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New penguin exhibit highlights BioPark’s 2019

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

One of the biggest and most anticipated openings of 2019 was not an art gallery, sports venue, restaurant or new night club; rather it was the opening of the $18 million Penguin Chill exhibit at the ABQ BioPark Zoo in July.

The Penguin Chill exhibit at the ABQ BioPark Zoo was one of the most anticipated openings of the year. The exhibit is home to more than 30 sub-Antarctic King, Gentoo and Macaroni penguins. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The BioPark has four components – the aquarium, the botanic gardens, Tingley beach and the zoo. Combined, the BioPark is the state’s No. 1 most popular attraction, with 1.2 million visits. And that total doesn’t include attendance at this year’s River of Lights extravaganza, which was recently named one of the top holiday light displays in the country by a number of magazines and websites, including Travel and Leisure, The Daily Meal, Family Travel Forum and House Beautiful.

BioPark attendance is up an estimated 24% over last year, largely because of the Penguin Chill exhibit, said zoo manager Lynn Tupa.

Sunny, an 18-year-old Komodo dragon, seen here in 2015, died from age-related kidney failure in January. The following month, Indah, a 5-year-old female Komodo dragon, was transferred to the BioPark Zoo from the Phoenix Zoo. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

The 14,550-square-foot building is home to more than 30 sub-Antarctic King, Macaroni and Gentoo penguins. Visitors can watch them in a primary viewing area that offers 79 linear feet of floor-to-ceiling windows for unobstructed above and below water perspectives into the 75,589-gallon main tank.

It is the largest indoor facility for sub-Antarctic penguins in the Southwest, Tupa said. The exhibit sits on a one-acre site landscaped to resemble the Argentine city of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America.

The BioPark, a favorite venue of adults and children alike, is home to more than 1,885 critters large and small, including fish, bugs, mammals, birds and reptiles. Most are displayed in habitats intended to mimic their respective natural environments, and provide visitors an opportunity to see an animal that they might not otherwise encounter.

Archer, a Mexican gray wolf, was born at the ABQ BioPark Zoo in May, the first time in almost 15 years that a wolf has had a litter at the zoo. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Deaths and departures

Of course there have been animal births and deaths at the zoo, in addition to transfers of animals to and from the facility this year.

Many of the animals who died, did so as a normal consequence of old age – a number of them at an age well beyond the normal life expectancy for that species. That, says Tupa, speaks well of the zoo and its ability and commitment to care for its animals.

In January the zoo lost jaguar Onca, also known as Manchas, who died at age 20, exceeding the average lifespan of 17 years for jaguars.

In March, Poppi the 9-year-old Tasmanian devil passed away, exceeding the 5-year expected lifespan.

In August, Mountain Lion Spanky died, followed by his sister Darla in December. Both were 17, well beyond their 13 year life expectancy.

Other deaths included 18-year-old Sunny the Komodo dragon due to age-related kidney failure in January. One of the newly arrived penguins in the Penguin Chill exhibit died in June from pre-existing health issues.

Reticulated giraffe Camilla gave birth to daughter Sandi at the zoo in July. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Shirley, a 16-year-old Navajo sheep who lived at the botanic garden’s Heritage Farm died in August, her sister Laverne followed in October. And Meri, the 16-year-old Matschie’s tree kangaroo passed away in December due to old age.

Among the animals who were transferred from ABQ BioPark Zoo to become part of breeding programs at other AZA-accredited facilities were Jambazi, a male reticulated giraffe, who in April was sent to the Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey, and Malika, a female reticulated giraffe, who was transferred in May to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska.

Tusa, a female Western lowland gorilla, in May went to the Cleveland Metro Parks Zoo, and Tulivu, a female Western lowland gorilla, was sent to the Cincinnati Zoo.

Nia Lewa, a 16-year-old female Western lowland gorilla, joined the BioPark family in July, after being transferred from the Toledo Zoo. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

There were also some new residents of the zoo, making their debut either through birth or as transplants from other locales.

