The founding of the Hutchinson Friends of the Zoo organization in 1985 was largely instrumental to the establishment of the zoo the following year. The Hutchinson Zoo opened its doors to the public on May 23, 1986 complete with a petting zoo area called Animals and Man, the Wild Habitats Building, the Spider Web play area for children and many lovely ponds and flowerbeds.
The first year of operation the zoo added public restrooms and began construction of the Service Barn. Over the course of the next five years the zoo flourished adding, the still popular Prairie Dog Complex where children have the opportunity to crawl through tunnels and see the Prairie dogs up close through acrylic bubbles and the walk-through Kansas Wildlife Aviary. The zoo also began utilizing volunteers, giving education programs and secured a federal collection permit and rehabilitation permits in 1991. With the help of the local radio station, in 1992, the zoo hosted the first Boo at the Zoo. Today, Boo at the Zoo is the largest zoo event accommodating more than 2,000 trick or treaters in two hours. Ground was broken in 1993 to begin construction of the exhibits in Staying Alive, an area to display animals that have special adaptations and defenses as well as the ability to live along-side man. While the overall footprint for the Staying Alive area was achieved two years later, Staying Alive continues to develop and change even now.
In 1997, the zoo established itself as a zoo that was willing to go above and beyond to maintain a high standard of excellence by achieving accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In addition to many other things, accreditation broadened the zoo’s resources for animal acquisitions and in 1998 Black-footed Ferrets were added to the collection. This endangered animal acquisition allowed the zoo, not only the opportunity to participate in the Species Survival Program but also marked a significant step forward in achieving the zoo mission to further conservation education. From 1999 - 2001 the zoo made significant progress to establish and enhance existing exhibits and attractions and campaign for future plans. The capital campaign for the Visitor Center was launched, new sidewalks, flowerbeds and park benches were added, the Discovery Center was updated to allow year round utilization for education programs and emergency back-up systems were put into place.
Thanks to the successful fund raising efforts of Friends of the Zoo, the Visitor Center construction began in 2001 and opened the following year in August. The Visitor Center contains on-site offices and break room space for zoo staff, the Friends of the Zoo Gift Shop and a conference room and meeting room available not only to the zoo, but for rent to the public. Following the opening of the Visitor Center, the zoo experienced an increase in zoo memberships and expanded their ability to reach those outside of Hutchinson and the surrounding communities with the creation of the zoo website. In 2003 the Friends of the Zoo contracted the company Zoo Plan to put together a new master plan. The new master plan propelled fresh ideas and renewed old plans as an interactive milking cow exhibit was added and construction of the Dino Dig was initiated. Plans were progressing steadily until tragedy hit in the form of a flood in 2007. The zoo closed its doors from May 24, 2007 until September 1, 2007 to deal with the aftermath of receiving more than seven inches of rain in less than eight hours. Lagoon water levels rose up and over public walkways and into animal exhibits and buildings causing devastating damage and many animals being moved to off-site locations. While the zoo recovered enough to re-open to the public the same year, even now, we are still addressing damages and searching for solutions to the issues that caused the flood of 2007.
Thanks to a generous donation from Cargill, the Cargill Wildcare Center opened in 2011. The Wildcare Center enabled the zoo to continue the rehabilitation program by separating this operation from the zoo collection; furthermore this building provides adequate quarantine facilities for multiple species from large mammals to small reptiles. 2011 also saw the renovation of the Red-fox exhibit and Kansas Wildlife Aviary. Additionally the bio swale project was initiated to not only improve the lagoon water quality but to help direct water drainage and prevent unnecessary flooding of low-lying areas.
Further exhibit renovations and master planning re-evaluations occurred in 2012 under the direction of a new Zoo Director. The zoo has much to look forward to! 2016 will host the groundbreaking for a new North American River Otter exhibit. The zoo is also thrilled to develop the education department under the direction of a new, full time, Education and Volunteer Coordinator as well as see further development of several promising special events and activities. With the support of this outstanding community, an eager Board of Directors, enthusiastic volunteers and highly motivated and inspired employees the zoo will inevitably thrive and develop into a major Hutchinson area attraction.
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