“Today, you can arrive at the zoo, you walk in, and you’ll see prairie dogs and a snowy owl,” Fowler said. “But that’s all you see in a 15-minute walk from the front gate to the main part of the zoo. So it’s our job now to turn our attention to the front part of the zoo.”
While some improvements to parking are being funded by the state, the zoo still needs to raise funds for many of its other plans, including some of the new habitats and buildings, Fowler said.
The master plan did not include a price tag for all the proposed improvements. The vision includes developing a new Gateway Building near the front gate, likely to feature indoor and outdoor habitats for amphibians and reptiles, including possible new additions like a Gila monster and Asian water monitor, according to the master plan. The goal is to build the building around 2029.
That building also could showcase the zoo’s work with the Panamanian golden frog, Fowler said. The zoo is a leading institution working to reintroduce the frogs to their native habitat.
“Many people do not know we have that critical role,” Fowler said. “Having a Gateway Building that reflects our work with reptiles and amphibians is very important.”
Just across from the new building could be a new exhibit for gibbons, small apes known for using their long arms to swing from tree to tree. Such an exhibit could include four islands separated by water and connected by ropes overhead, which the gibbons could use to navigate between them. According to the master plan, the exhibit could be constructed in 2025.
“Some of these animals were zoo favorites a decade or two ago, like the gibbon — and we want to bring those back,” Fowler said. “Their call is, in my opinion, beautiful. It’s loud, but they’re fun primates to observe.”
The zoo also hopes to reinvigorate its Main Valley, an area adjacent to the park entrance that was closed to guests for 17 years before reopening in 2021, partially as a place to view old animal enclosures.
The zoo plans to keep some of those old enclosures for historical purposes but also add new habitats to the area, including a raptor habitat highlighting the Steller’s sea eagle. The old elephant house, which hasn’t housed animals in more than 20 years, would be renovated as an event and education space.
The zoo also hopes to improve guests’ experiences in the coming years by adding experience features such as a ropes course or zip line, a project pegged for 2026.
Later this year the zoo plans to begin work to improve and expand its parking areas for guests, according to the master plan. The plan described the existing parking area as “undersized,” adding that “due to potholes and ruts, the surface has become challenging upon which to walk, drive, or push a stroller or wheelchair.”
The zoo has secured state funding to implement a new storm water management system in the parking area, starting in the spring of 2023, to better control water flowing off the lot and toward the Jones Falls, according to the master plan.
“It’s not as exciting as bringing new species and habitats to the zoo, but we’ve had a lot of complaints about our parking lot,” Fowler said.
The zoo also hopes to make sustainability improvements in the years ahead, including by adding a greenhouse to grow certain food items on-site, increasing composting and reducing the energy use of its buildings, Fowler said.
The zoo already instituted a “no idling” policy for vehicles driven by employees and started a relationship with the Compost Crew to compost some of its food waste, Fowler said. The zoo has a goal of becoming “zero waste” by 2025.
The zoo’s newly released master plan includes a number of initiatives focused on employees.
The zoo is searching for a director of diversity, equity, access and inclusivity, who would evaluate the zoo’s ability to attract diverse staff members and guests. It is also evaluating its employee compensation, Fowler said.
The master plan also includes the construction of new office space for staff, including a building near its African Journey area.
“We’ve got employees who work in these 20-year-old trailers that are in really bad condition,” Fowler said. “So that’s one of the important projects.”
Some animals, such as the snowy owl and eagle, are poised to receive new habitats in the coming years, per the master plan. The zoo’s eagle, who previously suffered neurological injuries, doesn’t fly much, but she is “starting to glide,” Fowler said.
“Let’s see where she goes after that, so we want to provide a better and larger habitat for her,” he said. That could happen next year.
The zoo’s grizzly bears also could see their habitat expanded, according to the master plan. A trail would be added connecting them to additional open-air habitat space, the plan states. That could happen in 2026.
It’s a careful balance, Fowler said, between enhancing the livelihoods of the creatures already in the zoo’s care and working to add more animals.
“We’ve got to take care of some of our existing animals, but it’s exciting to be thinking about new species and habitats,” Fowler said.