Bringing the wild to North County

Saint Louis Zoo North County will take 425 acres in Spanish Lake and turn it into a world-class animal conservation facility 

By Charlotte Beard

Since the Saint Louis Zoo Association’s purchase of the 425-acre property previously owned by the Plumbers’ and Pipefitters’ Welfare Educational Fund in 2018, the association has been developing community partnerships for Saint Louis Zoo North County. 

The association is in the planning phase for turning the campus at 12385 Larimore Road in Spanish Lake into a Conservation and Animal Science Center and a public component (safari side) with attractions that connect people with nature and animals. To assist with the planning phase, they began 2020 by hosting a media only day for interviews and ground tours, and they scheduled two community input sessions.

Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, Dana Brown President & CEO for Saint Louis Zoo expressed that Proposition Z was overwhelmingly received by St. Louis County residents in 2018, which will make the main attraction free to its residents. 

“To a certain extent, there is a powerful obligation that goes along with that,” stated Bonner. “One of the things that we’ve been hearing when we talk to people is that this place has got to be as good as the Saint Louis Zoo. We know it will be entirely different, but (they want) that level of quality. We’ve heard that loud and clear from folks especially in North County—they want a great facility.”

The next challenge is to implement the community’s feedback into bringing the new facility to life 

“We’ve been looking at creating (these) two new facilities, plus a pretty substantial renovation to (the) existing one and it’s taking a long time. One of the things we’ve done during (this) period was bringing architecture and design in-house. That’s different from anything we’ve done in the past, but I think pretty exciting. It opens up a lot of new doors for us in terms of constantly interacting with the people who are actually drawing things up,” Bonner said. 

The architecture and design talent are individuals recruited by the Saint Louis Zoo who are now staff members supporting both campuses.

Dr. Jo-Elle Mogerman, leader for the new site and North Campus Director for the Saint Louis Zoo shared that over the last year engagement with the education community began and that the administration has spent time gaining an understanding of the property to assist in the planning process.

“We’ve started engaging in getting to know the community of North County as a new neighbor and understanding what North County would like to see from us in terms of education programs,” stated Dr. Mogerman who is also former Vice President of Learning and Community for Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. “We went through a long process with UMSL to engage North County in terms of understanding what education programs they would like to see and what sort of audiences they would like to target. During that process they told us a lot about expectations of (us) being their neighbor beyond the education programs. We’ll probably start piloting some things from the community this summer.”

The association scheduled a community input session for Jan. 18 at the Spanish Lake campus and the next session will take place at the Zoo’s Forest Park campus on Thursday, Jan. 23. Time slots are one hour between 4 and 8 p.m. RSVP is required at https://www.stlzoo.org/about/inputsession.

“Those (sessions) become one point of data for us,” stated Mogerman, “to make decisions (for) the kinds of experiences and animals we should provide.”

When asked about the conservatory component for the North County campus, Bonner shared, “Originally we wanted to deal with three different groups of animals. We wanted to deal with birds, amphibians and hoof stock – really drive the program from a spatial point of view because we need so much space for each animal. I think the difficulty with all of this is that a lot of the animals we want to work with are in such serious trouble in the wild. Linking up the conservation and animal science part of it in such a way that we can really affect the future and fate of wild things becomes an interesting challenge, not because it’s hard to do but there are so many different animals that we could be working with.”

It is important to note that Mogerman also served Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo for 14 years and has been Commissioner for the Illinois Nature Preserves. Regarding the source of the animals and public access, she shared, “The planning process will help us determine the species mix and the relationship between the species for the conservation breeding side and the safari side. Which species will have public access will be determined by the species. We’ll look at what’s best for the animal and what’s needed for them will determine (their location). There may be some overlap. On the (conservation) side we hope to  design that in a way that maybe not every member of the public can go through but can see some of it to get a glimpse into the science behind the care that we provide and the science that’s necessary to ensure that these animals can persist in the wild. We do want to give the public glimpses into that but the degree to which that happens we’re not sure just yet.”

“I guess I would be surprised if you didn’t see a giraffe,” stated Bonner in reference to the safari experience for the public. “I’ve gotten to do this. Most people won’t.”

Bonner further expressed the value and potential of the property.

“When you look out here,” he stated, “in terms of nature we can’t do this in Forest Park. But we have this here – getting people into the woods. Jo-Elle often talks about the fact that we’re a good gateway because it is a much safer environment to do things in.”

He went on to explain that most people will not hike for the first time in a state park. “Once you do it here and you find out that it’s fun, then maybe you’ll make that next step. In both (zoos) we’re connecting people with living things. It’s just different here.”

With the creation of the Saint Louis Zoo North County, Bonner wants to thwart the mindset of Forest Park Zoo being the “main” site.

Bonner shared that construction for the North County campus will begin with the removal of some pre-existing buildings and structures on the grounds. Currently, there is no predetermined timeline for construction and completion. The property is approximately four times the size of the Forest Park campus. Bonner hopes for completion in five to six years.

 “It’s (the community’s) zoo, we just get to take care of it for you. I think that’s one of the reasons the community input sessions are so important (as well as) what Jo-Elle has been spearheading for the last year in talking primarily with the education community but also the faith-based and business community. That’s been helpful to us, but again it’s your zoo and I think this is going to be a very special place. And I can’t say it often enough – there are really high expectations. That’s something we (must) deliver on. The bar has been set pretty high.”

To keep up with the progress of St. Louis Zoo North County visit https://www.stlzoo.org.

Submitted images These artist renderings show potential concepts of how the public will be able to experience Saint Louis Zoo North County.

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