and Wiley were chosen in a radio contest. They're named after Will Rogers and Wiley Post, who both died in an airplane crash in Alaska.