NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Inside the concrete walls of the bunkerlike veterinary clinic at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, Niran — the zoo’s first-of-its kind clouded leopard cub — scales the fence of his holding pen.
For now, the wildly popular 3-month-old cub born through a breakthrough in science is walled off from the public, a product of the zoo’s outdated facility that is in a secluded corner of the property.
Built in 1988, the building harks back to humble beginnings when the zoo had just nine exhibits — all animals indigenous to Tennessee.
The Nashville Zoo has outgrown its veterinary clinic.
“It was not meant to be a hospital for a huge zoo,” said Heather Robertson, senior zoo veterinarian. “And we are behind the scenes. No one knows we are here unless we go do talks.”
With a Tuesday groundbreaking of a new veterinary clinic, the Nashville Zoo is changing all of that and bringing the care of its animals — including nursery animals such as Niran — into the public eye.
“It will allow us to be on show and open to the public,” Robertson said.
Scheduled to open in 2018, the $13 million veterinary medical center also is being built to accommodate the ambitious growth of the zoo. The zoo is undertaking $162 million in upgrades and new exhibits that officials hope will help propel it into one of the premier zoos in the country. HCA Healthcare is helping fund the new medical center.
The zoo has already renovated its front entrance, added a Mexican spider monkey exhibit and will soon display white rhinos at an enclosure that once housed elephants — possibly as soon as June 8.
Sumatran tiger and Andean bear exhibits also are forthcoming within the year.
And someday, the zoo plans to open an African savanna and forest complete with lions, cheetahs, hippos, gorillas and possibly even elephants again. The plans for the giant African savanna include a boat ride to allow visitors a view of the entire exhibit.
Each of the animals coming to the zoo also fits the mission of being a steward in conserving endangered species.
Nashville Zoo hopes to grow in size and into the spotlight
A chance in the national spotlight is an ambitious goal for one of the youngest zoos in the nation.
“We are definitely in this cool growth pattern where we were this little zoo and now growing into this top class, hopefully No. 1 in the country,” Robertson said.
The Nashville Zoo has been at the Grassmere site off Nolensville Road since 1997, with first-year attendance at fewer than 3,600 people. And the zoo had to climb out of an enormous debt of $12 million, with an annual deficit of millions.
“A lot of people didn’t give us a chance, including us internally,” Nashville Zoo President Rick Schwartz said.
But the zoo has clawed and climbed its way out of the red, increasing membership by 1,000 percent since 1997. Attendance also is on the rise.
Last year there were 894,161 visitors. This year the zoo expects 950,000, and hopes to top 1.1 million by 2022.
Many of the employees were there in the early days and have never worked at another zoo — including Schwartz himself, the architect of many of the zoo’s plans.
He helped come up with the idea of working with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute to get Niran the clouded leopard cub birthed at the zoo.
The cub is the first to be born via an artificial insemination procedure using thawed or frozen semen. The scientific breakthrough will aid in global conservation efforts of the clouded leopard.
But Schwartz also has worked to hammer out the final details of every exhibit.
“The best thing people could have said to me is we couldn’t make it,” Schwartz said. “From the outside of the zoo world, they were saying ‘They don’t know what they are doing and they aren’t going to do it.’
“We just used that as fuel. Now we are trying to build the absolute best.”