Cat Canyon nears completion




Staff of Lee Richardson Zoo took a tour Thursday of the much-anticipated Cat Canyon, which is nearing completion. The exhibit, which will house the "Cats of the Americas," is expected to take place in August or September, as other finishing touches and landscaping still need to be completed.

Kathy Sexson, zoo director, said the purpose of the tour was to provide the contractor, Harbin Construction of Salina, with a punch list of items that need to be completed, such as exhibit tops, fences, painting, electrical and mechanical work.

Once construction is completed, zoo staff will build feeding chutes equipped with safety features that will allow zoo keepers to feed the cats once they are in their stalls. Sexson said this will also prevent food from spoiling in the sun, should one of the cats decide not to eat at feeding time.

Dead trees for the cats to climb on were placed in the exhibit Thursday morning.

"They hauled in some large dead fall that we had kind of salvaged from the zoo — just trees we would have taken down anyway and would have been hauled off," Sexson said, adding that the "Cats of the Americas" like to climb, which is also why there are roofs on the exhibits.

Other landscaping will have to wait until the weather warms up a bit.

"We're going to plant native grass in the yards ... so we can't even do that until probably late April or early May, just because the ground's not warm enough. But before we can do that, we need to get sprinkler systems in there and that's something that we'll get prices on and probably hire someone to do that just for the sake of expediency," Sexson said.

Brian Nelson, executive director of Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo, the zoo's fundraising arm, said each of the spaces made available for the cats, which include two jaguars and two bobcats, will have features specific to the natural habitat of each. One feature that jaguars like, Nelson said, is the heated rocks situated right next to the viewing area

"So that draws them up to sit right in front of the windows where people can see them up close," he said. "Jaguars are actually a cat that loves water, so they have a nice big pool, too."

The bobcat section of the exhibit does not have a water feature, but one of the dead trees placed in its exhibit is a hollowed out stump.

"Bobcats are a lot smaller, so that (stump) is something they can duck into. Their yard is smaller, but they like the height more than the space, so it's going to be more of a built-up exhibit," he said.

The other cat that was supposed to be moving into the new exhibit was Sherman the mountain lion, who died a few months ago, disappointing zoo staff because they wanted him to have the chance to enjoy his new surroundings. Sexson said they are looking into the possibility of getting another mountain lion.

"We are looking. We are on some waiting lists, if any become available. That's not a species that zoos regularly breed, and so usually when zoos get those, they come as orphan wild cubs that they've brought in that have lost their mother, or they're wandering around somewhere lost," Sexson said. "If we're going to get them, we want to get them from proper sources and if we can help out by taking some that are picked up by the state wildlife department or something like that, that's sort of what we're looking at."

If they are unable to find a mountain lion, Sexson said they are looking into the possibility of getting a third jaguar instead.

"We'd like to stick with the mountain lion, but one thing that is an option that we've been offered is a third jaguar and if we took that, we could have that one in the mountain lion exhibit, but ultimately it would be nice if we could put all three of the jaguars together. That all depends on personalities, introductions and who gets along with who, so you take them knowing that you may or may not be successful at integrating them," she said.

Nelson said some of the other finishing touches will include signage in the viewing area that will provide educational information about each cat, as well as signage acknowledging the project's donors.

Sexson said that the zoo is appreciative of the community support for the project.

"This is kind of the ultimate experience for people who have given to the FOLRZ and through memberships to be able to construct an exhibit like this," she said.

Sexson said they expect the exhibit to be complete by late August or early September.

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