How to Build a Zoo

Gulf Shores’ newest attraction faced a herd of construction challenges.

It took nearly 15 years from idea to completion, but the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is set to open in November. Photos by Cary Norton

For people in the construction business, building an office complex, residential community or shopping center is relatively easy. Those types of projects have been handled numerous times before, and they are all basically straightforward endeavors.

Building a new zoo? Now that’s a whole different animal.

Zoos aren’t constructed every day or even every decade. So when the city of Gulf Shores decided to create a larger, 25-acre zoo to replace the 7-acre one that has been in operation since 1989, there was no easy blueprint to turn to.

“The architect had never built a zoo. The landscaper had never built a zoo. The engineer had never built a zoo. I had never built a zoo,” says Homer Jolly, who served as lead designer on the project. “We had to work on the master plan a long time before we started building anything.”

Finally, 15 years after the idea was initially proposed and almost two years after construction began, the new Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is set to open before the end of November. It will be the culmination of what Jolly calls “a true labor of love for everybody involved with it.”

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The need for a new zoo became evident following Hurricane Ivan, in 2004, when nearly 300 animals had to be evacuated from the current low-lying facility, only a mile from the coast. The zoo was evacuated again in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina, prompting increased discussion about finding a new location farther from shore.

That became possible in 2006 when Gulf Shores businessman Clyde Weir and his daughter, Andrea Weir Franklin, donated a 25-acre tract of land 4 miles north of the current zoo to be used for the construction of a new facility. But the one-two punch of the economic recession followed by the BP oil spill put those plans on hold for a decade, as the city struggled to raise money for the $30-million project.

“This is not something you can just snap your fingers and do overnight, especially with all the tremendous hurdles we had to overcome,” says Steve Jones, vice president of special events and advocacy for the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber. “It’s been a very serious struggle for a small group of individuals for the last 15 years.”

Finding the funding was only half the challenge. Then came the truly uncertain aspect of actually building the thing, which Jones says required “a tremendous amount of research.” So Jolly was brought in to work with Joey Ward, whose family started the original zoo 30 years ago and who supervised the construction of the new facility.

The two men visited more than a dozen zoos and amusement parks, talking with zookeepers and directors about what worked well and what didn’t. They consulted with the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), which has a 56-page guide detailing the required standards for zoo construction and animal care, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal welfare.

“It was a one-year process of learning, as we put the master plan together,” Jolly says. “It’s not like building a subdivision, where everything is laid out in grids and it’s easy to get the infrastructure in place. With every exhibit, there are specific ZAA guidelines that you have to follow when it comes to the design and the care of the animals. And we had to do all this within a budget that Gulf Shores could afford. So it was a challenge.”

Officials turned to outside help for the creation of some exhibits, such as the monkey island. For that, a 22-person team from Aquascape Pond Squad — a YouTube show about landscapers who create challenging water features — came in and constructed the habitat in only four days, complete with waterfalls. “I was amazed at how fast they put that together,” Jolly says.

But for the most part, building the zoo was a slow, methodical slog. The construction team had to carefully follow the ZAA guidelines detailing the height and strength of fencing, as well as the minimum square footage of each individual structure, all of which can vary from animal to animal. The team faced a multitude of issues, ranging from general safety to the easy removal of animal waste.

“The engineering that had to go into all those things for construction were in many cases more serious than it has to be for a single-family home or a commercial building,” Jones says. “The level of scrutiny and engineering to make sure it was done right and guarantee animal and keeper safety was amazing. Because you’re building something that animals inhabit, not people, and the standards for animal care can be higher than they are for humans.”

Indeed, the ZAA guidelines are often stringent and painfully precise. For example, lion and tiger exhibits require an enclosure of at least 24-by-15 feet for one or two animals, with an increase in size of 25 percent for each additional animal. There also must be a vertical jump wall at least 14-feet high, plus a 2-foot, 45-degree inward angle overhang with a hot wire.

Veterinarian and Interim Zoo Director Adam Langston says it was a challenge to meet all the codes that keep people and animals safe, but he’s confident it’s worth it.

“It’s a long process to meet all the codes,” says zoo veterinarian Adam Langston, who also has been serving as the facility’s interim director during the construction process. “We’ve had to really work together on all the infrastructure that’s involved to make this giant plan come to life. It’s been a huge project.”

But all those involved are hopeful that the end result will make the effort worthwhile. From the Jurassic Park-style entranceway that is 30 feet high and 50 feet wide, to the certified green restaurant with panoramic views of the property, the new Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo was designed to be both entertaining and awe-inspiring.

“I’m hoping it will be one of the best attractions along the Gulf Coast. I know we have some of the best-looking facilities along the Gulf Coast,” Jolly says. “It’s been a true labor of love for everybody involved with it. Everybody was proud to be working on this project.”

Design and Construction Team

Project Manager: Joey Ward, Cool Concepts Consulting LLC
Lead Designer: Homer Jolly, Homer Jolly Design
Construction Consultant: Terry Christmas, TPC Associates
Architect: Steadman McCollough, McCollough Architecture Inc.
Landscape Architect: Chad Watkins, WAS Design Inc.
Engineering: Barry Dees, Dees Engineering Inc.
Site Contractor: Colin Uter, Blade Construction
Vertical Contractor: Stuart Construction, John Alms, Ben Harris, Billy Peavy
Food and Beverage Manager: Greg Bushmohle
Finish and Detail Carpenters: Shoreline Carpentry, Greg Plante, Tyler Munn
Prop and Finish Artist: Coastal Visions Artistic Service, Jenny Lynn Culberson , Chris Lenning
Faux and Sign Artist: Todd Faehnrich

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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