Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Photo by Woody Huband

its all happening at the Zoo

Lucy tentatively taps the water’s surface, seemingly mesmerized by the far reaching ripples. Before she can contemplate the movement in her own reflection, Lucy’s attention is drawn away like any other three year old by a large, round ball floating by with the tattered remnants of birthday wrapping paper still clinging to the wet plastic. She gives it a playful nudge before wandering off in search of new adventures, indifferent to the watchful eyes surrounding her. Typical childish behavior, for sure, but Lucy is not your average toddler.

She is a Sumatran tiger and is one of five new arrivals to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, having been recently relocated from another zoo in Oklahoma City. Her 12-year-old future mate, Berani, hails from the Akron Zoo in Ohio. Also joining the pair are the trio of endangered Malayan tiger brothers Jaya, Bunga, and Penari, all of whom were previously housed at the Palm Beach Zoo.

Land of the Tigers recently opened to the public on March 8 as part of the Jacksonville Zoo and Garden’s centennial anniversary celebration. The 2.5-acre exhibit is a stunning visual feat that offers zoo patrons the rare opportunity to view these giant cats at close range and from virtually all angles. It also gives the tigers the unique panoramic vantage point of their new home and curious visitors.

Bob Chabot, director of horticulture and facilities at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, is the mastermind behind the exhibit’s pristine design. The open-air space is less zoo enclosure than it is an impressive playground for these five majestic cats, with a deep pool for swimming and cooling off in the heat of the summer months, a waterfall, and 1,200 linear feet of elevated trail system, which provides the tigers with a bird’s eye view of their space while offering zoo patrons an intimate viewing experience. “The trail system is really the most innovative part of this exhibit. Its purpose is to give these cats tunnels so they can leave their exhibit and travel around the back side and through the people space,” Chabot says. “They are not just stuck in one spot like a typical exhibit. They have the opportunity to make choices.”

The $9.8 million exhibit is not just limited to tigers. A breeding pairs of Babirusa pigs, Asian small-clawed otters, three Visayan warty pigs, and an aviary for wrinkled and wreathed hornbills are also featured throughout the spacious new addition. While the tigers are the exclusive tenants in their habitat, the otters and pigs are sharing their new digs. “They are taking to it really well,” Chabot says. “The otters are chasing the pigs around. It is really quite comical.”

Babirusa pigs are originally found on the Sulawesi, Togian, and Baru islands in the Indonesian archipelago where the word babirusa is translated to “pig-deer” in Indonesian. They are excellent swimmers, and the male babirusa are easily identified by their unusual tusks. The three Visayan warty pigs are native to the forests of the Visayan Islands in the Philippines, where the endangered species has become extinct on four of the six islands.

The Asian small-clawed otter is the smallest–and most vocal–of the world’s 13 otter species. They are capable of making about a dozen calls and are found in the rain forests throughout Asia, including Indonesia, southern China, southern India, and the Philippines.

Often confused with the toucan because of their long, colorful beaks, the zoo’s new pair of wrinkled hornbills hail from a completely different family of birds. The wrinkled hornbill is native to southern Thailand, Malaysia, and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The wreathed hornbills are originally found in the forests of Southeast Asia. The gender of the wreathed hornbill is identifiable by the color of their throats. The male’s throat skin is yellow, while the female’s is blue.

All of the new arrivals were brought into the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens from other zoos. Chabot says zoos typically lend animals to each other depending on the individual needs of each zoo as outlined in a Species Survival Plan. “There is what is called an SSP-–a Species Survival Plan–-and those plans are put together essentially to keep these species alive and keep them from becoming extinct. The coordinators of these programs track and monitor all of the bloodlines and the genetics within a species and make recommendations on which animals to breed based on that,” says Chabot.

