NC Zoo director Pat Simmons, center, high-fives state Sen. David Craven Jr., who reaches over Randolph County commissioner Darrell Frye, during Wednesday’s groundbreaking. (Scott Pelkey/North State Journal)
ASHEBORO – North Carolina Zoo is moving closer to Asia after the groundbreaking for a new exhibit.
The 10-acre Asian expansion is a few years away from being opened, but the next steps were evident when regional and state officials gathered Wednesday for the ceremonial start to the process.
“Asia has been a long time coming,” said Walker Moffitt, chair of the North Carolina Zoo Council and Asheboro mayor pro tem.
This is the first expansion since 1994 when the North America exhibit was added. There’s an anticipated 2026 opening for the Asia exhibit.
While the addition is certainly a potential boost for NC Zoo, that should extend to Randolph County as well.
“It has been a team effort and we’re glad to be part of that team,” said Darrell Frye, chair of the Randolph County commissioners.
There’s $75 million approved from the state legislature for this expansion.
It should expose NC Zoo visitors to a wider range of animals.
“We really wanted to bring in tigers,” said NC Zoo director Pat Simmons said. “That is something that the public has asked us for for the longest time.”
One of the features of the expansion will include the tigers’ habitat that will allow tigers to walk across an enclosed bridge-like structure above zoo patrons. That part of the exhibit also will include a 300-seat indoor café overlooking the tigers.
In addition to tigers, there will be small-clawed otters, Chinese alligators, Chinese giant salamanders, Komodo Dragons and Visayan warty pigs.
“This is a critically endangered animal,” Jennifer Ireland, the zoo’s curator of mammals, said of the warty pig. “There is very, very few left in the wild.”
Birds will include wrinkled hornbills, red-crowned crane and cinereous vultures.
State Sen. David Craven Jr. praised the economic activity stemming from NC Zoo.
This expansion could make the zoo a multi-day destination, so that could spread the financial windfall.
“When they come, they eat at our restaurants,” Frye said. “They stay at our hotels, our campgrounds. They shop. They buy gas.”
Beloved lion dies
Earlier this month, there was a more somber mood for NC Zoo because of the death of its 23-year-old African lion, Reilly.
Zoo officials said Reilly dealt with renal disease for several years. Chief veterinarian Dr. Jb Minter said renal disease is common for a cat of Reilly’s age.
Reilly was euthanized because of his weakened situation. He was the oldest male lion at an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility.
“He far exceeded the average lifespan for lions under human care,” said animal management supervisor Jodi Wiley, who worked with Reilly for seven years. “This speaks volumes of the amazing care the keepers have given him over the years.”
A lion’s average lifespan under human care is about 17 years. Reilly weighed up to 440 pounds, though he was down to 394 at the time of his death.
Reilly was born Feb. 7, 1999, at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. He came to NC Zoo in March 2001. He fathered three males and six females.
“He was so tolerant of his rambunctious offspring and was fiercely devoted to his lady lion, Mekita,” zookeeper Beth Malott said in a release from NC Zoo. “Reilly was a one-of-a-kind soul, and his morning roars will be greatly missed.”
Now, Mikita is the only lion at NC Zoo.