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Zoo details plans to upgrade Reptile House

A Komodo dragon – the largest lizard in the world, and among the most lethal – is coming to the Buffalo Zoo.

The prehistoric-looking lizard will be the main attraction when the 73-year-old Reptile House is renovated – and that’s a task that just became easier thanks to a large state grant.

The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is providing $500,000 for the Reptile House, one-fifth of the $2.5 million needed to renovate the center, which soon will be renamed the Amphibian and Reptile Center. That brings the zoo’s fundraising total to $1.3 million.

“It will be a much nicer experience for the visitor,” said Donna Fernandes, the zoo’s president. “The interpretation will be better, the exhibits will be exquisite and we will be adding some popular species, including Komodo dragons.”

The monitor lizard, with its armored scales, long tail, slithering forked tongue and venomous bite, has proven to be a popular zoo attraction. It is native to a handful of Indonesian islands, and the only lizard known to hunt in groups. And, females are capable of virgin births. Just 4,000 to 5,000 are believed to still live in the wild, due to habitat loss, decline of prey and overhunting.

Other planned attractions include conservation pods, which spotlight the zoo’s role in breeding two highly endangered species, the Panamanian golden frog and the Puerto Rican crested toad; a multispecies exhibit and new additions that include the African dwarf crocodile and Fiji Island iguana. They will join such creatures as a gila monster, king cobra, Chinese three-striped box turtle and American alligator.

Fernandes said she hopes demolition can start in September 2016, with an opening the following June, on the building’s 75th anniversary.

The zoo plans to replace all of the exhibits in the Reptile House, which was constructed under the Works Progress Administration in 1942, renovate the holding rooms and support areas and update mechanicals. Removal of the old exhibits also will rid the zoo of the lead-based paint used when the Reptile House opened. High lead levels have persisted even after lead abatement took place years ago, possibly from seeping into concrete.

The Reptile House’s interior brick walls and brass railings will be preserved.

The 23 new habitats will be fully fabricated reproductions of nature using castings, artistically sculpted elements and live plant material. The work is being done by Peeling Productions, which specializes in exhibition space designs for reptiles and amphibians.

Foit-Albert will design the mechanical upgrades and infrastructure that will help make the building more energy-efficient.

The renovation project includes skylights, upgrades to life-support systems and a new roof, for which Mayor Byron W. Brown put $267,000 into his 2015 budget.

A new display also will honor Marlin Perkins, who designed the Reptile House while working for the zoo as a curator, before becoming known later as the host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” television show that ran from 1963 to 1988.

The zoo is planning to sell naming rights for each of the enclosures to help pay for the renovations, ranging from $10,000 up to $100,000 for the Komodo dragon exhibit.

The next big project after modernizing the old Reptile House will be the roughly $6 million Himalayan Highlands exhibit, intended to increase the diversity of winter attractions.

The snow leopard will be moved to the new enclosure across from M&T Rainforest Falls, where it will join a red panda and other hardy Northern Asia species that can be exhibited all winter. It will replace chain-link fencing that held the eagles and lynx before they were relocated to the Arctic Edge area, as well as the wetlands and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep areas.