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Live animals become major attraction at sculpture gardens prompting expansion

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When Brookgreen Gardens expanded the otter exhibit at its Lowcountry Zoo last year, it drew quite a crowd — and the increase in traffic is holding steady.

Whereas the zoo was attracting 70 to 80 percent of visitors to the gardens every month, it now attracts 90 percent or higher, said Andrea DeMuth, Brookgreen’s curator of animals.

With such a positive response to the addition of one exhibit, Brookgreen officials are optimistic about the possible effects of a much larger expansion they have planned for the zoo.

The otter exhibit, which was expanded to include an aquarium that allows visitors to see the otters as they swim and play underwater, was the first on a list of new exhibits in a master plan for the zoo. Officials wanted to use that exhibit to gauge interest in an expanded zoo.

The interest seems to be there, said DeMuth, so Brookgreen will move forward with plans to seek funding to build more exhibits.

Up next will be a butterfly exhibit, scheduled to open next spring near the barn. The 40-by-80-foot structure will house about 2,000 butterflies and native flora.

“This exhibit is another one that will appeal to all ages,” said Bob Jewell, president and CEO of Brookgreen. “We’re excited about this, and we think it’s going to be neat.”

With the new exhibits, he said, he believes the quality of the zoo is being elevated every year and that progress will continue.

The forthcoming exhibit is a fitting one, he added, as the gardens were designed in the shape of a butterfly.

Next in line for the zoo will be exhibits for black bears and red wolves, DeMuth said. The habitat for the red wolves, one of the most endangered animals in the world, will be placed across from the otter exhibit, according to plans. Brookgreen wants to have an overlook area that will allow visitors to look down into the exhibit.

Brookgreen’s architect has proposed a tunnel that would run between the red wolf exhibit and the neighboring black bear exhibit. Windows in the exhibit would allow visitors to observe the wolves at their watering hole on one side of the tunnel and look into the bear’s den on the other.

The design was inspired by a similar setup at a zoo in Germany, according to DeMuth.

Near the existing fox exhibit will go one for bobcats and a puma exhibit will be placed near the deer. A small mammals exhibit will be put in place for bats, skunks and armadillos. A Carolina wetlands exhibit is also planned for beavers and snakes, among others.

Jewell said he isn’t sure when those exhibits might be added, but it will likely be several years down the road.

“It will depend on what the economy brings in the next 18 months,” he explained. “The initial plan called for several million dollars in expansions and, based on the economy right now, we just can’t be as aggressive as we originally intended. We’ve had to change our strategy. What we’re trying to do is slow it down and do this in phases as we can afford it.”

The expansion of the otter exhibit cost about $400,000, three-fourths of which was raised by the Friends of Brookgreen’s 2007 gala, an annual fund-raiser attended by folks from all over the state. Plans are to pay for the new butterfly exhibit in the same way, but Jewell said he doubts that will work for the other planned additions, which are expected to be more costly.

The black bear exhibit and the Carolina wetlands exhibit, for example, are projected to cost three to four times more.

While Brookgreen looks at finding funding for future exhibits, its staff is also working to improve, and in some cases expand, what it already has.

“We’re working this summer to clean up, add fencing and pressure wash the facilities,” DeMuth said.

Plans are also in the works to “significantly upgrade” the white-tailed deer exhibit, which, at 20 acres, has a lot of extra space for expansion.

“That’s a significant improvement we could make without a lot of money,” Jewell said. “We’re trying to do more things like that right now.”

DeMuth said there has been talk about a walkway that would take visitors into a portion of the exhibit, offering a better opportunity to observe the animals. A gazebo at the end of the walk would also offer a peaceful, pleasant place to rest.

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