State closes funding gap on zoo’s Arctic Edge polar bear habitat - The Buffalo News

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State closes funding gap on zoo’s Arctic Edge polar bear habitat

The new Arctic Edge habitat for Buffalo’s polar bears will not have a mortgage.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is announcing today that the state is providing the final $750,000 needed to finance the $14 million project.

Renovation of the habitat is part of a larger zoo capital campaign that also included $4 million for a new entrance.

With the new money in place, the zoo will move forward with plans for deeper pools, underwater viewing, a cave area and generally more space for Luna, the zoo’s year-old female, and Kali, a visiting male cub orphaned in the wild last spring. The zoo’s other two polar bears, now being housed in other zoos, will also have a home at the Arctic Edge.

“I just heard about it myself,” zoo President Donna M. Fernandes said Saturday. “That will put us at $18 million for the whole campaign. After four years, to have it finally done, I’m ready to fly off the ground.”

As recently as September, with a shortfall of about $1.4 million, zoo board members and administrators considered cutting back on plans for the Arctic Edge, which is designed to house bald eagles, arctic wolves and lynx along with the main attraction, the polar bears.

“We will be able to move forward with the lynx exhibit now,” Fernandes said. “We did cut back on some things, because otherwise we would have been over the $18 million. We eliminated the ground birds exhibit, for instance, and gave the wolves more room instead. We decided that was more important.”

Those are the kinds of calculations zoo people make when designing a state-of-the-art habitat in a limited space. In announcing the state funding, Cuomo cited his own reasons for putting the zoo over the top on its capital campaign.

“The Buffalo Zoo is the most visited tourist destination in Erie County, and supporting the Arctic Edge exhibit will help it draw even more travelers to Western New York,” Cuomo said in the release. “This project is accomplishing much needed upgrades that will further cement the Zoo’s status as a driver of tourism and economic activity throughout the region, and I am pleased that Luna and Kali will be able to continue their stay in Buffalo.”

The economic impact of the two bear cubs is already being felt at turnstiles on Parkside Avenue.

“We’re having a phenomenal year. Our visitors are up 60,000 already,” Fernandes said. “Unless we have absolutely miserable weather in November and December, we will top 500,000 this year. And it’s totally because of Luna and Kali – even though we also have an adorable baby gorilla.”

The governor’s office noted wide financial support for improvements at the Buffalo Zoo – the country’s third-oldest zoo.

The project is receiving $3 million from Erie County, $1.085 million from the city, $776,000 from the state Environmental Protection Fund, and $800,000 – $400,000 each – from state accounts controlled by Sen. Mark Grisanti and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, along with the region’s Senate and Assembly delegations. The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York is contributing $150,000 and the City Council is providing $15,000.

Once Arctic Edge is completed, Fernandes said, all habitat areas at the zoo will be in compliance with standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the zoo’s professional accrediting body. The existing bear exhibit is more than a century old, and its inadequacies led the zoo to lend its two adult female bears to other zoos.

The two cubs, no longer babies at 250 pounds for Kali and about 225 for Luna, already are using a deeper water tank, as required by national zoo standards, to keep them comfortable while construction of the new habitat begins.

Arctic Edge will be a combination of natural features and cultural symbolism, Fernandes said. It will have two large saltwater pools for the bears, and natural rock work and caves, plus an underwater viewing area like those that have proven so popular elsewhere. The walls will be decorated with Inuit-style etchings, and the landscape will contain statues – “like large stone people,” Fernandes said – inspired by those made by Arctic artisans.

“Rather than trying to make it look like a giant iceberg, we’re having our buildings reflect some of the Inuit culture,” Fernandes said. “It saves money and it’s appropriate. We’re in an Olmsted park, after all, so we don’t want to be too ‘Disney.’ ”

Construction is expected to begin in the next month or two, with a projected opening in September 2015.


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