Alongside the screeching of bald eagles and the bleating of Nigerian goats, there are dramatically different and long-absent sounds emanating from the Brandywine Zoo—those of growth.
On this hot July day, construction crews are busy creating the next stage of expansion for the 115-year-old zoo, sharpening its focus on the exhibition of rare animals, educating visitors and boosting conservation efforts. Concrete is being poured for curbs around the soon-to-open Madagascar exhibit, with a new viewing gazebo being framed out simultaneously. The fabricated structure that will form a waterfall is being finished, and the epoxy floor of the animal holding pen is drying.
The habitat, part of the biggest expansion in the zoo’s history, will eventually be home to three species of lemur—ringtail, black and white ruffed, and crown—and radiated tortoises, all native to Madagascar, says zoo director Brint Spencer. The exhibit will focus not just on the animals themselves but also on the challenges they face in the wild—including deforestation as a result of vanilla and coffee production, and illegal sapphire mining. With the potential addition of guinea fowl, “we’ll have mammals, birds and reptiles all occupying the same space,” Spencer says. “It’s going to be a really dynamic exhibit and very different from anything we’ve got here.”
For a zoo with a history marked more by contraction than expansion, this is a big step. While always small compared to other zoos, there was a time when the Brandywine Zoo encompassed significantly more square footage in the park of which it’s part. Monkey Hill was named for the primate house that once stood there, and longtime zoo visitors can likely recall when the zoo displayed large mammals like bears and tigers in tiny enclosures.
The addition of the Madagascar exhibit, visible from Brandywine Park, marks only part of the expansion that forms part of the Our Zoo Reimagined master plan. Other elements of the plan include adding a South American wetlands habitat at the zoo’s entrance that will feature Chilean flamingos and eventually, zoo officials hope, other species that could include sloths and Southern pudú, the smallest deer species in the world.
The Madagascar exhibit will represent some of the most modern approaches in zoo habitats, Spencer says. Warming lamps and heated surfaces will keep the lemurs within public view longer—even in cooler months—and large windows in the covered area at the top of the exhibit will make it easier for visitors to see and interact with the animals. This covered gazebo will also potentially serve as a rental space for private events, he notes, supporting the efforts of the Brandywine Zoological Society, the zoo’s fundraising and development arm. A level below, the pool and the waterfall will be more visible and will provide an additional look at the animals.
“Each viewing area is going to be different from the other viewing area,” he says.
The ultimate goal of the changes, Spencer says, is to boost the zoo’s appeal not just to the “stroller crowd”—those with small children or grandchildren—but to all ages of visitors who can enjoy the experience of seeing and interacting with rare and endangered animals and maybe learn a few things along the way.
“It’s like a little oasis here,” Spencer says. “People can come and have a fun, educational, safe time, and all of that is important right now.