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New Arctic Edge exhibit makes a splash at Buffalo Zoo

Luna the polar bear frolicked Thursday in her digs at the Buffalo Zoo’s new Arctic Edge exhibit. She charged a viewing window, swam on her back and leapt out of the water.

On Saturday, the public will have its first chance to see the $14 million exhibit.

Saturday also will be zoo visitors’ first chance in a year to see Luna. The 6-foot-tall, 450-pound polar bear has been recuperating from an ankle injury and waiting for the opening of her new permanent home, which is destined to be one of the zoo’s top attractions.

“It’s just thrilling to see how well the animals have adjusted,” said Donna Fernandes, the zoo’s president, of the new exhibit.

Gray wolves – a young brother and sister who came from a zoo in Watertown – are the only animals new to the exhibit. The lynxes, which are sisters, and the bald eagles were relocated from other parts of the zoo.

Luna’s mother, Anana, lives in a second polar bear enclosure. Anana was moved to another zoo while crews built the Buffalo Zoo’s new exhibit. Both polar bears can be seen close-up from one end of the pool that’s in both enclosures – the shallow end for Luna, and the deep end for Anana.

The Arctic Edge, with its 18-foot-high walls, is the 11th significant project in the 15 years since Fernandes became zoo president in 2000. It ranks as the second-most expensive project, after the $16.2 million Rainforest Falls exhibit, built in 2008. The total for all the projects reaches nearly $50 million.

“It is absolutely off the charts,” said Jonathan Dandes, the zoo board’s chairman. “This is a testament to lots of people, but to Donna Fernandes, oh my. She deserves all the credit in the world.

“I know the rest of the community is going to feel this way after they’ve seen it,” Dandes said.

The Arctic Edge landscape includes evergreens, grasses, tree logs and bluffs, combined with fabricated materials, such as concrete walls made to look like wood.

The numerous green features created by architect Gwen Howard include a rain garden that recycles water from the roof into the sprinkler system. Stone from the former bear enclosures, built during the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, were reused.

A mesh barrier surrounds a part of the polar bear enclosure, with an additional 20-foot barrier to keep the public a safe distance away.

The Arctic Conservation Interpretive Center, located in a former gift shop, offers hands-on science and environmental educational displays. They includes tips on how to reduce energy use to combat global warming, which melts the sea ice that polar bears need to survive.

Fernandes said the exhibit will help transform the visitors’ experience in winter, when zoo attendance drops.

“We now feel like we have a critical number of exhibits, where the animals are active, to really merit a nice winter visit. People can see the Arctic Edge and then warm up in the rainforest,” she said.

She said the design is different than arctic exhibits found in many other zoos.

“A lot of zoos design their arctic exhibits to look like the arctic in the winter,” Fernandes said. “I thought, lets show how tundra looks in the summer, because with the winter in Buffalo it will already look like the tundra in winter. Why have fake glaciers when we will have real snow?”

The exhibit is opening 22 months after demolition of the old polar bear enclosures. Fernandes said she has had some sleepless nights along the way.

“You get so caught up in, first, the anxiety of fundraising,” she said. “The fundraising campaign was really up and down emotionally. We used to call it ‘the bi-polar campaign,’ ” she said.

There were design decisions to make and graphics and interpretative choices by Hadley Exhibits to approve. But in the end, the zoo finished the project on time and within budget.

For Fernandes, the Arctic Edge achieves a goal she identified for an MBA course she took shortly before she started her job at the zoo.

“I thought one of the ugliest exhibits on campus was the bear exhibit, and that, absolutely, I couldn’t wait to tear it down and build a better exhibit,” she said. “That was what I envisioned: That someday, that exhibit is coming down. It took longer than I thought, just because we had other priorities we had to get to,” Fernandes said.

Fernandes showed a mock newspaper front page she kept. It read: “The Buffalo Times, July 2, 2002. The Buffalo Zoo opens new polar bear exhibit. Part of $60 million in planned renovations. Awe-inspiring! Extraordinary!”

“It was my sort of vision of what success would be,” Fernandes said.

The zoo’s next project is renovating the reptile house at a cost of $2.5 million. About $1 million has been raised.

“We’re going to gut that, and just do all new exhibits and better signage,” Fernandes said.

That includes a new roof the city will pay for.

“We’re thrilled the mayor put it in last year’s budget, but we still have to do skylights and mechanical systems – everything is really outdated,” she said of the 73-year-old building.

After that, Fernandes wants to turn an area near the Arctic Edge – where the eagles and lynx once lived, and where the bighorn sheep now live – into a site for animals from northern Asia. That would bring together snow leopards, red pandas and hoofstock species.

In the meantime, the zoo counts on the brand-new Arctic Edge to attract more visitors.

And once again, zoo officials expect Luna to delight them.

“People will be surprised at how big she is,” said the zoo’s Rachel Gottlieb. “But she is still the fun, playful cub everyone was used to back then.”