Zoo looks to open giraffe, other new exhibits later this year

By HASKEL BURNS,

With several new projects progressing quickly in the Northwest Quadrant of the Hattiesburg Zoo, officials and residents are looking forward to a fall opening of the upcoming attractions in that area, with the highlight being a new giraffe exhibit featuring at least two of the long-necked African natives.

In anticipation of the new exhibits, Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission – which runs the zoo – gave a special news tour of the area Thursday morning. The new section, which was formerly used mostly for storage, will be converted into the giraffe exhibit, a hyena exhibit and holding, a new concessions stand, extra restrooms, a large pavilion and a fourth viewing area for the zoo’s tiger, Kipling.

A new holding area for servals and lemurs also is on the way, along with the beginning stages of a nearby DeBrazza’s monkey holding. Two areas that are currently blocked off to the east and west – just past the Asbury Discovery Center and shortly before the Africa section of the zoo – will be made public, providing access to the Northwest Quadrant.

“I am extremely optimistic (about the new projects),” Taylor said. “I say that because of the inquiries we get every day about when it will be done and what it is. We talked for two years about giraffes, and we though everyone understood, and then all of a sudden these buildings starting going up and then people starting asking what this was for.

“I’ve got some friends across the street who have watched this from the various businesses, who have expressed some interest in coming over and seeing it, and then it’s on social media. So I think there’s a lot of excitement building; there certainly is with us.”

The two-story giraffe barn, which will be located along Hardy Street, will include penning systems as well as feeding stations, which will be constructed at a height of about 12 feet. The bottom floor will contain a communal pen for the giraffes, along with room for keepers and other staff.

“Then on the opposite side, there are three individual pens,” Taylor said. “A lot of people ask where they’re fed, so that’s why we have a catwalk up top.

“They have feeding equipment that hangs off the catwalk – they typically get up from 16 to 19 feet tall, so they’re very tall.”

Next to the barn is a structure that will allow zoo patrons to feed the giraffes items such as romaine lettuce, which will be sold near the exhibit.

Although the giraffes themselves will incur no cost – as they are, like many other animals in the zoo, part of a trading program with other locations – the entire Northwest Quadrant project is expected to run approximately $3.4 million. Those funds come primarily from the Hattiesburg Convention Commission’s budget, with others coming from sponsors such as Keithco Petroleum in the case of the new concessions stand.

“(The zoo) is one of the facilities the commission operates, so we’re excited to see it grow,” Taylor said. “We’ve seen such growth with the zoo that the commission felt that this was a very appropriate investment.

“And one thing we must admit is that if you’re in business, you want a competitive uniqueness, and the zoo is pretty unique. We’ve got the aquarium coming on the Coat, and then the zoo in Jackson, and that’s kind of it.”

Although Taylor is reluctant to give an exact opening date for the Northwest Quadrant, he fully expects it to be open to the public by the end of the year.

“In all of these (additions), there’s a lot that goes into utilizing these spaces,” he said. “We’ve got to landscape, we’ve got outdoor lighting to go in.

“So we’re saying the end of the year, and our goal is to do it in a temperate portion of the end of the year.”

Taylor said more than 200,000 people currently visit the zoo every year, including those from Jackson, Meridian, the Gulf Coast and Mobile, Alabama. Among that number is approximately 40,000 school children who visit each year for field trips.

Although officials have not run specific numbers as to how many more visitors the new attractions will bring, that figure is expected to be significant.

“We believe that this will set the stage for us to go to the city and say that we need more land,” Taylor said. “We are excited to be able to grow.

“We need to get this up and going, and have those numbers that show that demand. But we’re excited about continuing to grow the zoo, and the support from the local community, the Pine Belt and the surrounding areas (is great).”

In addition to the Hattiesburg Zoo, the Hattiesburg Convention Commission also operates the Saenger Theater, the African American History Museum, Lake Terrace Convention Center, the upcoming Oseola McCarty House Museum, the soon-to-be refurbished Smith Drug Company and the Eureka School Museum. The commission is funded by a 2 percent tax on Hattiesburg restaurants, hotels and motels.