City zoo's long-awaited watering hole opens today


The Baltimore Zoo will cut the ribbon today on its African Watering Hole -- a naturalistic exhibit that zoo officials once feared they would be unable to fill with animals because of government budget-cutting.

But visitors taking in a weekend of zoo celebrations will find an abundance of animals around the watering hole or in its large, net-enclosed walk-through aviary, thanks to some $40,000 in private donations.

There are zebras and antelopes, colorful birds -- minus the pink-backed African pelican that escaped to the Conowingo Dam six weeks ago -- and even two huge white rhinoceroses. However, the endangered rhinos are undergoing training and acclimation, and may not be making their debut for a few weeks.

"If we were able to spend anywhere close to the money that's spent on Inner Harbor attractions, this would be the best zoo in the world," said its director and chief designer of the watering hole, Brian A. Rutledge.

But the new exhibit did carry a substantial price tag -- $4.2 million to transform over the past two years about three acres of the zoo grounds into a simulated African savanna.

Zoo horticulturists landscaped it with plants and trees indigenous to Maryland although similar to those found in the African environment. By spraying concrete over steel frames and chicken wire, workers created what look like volcanic rock outcroppings rising as high as 20 feet.

Low hills rise behind the curving riverbank and gentle waterfall that make up the watering hole itself, and a higher berm conceals new animal barns, the fence and a Druid Hill Park roadway on the edge of the zoo grounds.

The watering hole is the latest in a series of improvements through which the zoo's image is being recast from the days of the iron-bar cages that now dominate only part of its old central valley.

Eventually, Mr. Rutledge said yesterday, he would like to have just one of the old cages -- for people to stand in and pose for pictures.

Gradually, animals in the valley of cages and the outdated hilltop mammal house are being grouped elsewhere by geographic region in naturalistic exhibits.

The only lions in the old valley are bronze -- the real animals having become some of the early residents of the African zoogeographic region several years ago.

On the opposite side of the boardwalk from the watering hole, Mr. Rutledge is planning new exhibits for leopards and chimpanzees. Ground was recently broken for a new entrance facility that ultimately will feature an Earth conservation center.

The timetable will be determined by the availability of money.

Mr. Rutledge said the animals that populate the new exhibit cost about $100,000, and the zoo is about $60,000 short.

"We didn't have the extra $60,000, so we're kind of out on a limb right now," he said. "We're hoping everyone will come to see the exhibit and help us out a bit."

The watering hole's biggest stars -- the male and female white rhinos weighing in at 5,000 pounds and 4,000 pounds, respectively -- were acquired on a breeding loan from Kings Island, Ohio, but the Baltimore Zoo still had to pay for shipping costs.

For the record, Mr. Rutledge said, the shipping costs on a pair of endangered rhinoceroses ran about $8,000.

Happy to report, there was no breakage.

The rhinos, captured years ago in the wild and now in their mid-20s, were housed separately at the Ohio zoo and had never produced young.

The keepers in Baltimore are making the animals accustomed to their new home and to each other in hopes that their genetic value -- as endangered members of a species numbering under 5,000 worldwide -- will not be wasted.

"It can get exciting for everybody concerned when you mix a 5,000-pound animal and a 4,000-pound animal," the zoo director said. "It can't help but get exciting."

In the meantime, the excitement of today's 9:30 a.m. official opening and the special entertainment from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday, will have to suffice.

Scheduled to take part in this morning's ribbon-cutting ceremonies are Eric Bennett, student council president of Bel Air Middle School, where pupils raised the most money -- $2,550 -- to help fill the watering hole, and Marcus Bryant, a third-grader at Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia, who organized a campaign that raised $171.50.

Mr. Rutledge expressed appreciation for many other school efforts -- including that of Gardenville Elementary in Baltimore where second-graders staged an advertising campaign, wrote jingles for it and raised about $400 -- and to a family that donated $10,000 for zebras and wished to remain anonymous.

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