The pair of Sumatran tigers are planned as a breeding pair, although Chabot says the pair, “have not been formally introduced.” Zoo staff must gradually acquaint new animals with one another, especially in breeding situations to ease the transition and avoid the risk of rejection. “They have seen each other, but there is a whole process of introducing animals,” he says. “It is always a slow, deliberately planned process.”

The acquisition process is an arduous one and communication is key. Based on the SSP findings and the needs of a particular facility, zoo staff are entered onto a waiting list and often must negotiate the terms to procure a specific breed of animal. “It’s pretty labor intensive,” Chabot says. “It’s not like we can just go into a catalog or go online and buy a tiger.”

Habitat is equally as important in welcoming a new species to the zoo. Chabot was methodical in his design, incorporating plants and grasses that are native to the Asian region while also being tolerant of the Florida climate. The Land of the Tiger has an authentic Asian feel down to the smallest detail. Even the utilitarian features are designed with the aesthetics in mind. Metal beams are created to mimic the look of bamboo and the tunnel system is prefabricated to look like a strangler fig, which is a kind of ficus tree. Moss tends to grow on the north side of such trees, which is represented within the exhibit. “Their native habitat is Southeast Asia, so that is a warm, tropical place, and that is part of the reason we brought them to Florida. You want to stay with species that are from a similar climate when you can,” Chabot says.

While aesthetics and authenticity are of equal importance when creating the overall theme of the Asian Gardens and Land of the Tiger exhibits, Chabot said safety of the animals and guests is paramount. All of the features are created with reinforced steel bars and mesh, and the tunnels and gates can be closed with an elaborate pulley system should there be a breach in security.

All of the zoo’s trainers and educators are trained in disaster preparedness from everything to an animal escape to a fire or hurricane. Chabot says the zoo staff created a few new positions to manage the needs and facilitate the training and care for its newest residents. The new team members all have previous experience with big cats and will be instrumental in their care. While most of the animal training typically happens behind the scenes, Chabot says a public portal was constructed within one of the viewing areas to give zoo patrons a front row seat. “More and more, we and other zoos are designing on the public side of things,” he says of the training window, which will allow guests to see just how animals learn to participate in their own care from opening their mouth on command for a dental check up to presenting a shoulder or other action that might assist the veterinary teams in completing a physical.

The architects of the project are the Seattle-based firm, PJA Architects. They have created show stopping exhibits at zoos around the country including the spectacular Asian Bamboo Gardens, which also house the komodo dragons at the Jacksonville Zoo. Chabot says the Asian Gardens, which is his personal favorite in terms of landscaping and design, is the first phase of a lengthy master plan, which he hopes will extend beyond his tenure. “It has really broadened our audience. I think it has contributed to our record-setting attendance. Year after year, we keep exceeding our attendance records. We are on track to do that again this year, in big part thanks to the tigers,” he says. “There is always more to do.”

Future plans for the zoo include a medical facility for manatees in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. It will not be a public exhibit, but Chabot says the project will meet a need in the Northeast Florida area where manatees often sustain boating injuries and are exposed to the state’s coldest temperatures. “Right now, a manatee would need to be transported to the closest facility, in Tampa,” he says. “That’s a long ride and creates even further stress for the manatees.”

Chabot is also looking forward to the possibility of an aquarium in downtown Jacksonville. The project seems to finally be getting some real traction in light of its One Spark success, and Chabot is hopeful that AquaJax, the group behind the proposal, will use the funding to initiate a feasibility study to determine if a new aquarium will float. “It’s too early to say whether that will happen or not, but it’s at the table,” he says. “And who better to help out with that than the zoo?”

Things are quieting down in the Land of the Tigers. Lucy rests gracefully atop a rock as kids dart by in a buzz of delighted squeals. Chabot smiles serenely as he strolls past the sleepy tigers and the playful otters. He greets every employee by name and pauses to field questions from young visitors with all the enthusiasm of a proud parent. “This is the fun part,” he says. “I feel so lucky to work here.”

About Liza Mitchell