The Maryland Zoo’s three lions are being removed from public viewing this week as part of an ambitious $20 million renovation of the African Journey exhibit.
Two of the big cats — Hassan, the older male, and Zuri, the female — will return to prowl their enclosure once their new habitat is completed in about six months, said Jane Ballentine, the zoo’s senior director of development and communications. But Luke, the 4-year-old male who is Hassan’s son, is moving to a zoo at an undisclosed location.
“It’s definitely a bittersweet moment,” Ballentine said. “But we’re glad for him, knowing that he’s going to a zoo where he will be a male companion to a pride of lady lionesses. That’s what would happen in the wild. Young males move away from where they were born and create a pride of their own.”
A temporary home for the lions is being made from the zoo’s quarantine area. Luke and Zuri will move there on Thursday, while Hassan will enter quarantine on Friday. Luke will be transported to his new home out of state by the end of June.
Ballentine said the move is necessary while workers redesign the felines’ habitat. As she put it: “You can’t have lions and humans sharing the same space.”
During the zoo’s peak period in the summer and early fall, between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors view the lions daily, she said. While guests are likely to notice the absence of the lion pride the most, the renovation will also cause them to lose access for shorter periods to the elephants and giraffes.
“The elephants will be difficult to see for a couple of weeks as construction expands their outdoor yard,” Ballentine said. “They'll be out, but they’re going to be moving from space to space. We're working to mitigate the disruption to our visitors as much as possible by trying to figure out how to create the best sight lines.”
In addition, the giraffe house will be closed for three days in July.
“I know some visitors will be disappointed,” she said. “But the renovations we’re doing will make for a much better viewing experience for our guests. It’s going to be really cool.”
Now, African Journey makes up about 10 percent of the total zoo, Ballentine said. The renovation is being funded by the state of Maryland and private donations and is expected to be completed by late summer or early fall of 2019.
Ballentine said that new signs have been added to help guests navigate the zoo during the construction and that staff members have been instructed to be on the lookout for confused guests.
When construction began in March, the zoo’s staff was concerned that the noise would frighten the animals — particularly the elephants, who have extremely sensitive hearing. But all the species appear to have taken the sounds of jackhammers and bulldozers in stride.
“The noisiest part occurred when we were taking down Rock Island, the old penguin exhibit,” Ballentine said. “But the animals didn’t appear to be bothered at all. They all exhibited normal behaviors. The staff has been watching the animals for signs of stress, and we’ve been really pleased that there haven’t been any issues.”
But the cold and rainy spring weather? That’s a different story, particularly for those animals whose native habitats are in Africa.
“Our animals are given a choice about whether to be inside or outside,” she said, “and some of them have made the choice to remain inside and dry.”
Highlights of the renovation include:
Lions — Visitors will see more of the lions once construction is completed. A new guest pathway, the African Overlook, will give visitors an eye-level view of lions on the left and giraffes on the right. The barrier along the lion side of the overlook will be a combination of stainless steel mesh and glass, giving the habitat a more open feeling. There will also be a large window with a training demonstration area where visitors can watch the zoo staff teach the lions to accept health examinations.
Elephants — New features will encourage elephants to engage in such typical behaviors as dusting, bathing and wallowing in the mud. The outdoor habitat will more than double in size, from 30,000 to 77,300square feet, by expanding into the former area where camel rides were given and into the Rock Island exhibit that formerly housed penguins before their new living quarters, Penguin Coast, opened in 2014. More pathways will be built to allow visitors to view the elephants from multiple vantage points. The pachyderms’ indoor space will increase from 9,900 to 14,300 square feet.
Giraffes — The big change here is that the barriers will be removed between the elephant and giraffe habitats. “We’re building a walkway that will take the giraffes into the Upper Savannah habitat,” Balletine said. “They’ll be able to share the same space as the elephants. Giraffes are prey animals, so that will take some training and some time. But eventually, we think they’ll use the walkway.”
In addition, the giraffes’ outdoor habitat will increase by roughly a third, from 23,900 to 36,200 square feet.