The zoo in Wichita turns 50 years old in 2021! Many visitors are surprised to find a zoo of this size (115 developed acres), scope (more than 3,000 animals) and caliber (400 species grouped geographically in natural habitats) in Kansas.
Those who live in the community or have visited before, though, know that the Sedgwick County Zoo (SCZ) is a must-see attraction in Wichita.
To celebrate the zoo’s golden jubilee year, we worked with SCZ executive director Dr. Jeff Ettling to highlight milestones from the past five decades, as the zoo grew from two buildings opened in 1971 to the most visited outdoor attraction in the state.
1971: Sedgwick County Zoo opened with two buildings, the American and Asian barns.
1973: Two-year-old African elephants Stephanie and Cinda join the zoo in an area called the African Veldt.
Fun fact: Stephanie is now the matriarch of a herd of eight elephants living in the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley habitat!
1974: The Herpetarium opened with species from all over the planet and innovative design to give amphibians and reptiles naturalistic surroundings and to bring the public in as close as safely possible. The elevated Aldabra Tortoise indoor habitat was one of the first at a zoo to put guests eye-to-eye with these giants of the reptile world and that habitat remains today in an area now called Amphibians & Reptiles. SCZ received national recognition in 1977 for being the first zoo to breed green tree pythons and green & black poison frogs.
1977: SCZ opened the second walk-through jungle exhibit in a U.S. zoo. Considered an immersion exhibit, it allowed visitors to walk in and feel the tropical warmth and humidity, to brush against plants, and to share the same space with birds and other animals.
“SCZ was being built as a time when older zoos were just starting to modernize with more immersive, naturalistic exhibits, so our zoo had the opportunity to put such exhibits in place from day one,” Ettling said.
Now called The Tropics, this exhibit was renovated in 2015 in a way that continued its tradition of innovation. At the time, the building was one of a handful at U.S. zoos to have a roof made of Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). This material is beneficial for plants and animals living inside, including 80 different species of birds, fish, bats and invertebrates.
1980: The Australian Outback and South American Pampas exhibit is now simply called Australia/South America and a 2003 renovation made it one of the largest walk-through aviaries in the country. In addition to free-flight birds, visitors also see free-roaming mammals.
1981: SCZ voluntarily earned its first accreditation from the Association of Zoo & Aquariums (AZA). This accreditation became mandatory in 1985 and SCZ has continuously maintained its status with subsequent accreditations. Seeing a facility that is AZA-accredited lets visitors know that zoo or aquarium meets the highest standards in animal care and welfare while providing a fun, safe and educational family experience. Of the 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the USDA across the United States, less than 10% meet the AZA’s high standards. There are about 240 AZA-accredited facilities.
1982: The Apes & Man building opened to not only showcase orangutan and chimpanzees but to demonstrate the physical and mental similarities and differences between apes and man. To celebrate the zoo’s 25th birthday in 1996, the KOCH Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat opened, giving the primates outdoor space for the first time and multiple viewing levels for visitors.
1986: The SCZ’s boat ride opened and continues to operate today (it will reopen May 31, 2021, after closing during the pandemic). The ride was incorporated into the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley habitat that opened in 2016. By installing a one-of-a-kind underwater barrier that is not visible, the zoo can take the boat into the same 80-yard-long, 550,000-gallon water feature the elephants can access.
“We believe this is the largest water feature for African elephants in a zoo anywhere on the planet,” Ettling said. “This barrier provides guests an opportunity to potentially share the same body of water with the elephants, safely.”
1993: The North American Prairie area was part of the original master plan for the zoo created by SCZ’s first director Ronald L. Blakely in 1969. The expansive 11 acres was the largest section of the zoo and opened just two years after Blakely retired. It focuses on prairie animals of North America in natural surroundings, with an emphasis on Kansas wildlife as it existed prior to civilization on the plains. Today the area includes bison, grizzly bears, black bears, river otters, cougars and Mexican grey wolf, among others.
