Hogle Zoo’s new Aline W. Skaggs Wild Utah exhibit opened Thursday, giving visitors a chance to discover “the wonder in our backyards,” zoo president and CEO Doug Lund said.

Barton the porcupine officially welcomed zoo visitors Thursday by chomping through a ribbon made out of biscuits. People flocked into the highly interactive Utah-focused exhibit.

The three-acre indoor and outdoor exhibit houses native wildlife such as cougars, badgers, desert bighorn sheep, gray foxes, skunks and more.

It also provides hands-on opportunities where children and adults can explore a campsite, help prepare food at an animal-care kitchen and decorate wooden houses for local birds, bees and bats.

“You will be awestruck when you see what’s in here, and the education that goes alongside it,” said Justin Shirley, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

The exhibit’s opening also marks the return of the zoo’s train, which stopped services in August 2022 and is now a zero-emissions electric locomotive.

Wild Utah has been in the works for five years and reflects a desire to showcase animals native to Utah, Lund said.

“As our population grows, we need to really have that respect and admiration for the animals we’re sharing space with,” he said.

In Lund’s view, people are all a part of a collective — just like a hive of honey bees. This vision of working together for a balanced ecosystem inspired the zoo to collaborate with artist Matt Willey, who painted a mural of some of his signature honey bees for the new exhibit.

The mural is the latest in Willey’s ongoing project to paint 50,000 honey bees around the world. So far he’s painted 11,000, and the Hogle Zoo bees are his first in Utah.

People visit the Aline W. Skaggs Wild Utah exhibit at Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 9, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The zoo hopes the entire exhibit will show visitors how to “live and recreate safely with wildlife,” Lund said. Aline W. Skaggs, the exhibit’s namesake, was a champion of this.

“Mom was always making sure the bird feeders were full, the hummingbirds had plenty of nectar and the raccoons had their share of peanuts,” said Claudia Luttrell, a daughter of L. Sam and Aline W. Skaggs.

And the zoo isn’t just asking visitors to take care of the environment — they’re doing their own part to be environmental stewards.

“The zoo used to be one of the largest water users (in Utah),” marketing and public relations manager Rachael Eames said. In the last 20 years, it has made some changes. The facility, which operates on 42 acres of donated hillside, no longer drains its large pools every day, instead, using human divers to clean tough-to-reach spots. In its newest exhibit, solar panels power the train, Eames said.

“We’re really trying to learn from other zoos,” she said.

For local officials, the zoo is worth protecting. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson asked county residents to vote for the Zoo, Arts and Parks fund, which is back on the ballot this year.

Lund echoed Wilson’s appeal for local support: “Most of the money (for this exhibit) came from zoo operations.”

For tickets, hours and more information about the exhibit, visit the zoo’s site.