By Lance Armstrong
Citizen Staff Writer
With the possibility that Elk Grove could become the future home of the Sacramento Zoo, Elk Grove Mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen and other city officials visited the Houston Zoo on Nov. 4.
The trip occurred about six weeks after the city’s staff and the Sacramento Zoological Society announced plans to consider the relocation and expansion of the Sacramento Zoo to a 60-acre portion of a 98-acre parcel near the future intersection of Lotz Parkway and Kammerer Road in south Elk Grove.
That undeveloped land is currently owned by Kamilos Companies. The city secured an option to purchase that property, which would be appropriately zoned for a zoological park upon the city’s approval of a use permit.
The current, 14-acre zoo location in Sacramento’s William Land Park is considered insufficient in size, and has extremely limited parking availability for its visitors. A larger zoo site would also allow the zoo to further its mission of supporting conservation and education.
The city and the zoological society agreed in September to spend six months studying the feasibility of establishing a zoo at the Elk Grove site.
Upon the completion of that study, the Elk Grove City Council will vote whether they feel the zoo is a good fit for that location.
Elk Grove City Manager Jason Behrmann noted that the feasibility study period presents an opportunity for the city to investigate many aspects of a potential zoo in Elk Grove.
“We’re visiting zoos, we’re talking to other people affiliated with zoos, other professionals in the business,” he said. “So, that’s what this is right now. We’re kind of really informing, educating ourselves, so when it comes time for the council to make a decision, they feel like they’ve done the research.”
Behrmann, who was among the city representatives who visited the Houston Zoo, told the Citizen that the feasibility study period could be extended beyond six months.
“It’s possible that it could go beyond that (time), but we’re trying to get things buttoned up,” he said. “So, we should have the feasibility study (completed) sometime in early 2022, and be able to make some decisions shortly thereafter.”
Behrmann mentioned that the City Council would be making a decision on whether the city would commit to continuing to spend money on zoo design efforts and whether the city would close on the property, since it does not currently have ownership of that land.
“Right now, it’s just an option agreement (for the city to purchase that property),” he said.
The city manager added that it could also be determined through the study that the city could seek to purchase more or less than 60 acres for the zoo project.
“That’s one of the things we’re trying to study right now is what is that optimal size, how many acres do we need?” he said.
Singh-Allen mentioned that city’s study of the feasibility of a zoo in Elk Grove is a “very open and transparent process.”
In addition to her visit to the Houston Zoo, Singh-Allen also participated in a tour of the Fresno Chafee Zoo on Oct. 22.
Singh-Allen shared details about a feature she liked at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.
“In the Fresno zoo, they have this beautiful African savanna, and it’s a very modern look at what a zoo could be, with a very natural habitat with species coexisting in this beautiful savanna,” she said.
The mayor mentioned that both study missions were strategically selected.
“Fresno was selected because it’s a comparable climate to Sacramento and then Houston was selected because it would be comparable to a size,” Singh-Allen said. “They were very specific. It’s not like we went to San Francisco and San Diego. They were very specific as part of a study mission.”
Singh-Allen stressed that the new zoo would take a modern approach by focusing on conservation and educational opportunities.
“The zoos of 100 years ago have no place in modern society,” she said.
She also described the potential Elk Grove zoo as both a “tremendous economic driver” and more evidence that “Elk Grove is open for business.”
“If this all comes together, it’s a beautiful day for our city, but even a better day for all of the animals we get to help save,” she said.
Upon his return from Houston, Elk Grove City Council Member Kevin Spease told the Citizen that his visit to that city’s zoo was “very insightful.”
“The Houston Zoo tour was very insightful into construction and operations of a world-class zoo,” he said. “The idea of designing, developing and operating a zoo is very exciting and, at the same time, we need to understand the initial investment, ongoing costs and risk.”
Spease stressed that it is important to be sure a sound investment can be presented to the Elk Grove community.
Council Member Pat Hume said that he found the trip to the Houston Zoo helpful in envisioning the long-range plan for a similar sized zoo.
“It was helpful to hear about emerging trends, best practices and the needs and flexibility that should be anticipated in a new project,” he said.
Hume also noted that Houston Zoo operators described their struggles and what they would do differently if they were building a new zoo.
“(They would) have more naturalistic, multi-species exhibits arranged by geography, rather than similar animals clumped together,” he said. “(They would) build redundancy into the infrastructure, so that repairs and maintenance are more manageable.”
Hume added that other ideas would be to create flexibility at the exhibits for power sources and sound systems to transform spaces into learning centers, and use topography and plantings to provide a sense of depth to a habitat, rather than a visible enclosure.
As a 21st century zoo, a new zoo in Elk Grove could additionally use modern technology to enhance the experience for its guests, Hume noted.
“Think QR (Quick Response) code that pulls up a website on a particular exhibit,” he said.
Hume mentioned that another idea for the potential Elk Grove zoo would be to construct places that could accommodate public events.
Elizabeth Stallard, president of the zoological society’s board of trustees, told the Citizen that the zoo study missions represent the feasibility study’s first phase.
Stallard noted that with the completion of the first-phase, gathering of information pertaining to habitats and amenities that would make sense to include at the potential new zoo in Elk Grove, the study’s second phase will begin.
“The next phase, which is going to take some time to do it, is looking at a proposed plan for the (Elk Grove) site, and evaluating what kinds of things we want to have there, how much they could potentially cost, so we can get a sense of the overall scope of the project,” she said.