Progress is visible to visitors on a set of major construction projects at Cameron Park Zoo that are set to make a new place for endangered penguins in a little more than a year.
Builders working under John W. Erwin General Contractor have begun construction on the new veterinary hospital and education building near the zoo’s main entrance off Fourth Street, and Jacobe Brothers Construction has site preparation underway for a new penguin exhibit.
“We are very excited to have the work on track for the penguin exhibit to be open in summer 2024 and the veterinary hospital able to support it,” interim Zoo Director Duane Hills said Friday.
From the parking lot outside the main entrance at the zoo, the future location of the veterinary hospital and the education center can be seen. A concrete retaining wall in the past week or so has emerged from its wooden forms, giving a sense of how the split-level facility will take shape.
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Supply chain delays have not held up construction on the veterinary hospital or the education center, city facilities project manager Derrick Oltmann said.
“The contractors have slowed the work a bit due to the recent rains, but so far these delays have been on track with weather delays built into the schedule,” Oltmann said Friday. “We are on track to have the animal hospital ready for the penguins when they arrive next summer.”
When the builders get far enough along with construction of the education building, which is at the same level as the parking lot, then they will shift their focus to completing work on the animal hospital, which will be built a few feet up a small hill, behind a retaining wall, Oltmann said.
When the veterinary hospital is finished, it will have space to quarantine new animals when they arrive at the zoo, as well as areas for evaluation, treatment and even surgery for the animals, Hills said.
“One of the key requirements for the penguin exhibit is to have the veterinary hospital sufficiently constructed to receive these animals, take them through the quarantine process and provide any care they may need,” Hills said.
Funding for all aspects of each project is now in place, Oltmann said.
Construction at the zoo went on hold during the pandemic, and by last summer the price tag for four bond-funded projects had grown from $15.3 million to between $22 and $25 million. Voters countywide approved a $14.5 million bond for the projects in 2019, which was expected to cover the cost alongside about $1 million in private donations. The first and by far smallest of the four bond-funded projects, a hoofstock barn, is already complete, with the trio of projects now underway representing the bond package’s headliners.
In September, McLennan County Commissioners Court approved a deal with the city to provide $3.9 million that would benefit the zoo projects. The city and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society found the additional money needed, and officials held a groundbreaking for the vet hospital, education center and penguin exhibit in December.
The penguin exhibit will house black-footed South African penguins, an endangered species well suited to the hot dry summers in Waco. The exhibit will include a large pool and indoor areas where guests can observe the penguins, as well as a pavilion for black-footed cats, a family restroom and a small retail space to sell merchandise.
The education and veterinary centers will be under the same roof, but employees needing to walk from on to the other will have to go outside and walk around the building because no doors or hallways will connect them.
Surgical suites, a pharmacy and spaces tailored for various kinds of animals, including aquatic animals, reptiles and others that require controlled environments, will all be included in the veterinary hospital. The education center will house “animal ambassadors,” including some snakes and small reptiles. It will also contain classrooms, offices and multipurpose spaces available for rent.