Omaha zoo is a glimpse of what could be in KC
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
OMAHA, Neb. - On a hot and sticky July afternoon, it takes only a few minutes to see why Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo is superior to the Kansas City Zoo.
The Omaha zoo includes large indoor exhibits, built with generous contributions from private donors. The zoo showcases lots of animals that people can actually see, up close.
Step inside Omaha's air-conditioned Desert Dome, where giggling children are darting around the 55-foot-tall central mountain. They are finding venomous snakes, bobcats, lizards, hummingbirds and other animals.
Nearby, visitors are peering with wonder at sharks swimming above the walkway inside the Walter and Suzanne Scott Kingdoms of the Seas Aquarium. Around the corner, Antarctic penguins are waddling under artificial snow.
Add in other expansive indoor facilities plus outdoor animal exhibits and it's no wonder Omaha's zoo attracted 1.4 million visitors in 2002. Its average attendance since 1995 is 1.25 million.
By contrast, Kansas City Zoo attendance fell to a paltry 425,000 in 2002; the average attendance since 1995 is only 614,000.
The Kansas City Zoo also has been embroiled in problem after problem the last few years. The zoo almost lost its accreditation. Animals died in questionable circumstances. Mark Wourms, the long-time director, resigned under pressure in early 2003.
Kansas Citians deserve a better zoo. They can learn a lot from what Omaha has done to build a world-class facility that has 5,000 animals, or almost six times the number at the Kansas City Zoo.
"It's the model we ought to be shooting for," Bob Lewellen, a Kansas City park board member, says of the Omaha zoo.
Start with its magnificent indoor facilities.
During sweltering Midwestern summers and through bitterly cold winters, Omaha's zoo provides buildings that visitors can use all year-round.
This trend started in earnest in 1987, with the opening of the Wild Kingdom Pavilion. In 1992, officials opened the Lied Jungle, which officials proclaim is the world's largest indoor rain forest. The aquarium was finished in 1995. The Desert Dome opened in 2002. Starting this spring, visitors are flocking to Kingdoms of the Night, a fascinating nocturnal exhibit under the dome.
But the Kansas City Zoo's only relatively new indoor facility is the Deramus Educational Pavilion which -- beyond a large fish tank -- is practically bereft of animals.
Kansas City officials do appear to be moving in the right direction. They have discussed building a major indoor exhibit, with animals found in Asia. However, the zoo has no money to construct the exhibit.
Previously, officials have talked about asking for about $100 million from Kansas City taxpayers for the Asia exhibit.
That figure sounds outlandishly high, especially after reviewing what the Omaha zoo has spent to build itself up through an incredible pipeline of private funding from local residents.
The trend began 40 years ago, when Margaret Hitchcock Doorly gave $750,000 in honor of her late husband, publisher Henry Doorly.
More recently, Mutual of Omaha provided most of the money for the Wild Kingdom Pavilion. The Lied Foundation Trust, started by a former Omaha Buick dealer, gave most of the money for the $15 million jungle exhibit.
The Scotts provided a large contribution for the $16 million aquarium; Walter Scott, a local construction company executive, is now chairman of the zoo's board.
The Lozier Foundation privately financed much of the $7.6 million IMAX Theater. Private contributors also made it possible to open the $31.5 million Desert Dome and Kingdoms of the Night.
In Kansas City, however, the zoo receives a pittance of private giving.
In the early 1990s, Kansas City civic leaders spent years raising private funds to build the Deramus Pavilion -- and officials had to dip into public funds to finish the project.
More recently, it has taken many months to raise only $3 million of a $5 million fund sought by the Friends of the Zoo. The private group took over running the city-owned zoo in January of 2002. (Notably, a private organization has run Omaha's successful zoo for almost 40 years.)
Of course, Kansas Citians have poured private funds into other priorities, such as renovating Union Station, expanding the Nelson-Atkins Art Gallery and saving the Kansas City Royals.
But private donors have long avoided giving much money to the zoo. That stance likely won't change until Friends of the Zoo hires a new director and provides a reliable strategic improvement plan.
Finally, when it comes to animals, the Omaha zoo has more than 5,000 specimens.
And these are animals that people often can observe from just a few feet away, whether it's indoors or at outdoor exhibits such as Primate Valley, Pachyderm Hill, the Owen Sea Lion Pavilion or the Giraffe Complex.
In Kansas City, though, many people say they can see too few animals at the zoo; the total collection numbered 865 at the end of May.
Visitors especially don't like the long hikes it can take to search for animals in the African and Australian exhibits, built under a $50 million expansion plan in the 1990s.
The Kansas City Zoo needs to put a lot more animals closer to the public, especially in indoor buildings that people can use year-round. The zoo also must work on better ways -- potentially including a gondola -- to get visitors more quickly and easily around. Officials also have to whip up enthusiasm from private contributors to back these plans.
All are tough challenges. But Omaha's zoo tackled them and became nationally famous. Why can't Kansas City's?
To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, a member of the Editorial Board, call (816) 234-4887 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's what they said about the KC Zoo
KC Zoo is poised to make changes
Special to The Star
(At The Star's request, Kansas City Zoo officials this week prepared a summary of their future plans.)
"The Kansas City Zoo, under the full-time leadership of Friends of the Zoo since last year, is poised to take two significant steps forward -- selection of a new director and reinvention of the master plan -- in the zoo's development and evolution," said James Stowers III, board president.
"The future of the zoo is uppermost in the minds of the board of directors," Stowers said. "The staff has worked very hard to make improvements this season, which has enabled the zoo's leadership to focus more intently on the longer term goal -- recapturing the zoo's rightful place as one of Kansas City's most popular and important attractions."
Although the zoo's precise course will be defined after a new director is hired later this year, Stowers describes an exciting journey ahead:
â€¢ Expanding the animal collection, including the likely return of tigers and bears.
â€¢ Creating year-round zoo attractions via a major expansion into Asia.
â€¢ Developing an extensive, hands-on children's zoo experience.
â€¢ Inventing new rides for visitors to traverse the 202-acre zoo, including the possibility of a gondola that would sweep visitors from the front gates to the far reaches of Africa and the acclaimed chimpanzee exhibit.
â€¢ Restoring the original zoo building, Tropical Asia, into a much-needed indoor exhibition site. This 94-year-old facility has stood empty for several years.
"Kansas City loves its zoo, or at least wants to love it," said Jerilyn Jones, senior director of operations and interim zoo director. "Anecdotal and analytical research has supported this conclusion for many years. The zoo is recognized as an integral part of the metropolitan area."
Stowers added: "We are listening to our visitors, as well as studying current research into the community's perceptions and desires for the zoo. The board is embracing the input -- warts and all. We will use the findings as a `call to arms' in seeking the community's help to make significant improvements before the zoo's centennial celebration in just six years."
As mentioned here before...I'm not sure the comparisons to places like Omaha, Tulsa and Des Moines are really that helpful. I mean let's look at knocking off the San Diego Zoo instead of copying Omaha.
I do see Omaha as a regional competitor for tourists. Because Omaha has a better zoo, a family from Des Moines could choose to visit there instead of KC. I think if KC had a user-friendly mass transit system to link a world-class zoo to places like Westport, River Market, the Plaza, 39th Street, Crown Center, Crossroads, Sports Complex, the Loop, 18th and Vine and all places in between--- we would be the regional tourist spot. I mean let's go after Chicago for visitors and conventions.