Visitors get up close, personal at new cat exhibit




Nearly 400 people showed up for Sunday's ribbon cutting for the new Cat Canyon exhibit at Lee Richardson Zoo, and even more filtered in throughout the day following the ceremony. The $1 million exhibit provides a larger, more natural habitat for the zoo's cougar, bobcats and jaguars, which previously were housed in the Cats of the America exhibit — an earlier Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo project completed in 1981.

David and Theresa Carr brought their children, Destinee, Isabella, Miranda and Mozelle, to the ribbon cutting.

"I thought it was pretty nice. It was a little crowded, but what do you expect?" David Carr said. "I think it's great. We're members, so we drive through three or four times a week."

Isabella Carr was impressed with the cats.

"They're cool," she said.

Ben and Helen Weeks liked the new exhibit, especially the opportunity to see the cats up close.

"I think it's a big improvement over what it used to be," Ben Weeks said. "It's nice to be able to get within an inch."

Helen Weeks said the comment of a lot of people inside was about being "up close and personal" with the cats.

Kimberly Nading said she loves the new exhibit.

"Garden City really needed this," she said.

Cory Goeman, who enjoys photography as a hobby, looked forward to getting closer to the animals.

"I'm hoping to get some really good shots and photos. It's going to be great here," he said.

Designed by WDM Architects of Wichita, funds for Cat Canyon were raised through donations, special events, grants and two zoo-themed theatrical shows. The groundbreaking took place on Aug. 2, 2012, and construction by Harbin Construction of Salina began soon after.

Cat Canyon features glass viewing windows, allowing guests a face-to-whisker viewing of the cats.

The exhibit is home to three jaguars, three bobcats, and a new mountain lion. The mountain lion, Payton, recently arrived at the zoo from Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita.

Kathy Sexson, executive director of the zoo, thanked the crowd for coming to the zoo to help celebrate its newest exhibit. She also thanked individuals and organizations for their financial and in-kind contributions to the project, as well as city staff and commissioners, the contractor, architect, zoo staff, animal keepers and board members and FOLRZ members.

Sexson said donors and supporters recognized what an asset the zoo is to the community, and also noted that the zoo draws from a four-state region regularly and has visitors from all 50 states each year.

"This has been a long and enjoyable process for us at the zoo. It's been a lot of hard work. We have had a lot of help along the way," she said. "They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think the same could be said for building a cat exhibit."

Brian Nelson, executive director of FOLRZ, said that four years ago, Skip Mancini contacted him about doing a fundraiser for the exhibit, which led to Cat Tales, a volunteer-produced theatrical production.

"I just wanted to acknowledge that it was volunteers, donors, grants and all of those that pretty much sells this exhibit. Not only did we have donations and grants, we had things like garage sales — even had a little girl give her piggy bank," Nelson said. "That's something we're really proud of in our community."

Mayor Dan Fankhauser said Garden City is a regional center for western Kansas, and the zoo is part of making that happen, along with a quality airport, hospital, downtown and retail shopping.

"Thank you all for coming today. It's a little windy, but it's a great day for Garden City," he said.

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