The Hogle Zoo is expanding with exhibits meant to expose Utahns (and out-of-state visitors) to animals technically in their “backyard” — though many haven’t seen the creatures up close — and teach them to be stewards of ecosystems throughout the state.
Mountain lions, bighorn sheep and wild burros will anchor the Wild Utah expansion, with the largest habitats in the 3-acre area. But guests can also see badgers, gray foxes, bobcats, raccoons and porcupines in a series of smaller exhibits.
The newly built Norma W. Matheson Education Animal Center also will house even smaller native critters, including ants, bees, owls and marmots, which zoo staff take across the state for educational programming.
Officials said the $22 million project will be finished sometime next year. The planned updates will mostly be contained within the route of the Zoofari Express train on the east side of the zoo, with the tracks looping around or past new footpaths, animal exhibits and a restored section of Emigration Creek. From the train, visitors previously could only glimpse this area, once home to bison and a replica mining town.
During construction, zoo officials will shut down the Zoofari Express. The train should be available to guests until the fall, spokesperson Marilyn Hsiung said. From the front rail car Wednesday, Gov. Spencer Cox led guests around the Zoofari Express route, sending the attraction off before it closes for construction.
Project aims to highlight state, zoo conservation efforts
Zoo CEO Doug Lund said the expansion stemmed from two occurrences roughly a decade ago: the advent of the wildlife safety and conversation program Wild Aware Utah, and the acquisition of property that previously hosted a Rocky Mountain Power substation.
With the substation gone, crews could reconfigure the land as needed to accommodate animals, giving the zoo a space to show off some of Utah’s varied wildlife and teach people how to take care of it.
“We have these amazing animals that living around us, and we don’t have an opportunity to see them,” Lund said. “But importantly, we need to help conserve those and be good stewards of the resource we have in our own backyard.”
The expanded Aline W. Skaggs Wild Utah area also will feature examples of some of the zoo’s — and the state’s — wildlife conservation efforts, zoo education director Chris Schmitz told lawmakers in a February appropriation hearing.
She said guests will be able to simulate a wildlife crossing — like the one over Interstate 80 near Parley’s Summit — by walking over a section of the Zoofari Express near the cougar exhibit. Improvements to Emigration Creek and the adjacent riparian area will illustrate how habitat restoration can provide “safe passage” to fish, birds and insects.
In February, zoo officials asked for $5 million to fund the then-estimated $17.5 million project. At the time, the zoo had allocated $7.5 million from the zoo’s operating budget and garnered $5 million from private donors.
The legislature approved $1.5 million of the zoo’s ask. Lund said the zoo has since upped its contribution to approximately $13 million. Pamphlets outlining donation opportunities were available to the dozens of guests at Wednesday announcement.
Hogle Zoo board chair Blake Fisher told those attendees he was most excited about the badger exhibit.
“I’ve never seen a badger, other than a friend of mine from Wisconsin,” he quipped, alluding to the University of Wisconsin’s mascot.
Cox, who attended the event alongside Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, opened his remarks minutes later, telling attendees a badger once chased him back home in Sanpete County.
“I can tell you,” he said, “they’re much better when they’re in a cage.”
‘Some of the most diverse landscapes in the world’
Cox, Wilson and Mendenhall all said they had been to the zoo numerous times and it was a special place for their families. Cox said that growing up, the zoo was his “Disneyland.” Each official said they were excited for what the new exhibits would mean to future guests.
“Utah is home to 54 million acres of some of the most diverse landscapes in the world. We have more than 600 species of fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians [that] call our state home — 17 animals are listed as threatened or endangered species,” Cox said. “That’s why [Utah’s Hogle Zoo] is so important. It helps connect our young generation and people from all over to our native wildlife.”
Mendenhall said she was particularly thrilled because the new expansion means visitors can bypass a steep incline on their way out of the park if they end their day at the upcoming Wild Utah exhibits — she knows how arduous that walk can be, she said, and so do “any of you who’ve been a parent pushing the stroller up the hill after the end of a long day at the zoo.”
Hogle Zoo has been in Salt Lake City for nearly a century and reports about a million visitors each year.