What promises to become one of the state’s most visited tourist attractions opened March 11 after 15 years and $30 million in the making — city of Gulf Shores’ Gulf Coast Zoo.
The 25-acre zoo is built to exacting standards of the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) and replaces a 7-acre zoo that was struck by Hurricane Ivan in 2014, forcing the evacuation of 300 animals.
Heading up the effort to rebuild the zoo to much greater scale was the city of Gulf Shores, boosted greatly by the donation of a 25-acre tract of land by Gulf Shores businessman Clyde Weir and his daughter, Andrea Weir Franklin, in 2006.
“This is not something you can just snap your fingers and do overnight, especially with all the tremendous hurdles we had to overcome,” Steve Jones, vice president of special events and advocacy for the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, told Business Alabama in November. “It’s been a very serious struggle for a small group of individuals for the last 15 years.”
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Joey Ward, whose family started the original zoo 30 years ago, supervised the construction of the new facility.
Builders 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.
The construction team had to carefully follow the Zoological Association of America 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. 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.
“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,” said Homer Jolly, the lead designer of the zoo. “It’s been a true labor of love for everybody involved with it. Everybody was proud to be working on this project.”