Yesterday marked an exciting occasion at the zoo with the official groundbreaking ceremony for Cat Canyon. Dignitaries, donors, staff and local residents gathered for the official tossing of the first shovel of dirt for a new cat exhibit at Lee Richardson Zoo.

As much time as I and other zoo staff and volunteers have spent bringing this project to this point, it is hard to imagine there are still people out there who may be unfamiliar with it, but the zoo has such a broad base of support, and with the large variety of communications methods around today, it's difficult to keep everyone up to date. So bear with me and I will try to do just that.

Cat Canyon has been on the horizon for many years, initially just as a thought or sketch on a master plan, then as a preliminary plan for fund-raising purposes, and more recently it evolved into the full-blown plans necessary to construct a new zoo exhibit.

Cat Canyon will be located between the otter and bison/elk exhibits. The exhibit will house three species of cats already at the zoo: jaguars, puma (aka Mountain lion or cougar) and bobcat. Their current "Cats of the Americas" exhibit was built in 1980 with the intent of housing small cats, or at least those smaller than a jaguar or puma. Now 32 years later, the facility is definitely showing its age, the indoor holding areas are much smaller than desirable for current animal husbandry practices, and lack many features that have evolved over the last 30 years to keep both our human and animal resources safe. The new yards will be larger and more natural than the current ones, as they will be on natural dirt with grass, rocks (real and artificial), logs and trees for shade. The two larger yards will have heated basking rocks located near the viewing windows, as well as small ponds for drinking and splashing, which the jaguars should particularly enjoy.

If you have been following Cat Canyon progress, you may remember that the first time the project went out to bid that costs came in much higher than expected. As such, zoo staff put heads together with contractors and the architect and modified the plans to try and bring the second round of bids in at a level more in line with the original cost estimate and available funds. These changes did indeed help to lessen costs, but without a noticeable impact on the necessary elements of the project. The public will still view all three yards through glass windows located in a building at the north side of the exhibit, and the path to Cat Canyon will still originate from the path through Kansas Waters. The yards will still be significantly larger than the ones the cats currently have, and the indoor holding will feature multiple, larger dens. Just like humans, there are times when individual animals need or desire their own space, and having three dens per species will give us options.

One new feature of the revised plans includes a separate ground-level holding building for the jaguars and puma. Originally, the cat holding was on the second story of the viewing building, but logistics of this design ended up being more expensive than anticipated and the second floor was eliminated. All in all, the project has changed, but essentially remains the same as the original vision, and we know that all of our donors, supporters and visitors will be as anxious as we are to see the cats in their new home.

Construction should start in earnest around Aug. 13, with some preliminary preparations taking place between now and then. The project will take about eight months for the contractor portion, and then zoo staff will have other details to attend to, from landscaping to exhibit furniture, to moving cats and lots of other finishing touches. We'll keep you posted on our progress, and want to extend our heartfelt thanks to all of our generous donors and members who have made construction of this great new addition to the zoo possible. Thank you!

Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.