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SPECIAL REPORT: How Potawatomi Zoo works to protect animals and visitors

Each day, eyes are on the prowl at Potawatomi Zoo -- but not the eyes you may be expecting.

It's open eight months of the year, but workers at Potawatomi Zoo say their safety efforts are a full-time job. The grounds date back more than a century.

Originally called the South Bend Zoo, Potawatomi Zoo celebrates its 115th anniversary this spring. Zoo officials released a master plan in 2015 that acknowledged structural shortcomings.

"We want to make sure we aren't locking animals inside because we don't have any other options,” Executive Director Marcy Dean says.

Dean is often on the hunt for the sights that 200,000 visitors don’t see: Shortcomings from just being in South Bend for a long time. The zoo started in 1902.

"I'll just put it out there that we need new large cat exhibits,” Dean says.

Staff says decades-old buildings can't always keep up with growth. Critically-endangered leopards call the zoo's oldest structure home.

“It’s in the 80s, so you can tell, it's showing its age,” Dean says.

Amur leopard cubs are stuck inside because the zoo doesn't have enough room to let them roam outside separate from larger male cats. It's one of dozens of needed improvements listed in the zoo's 2015 master plan. It's still just a vision on paper, estimated to cost $37 million dollars.

Among the concerns: One exhibit yard sits empty while others need more space, the tiger exhibit needs a complete renovation, and the lion exhibit is undersized.

Dean says annual Department of Agriculture inspections show no recent non-compliant issues.

For the past 25 years, the zoo has also been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – something less than 10 percent of the nation's zoos can say. Potawatomi is up for AZA inspection in 2019.

In a statement via phone, Association of Zoos and Aquariums Spokesperson Rob Vernon says: "The welfare of the animals is being factored a lot more into exhibit design today, and those considerations are now very much a part of the planning process. It's great that it's part of their master plan. They're recognizing it, they're being open and honest about the need to make the changes.”

Dean says it's a challenge to keep up with new regulations released every year.

2017 AZA accreditation standards say all animal enclosures must be of a size sufficient to provide for the animals physical and psychological well-being. Dean describes the big cat exhibits as "outdated" but says their master plan hopes to find public and private funding for upgrades.

“Your better tiger exhibits have more of the natural components,” she says, “They have more of the greenery. It's one of those buildings that needs to be looked at. It has infrastructure issues. It could still be an accreditation issue for us down the road. We need a new tiger building.”

As part of the zoo's master plan, they're also considering guest experience. They're taking a look at the slope of this entrance because it's NOT ADA compliant. They want to smooth it out, so more guests can have a better experience.

Dean says they're moving in the right direction. The zoo is set to fill the empty exhibit with the state's only Okapi. There's also more attention to animal well-being.

"We are now doing free choice and all access with several of our animals,” she says. “We often here neighbors say 'I heard lions outside last night'. They're given the choice to go outside at night, which is so much better for them.”

She’s always looking at the zoo from the view of the eyes that never leave.

“We want to take care of the jewel in the community that we've been given,” she says.



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