Neelix, a reticulated giraffe was born at the zoo in January, and another, Sandi, was born in July.

A litter of three Mexican gray wolf pups were born at the zoo in May, though only a male pup survived. Still, it was the first time in almost 15 years that a wolf has had a litter at the zoo.

Also in May, Kailash, a male snow leopard was born at the zoo.

In October a baby red-footed tortoise was born, as was a male and female pair of ocelot kittens – the first time in the history of the zoo that ocelots were born there.

Moved from other zoos in 2019 and now living at the BioPark Zoo are Indah, a 5-year-old female Komodo dragon, who came from the Phoenix Zoo in February.

Samantha, a Western lowland gorilla, came to the Zoo in April from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas, while Nia Lewa, a 16-year-old female Western lowland gorilla, joined the ABQ BioPark family in July from the Toledo Zoo.

As part of its ongoing mission to take in mountain lion rescues, the zoo in November received a 10-year-old female named Gillin, who had originally been a rescue cub, from the Northeastern Wisconsin Zoo and Adventure Park. In December the zoo received male orphaned cub Larabee, rescued from the wild in Nebraska.

A look ahead

The coming year will see the beginning of construction of the new Australia exhibit and the new Asia exhibit. Many of the animals are already residents of the BioPark Zoo, and others will be received later.

The Australia exhibit will be the new home for Tasmanian devils, multiple species of kangaroos, Little Blue penguins, lorikeets, Major Mitchell’s cockatoos and other birds.

Tupa said the exhibit may include echidnas and turtles, and the zoo also hopes to bring back koalas. Visitors will also be able to see a salt water crocodile in a large display area with underwater viewing.

The Australia exhibit, expected to open in 2022, will also feature interactive displays as well as aboriginal art.

The Asia exhibit will be home to Malayan tigers, orangutans, siamangs, snow leopards and Steller’s sea eagles, one of the largest raptors in the world.

Expected to open in 2023, the Asia exhibit will contain four main “flex exhibit” spaces, meaning the animals can regularly be moved from one space to another, keeping their habitat more interesting and non-static.

Also in 2020, landscape and design preparations will begin for the expansion of Heritage Farm, at the far north end of the botanic gardens.

The period exhibit teaches visitors about agriculture, food production and native livestock. It features a farmhouse and cider barn, orchards with more than 100 different varieties of apples, several types of grapes, chiles, squash, pears and peaches.

The expansion will include a new train that loops 1.6 miles through the botanic gardens and Heritage Farm, a new train station and an events center.

Construction on the Heritage Farm expansion is expected to begin in 2021 with completion the following year.

Brandon Gibson, an associate BioPark director, said the BioPark improvements are being funded by a 2016 voter-approved gross receipts tax that is expected to make $250 million available over 15 years.

Genetic repository

But the BioPark, particularly the zoo, is much more. It is also a genetic repository of animals, many of them endangered in the wild.

The zoo is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which sets standards for animal care and develops strategic management plans for maintaining healthy, genetically diverse animals within breeding populations.

Animals from the BioPark Zoo are often transferred to other zoos, and vice versa, in order to match up breeding pairs and expand the gene pool.

“If you don’t preserve genetic diversity, what can happen is you’ll get recessive traits coming to the surface resulting in things that aren’t supposed to happen,” said BioPark Director Baird Fleming. “That genetic diversity is what protects from aberrant conditions.”

There have been instances of certain species of birds that have gotten down to six individuals “and miraculously they have slowly and methodically been brought back, thanks largely to the efforts that zoos have provided,” he said.

Another example is the Mexican gray wolf, whose numbers by the mid 1970s had declined into the single digits, he said.

Zoos in the U.S. and Mexico have increased the captive population to about 300, with another 130 in the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Efforts are ongoing to reintroduce wolves on public lands, even as ranchers voice concern about livestock predation, the USFWS says.

The BioPark is also at the leading edge of conservation research worldwide with the addition of three on-site assessors working with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The IUCN is the global authority on nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. It manages the Red List database that assesses the extinction threat faced by animals, plants and fungi around the world.

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