Fun Fact: Grizzly bear Mallory (pictured) and senior keeper Nancy were at SCZ for the opening and are celebrating 28 years together in 2021.
2000: Pride of the Plains, with funding from Junior League of Wichita, opened to provide a larger, more natural habitat for the zoo’s lions. The new area also allowed SCZ to add meerkats, red river hogs and African painted dogs.
“The Pride of the Plains marked the onset of SCZ moving towards larger, more naturalistic habitats for our resident animals,” Ettling said. “This exhibit set a standard for us moving forward, with every subsequent new exhibit raising the bar even higher.”
2004: Downing Gorilla Forest opened, taking immersive exhibitry to a new level for the zoo by allowing visitors to view gorillas from in the middle of the western lowland gorillas’ home. The 8-acre area replicates a forest in Central Africa and also houses colobus monkeys and okapi.
2007: Cessna Penguin Cove brought Humboldt penguins, native to the rocky Pacific Coast of South America, to Wichita.
2009: The Slawson Family Tiger Trek opened, immersing visitors in an Asian forest, where they could find a new experience around every bend in the path. Glass viewing ports give face-to-face experiences with endangered red pandas and Amur tigers. Two large outdoor habitats allow SCZ to have two tigers on exhibit at the same time.
“Tiger Trek was built to help with the sustainability of the tiger population in human care as well as to educate our guests about their plight in nature, namely poaching and logging,” Ettling said. “There are estimated to only be 3,900 wild tigers remaining, with 500 being Amur Tigers. The interpretive graphics throughout the Tiger Trek observation building discuss tiger natural history as well as the conservation challenges they face and how the zoo is helping protect tigers and their habitat.”
2016: Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley, named for long-time zoo director Mark C. Reed, opened a state-of-the art indoor/outdoor area on 5 acres. The opening coincided with the rescue of six African elephants from drought-stricken Eswatini and brought to Wichita to live with Stephanie, who came to the zoo as a 2-year-old in 1973.
“The new elephant exhibit was created to communicate the plight of elephants in the wild, our ongoing partnership with conservation professionals to protect elephants and their habitat, and to be transparent about how we care for elephants here at the Sedgwick County Zoo,” Ettling said. “The exhibit set and continues to maintain the highest standards for elephant welfare and makes our zoo a key player in the population sustainability and conservation of African elephants among AZA facilities. We are proud of the commitment that our zoo has made to elephants in human care and in the wild.”
2021: Sedgwick County Zoo is opening a new entry complex soon and completing an expanded leopard habitat scheduled to open in September 2021.
The leopard project will connect to the current Tiger Trek and will be renamed the Slawson Family Asian Big Cat Trek. The new space will allow SCZ to house enough leopards to participate in the Species Survival Plan breeding plan for Amur leopards, which are on the critically endangered list. The zoo also will add snow leopards for the first time, and the habitat will be the first at SCZ to include overhead catwalks offering unique viewing opportunities for both visitors and the cats.
The Future: The new entrance and leopard habitat complete phase 1 of a 25-year master plan created in 2019 by Ettling, who became the zoo’s director in 2017. SCZ sits on 215 acres and with 115 acres developed acres, the zoo has an additional 100 acres with which to work.
“The first priority will be to focus on the resident animals and providing them with the best habitats possible based on the best available science, similar to what we have done recently for elephants and leopards,” Ettling said of his vision for the zoo. “Exhibits that were built during the zoo’s first 10 to 20 years will be high priority for renovation and expansion. With that said, it doesn’t mean that we won’t incorporate any new species as we renovate and enlarge habitats.”
In addition to enlarged habitats for chimpanzees, orangutans, bears and a multitude of other species, the masterplan includes an expansion of the African savanna exhibit to replace the African Veldt built in 1973. This project would incorporate 35 acres of undeveloped property on the west side of the zoo and feature an African themed lodge with a view of a mixed herd of giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and other antelope species on savanna.
Find details on how you can celebrate the 50th birthday of Wichita’s zoo.