Construction crews were busy moving dirt and clearing land at the Brandywine Zoo to make way for a new exhibit featuring animals from the African island of Madagascar. Three species of lemurs and some tortoises will make the new exhibit their home when the work is done later this year.
“It’s going to be a really kind of cornerstone for the zoo,” said Michael Allen, executive director of the Delaware Zoological Society.
The Madagascar exhibit, along with construction of a quarantine building where new additions are held before being introduced to the zoo, was funded by the state as Phase Two of improvements.
Phase Three of the master plan for the 115-year-old zoo calls for a new entryway and a South American wetlands habitat featuring Chilean flamingos. Sloths and southern pudu, the world’s smallest deer species, may also be added.
The society has now launched a $5 million fundraising campaign to pay for that next phase of improvements at Delaware’s only zoo.
“We’re meeting with foundations, we’re talking to corporations, we’re setting up meetings with individuals,” Allen said. “We’ve already got a commitment from our board, and then we’re rolling out from there.”
The zoo’s business model is rare. It operates as a public/private partnership, with the zoological society managing fundraising and the business side of the zoo, and the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control taking care of the animals and the physical plant at the zoo. Out of 220 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Allen said, only a few dozen are public/private partnerships.
In 2018, the state reported 48,000 visitors spent time at the zoo. In 2015, attendance topped 90,000.
That decline in attendance comes after the zoo’s only tiger, Zhanna, an Amur tiger, was moved to the Bronx Zoo in 2016 to be part of a program to help extend the life of her species.
Attendance may have also been affected by the loss of the zoo’s cornerstone exhibit, the monkey house, which was destroyed by a falling tree in 2013.
“We were very fortunate that no people or animals were hurt, but the building was ruined beyond a capacity to have it anymore. So that really was the first piece of this,” Allen said.
The new enclosures and species will draw more visitors, Allen said. “We’ve known we wanted to modernize and change, and we’re now really seeing that progress come to fruition.”
Nestled along the wooded hillside near the Brandywine Creek, the Brandywine Zoo covers just 5 acres. For comparison, the Philadelphia Zoo encompasses 42 acres. The zoo’s location makes expanding delicate.
“We’ve got roads on two sides and cliffs on two sides, so there’s only so much expansion possibility,” Allen said.
A big selling point for the zoo is its location within the city of Wilmington. “We’re incredibly unique in the sense that, in a 15-minute walk, you can be at million-dollar homes and at public housing, and we can reach a broader swath of community than many other zoos can reach because of that.”
Even though some construction work will still be ongoing, the zoo will reopen for the season April 4.