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Zoo gains grrrrand new digs

Asian Highlands exhibit brings big cats, visitors face-to-whisker

Standing outside the new digs for snow leopard Dawa, you can hear the big cat breathing, smell her wet fur and see her tail wrapped neatly between her paws.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to stand mere feet from an 83-pound carnivorous feline, and an endangered species. But the new $6 million Asian Highlands exhibit at Hogle Zoo, which opens today, puts the public and big cats practically nose-to-whiskers.

"We've used a lot of glass to let people get up close and personal with the animals," said Craig Dinsmore, the zoo's executive director. "The philosophy behind Asian Highlands is we wanted to design homes for our animals, not just exhibits."

Unlike most zoos, which put the carnivorous cats hundreds of feet away and separate humans and felines by vast yards, large ditches and chain-link fences, Asian Highlands takes a unique approach, putting human and beast face-to-face. Through landscaping and architecture that utilizes thick glass, strong mesh and the Utah hillside, the cats are clearly visible from numerous viewpoints.

For the felines, the zoo's hills — usually flattened for exhibits — proved to be an advantage when creating the replica Himalayan village. The cats love jumping and climbing, and it's instinctive for them to go to higher ground, said Stephanie Natt, animal-care supervisor and a primary caregiver for the Amur leopard, two Amur tigers, two snow leopards and three Siberian lynx.

The cats' hillside home is a naturalistic environment, complete with pools, waterfalls, trees and shady huts. The area features 15,000 square feet of outdoor habitat and five separate yards. "This is so different from any other exhibit we've done," Natt said.

Dinsmore agrees. "The main thing for me that I'm so proud of is we have dramatically improved the quality of life of the places where the cats live," he said.

The cats' old building confined them to indoor cages with concrete floors. That is not what the "new zoo" will reflect, Dinsmore said. The new approach to Asian Highlands is what he hopes to do with future exhibits.

Asian Highlands showcases the region where the animals are from. New education aspects put a kid-friendly feel on the exhibit and tell a story of the tigers, leopards and lynx through an eco-explorer that teaches about the felines, a sense station to hear, smell and feel like a big cat, three large touch-screen kiosks, a fact-spewing grandma and a mini stage that will showcase the felines' training and enrichment exercises.

"The animals are so important, and they're vanishing so quickly," Natt said. "I hope people will want to learn about them."

Three of the four species — the Amur tigers, Amur leopards and snow leopards — are endangered because of shrinking habitats, mostly due to logging.

The Asian cats were transferred to their new prowling grounds last week. Amur leopard Vladamere came from the Erie Zoo in Pennsylvania; Amur tiger Kazak came from the Philadelphia Zoo; snow leopard Himesh came from the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee; and the Siberian lynx brothers Romo, Leonid and Koyla came from the Miller Park Zoo in Illinois. Amur tiger Basha and snow leopard Dawa have both been raised at Hogle Zoo.

Natt advises that it may take a few weeks for the cautious and elusive creatures to become fully adjusted to the new noises and neighbors, so all species may not be on display for some time.

Hogle Zoo has been building the two latest exhibits for the past two years. The attractions were built through a $10.2 million general-obligation bond that was approved by Salt Lake voters in 2003. The first display was Elephant Encounter, which opened in June 2003. Dinsmore credits Elephant Encounter with increasing attendance at the zoo, which is up by 1,500 people some days compared to previous years. The zoo hopes Asian Highlands will have the same effect.

"We're really hoping this will be a year-round appeal to people," he said. "These cats are really going to be in their prime in the winter months. They can really thrive in the Utah winter climate, so we're hoping this will make a winter visit to the zoo more attractive than ever."