The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, approaching its 150th birthday in 2025, is embarking on a bold new campaign to celebrate the milestone by expanding several wildlife exhibits, easing visitor logistics, and adding family friendly experiential attractions. The initiative, called More Home to Roam, is the zoo’s largest and most complex renovation project to date.
As the name suggests, several animals will receive larger habitats—most notably its elephants, which will be relocated within the park to a five-acre area called Elephant Trek. The new space will be five times larger than the one they inhabit now along the zoo’s south end and will sit at the opposite side of the property, where the Safari Camp parking lot is currently located.
The ultimate goal in redesigning the habitats of elephants and other species is achieving “animal excellence,” in which Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard says the zoo is a national leader, providing the most natural habitats possible for its animals to maximize their well-being.
The extra room for the elephants to meander—along with naturalistic trees, mud wallows, grasses, pools, and streams—means they will be able to socialize as they do in the wild. “They live in family groups, and they move quite a bit,” says Maynard. “We need to be able to let them live as a big group, with the bull elephants, his mates, [and] his offspring in a multigenerational herd. And to be able to do that, you need more space.”
The new living arrangement will also prepare the endangered species for the future, creating proper conditions for breeding, Maynard says, “so there will be elephants 50 years from now.”
Elephants aren’t the only animals getting an extreme home makeover: The polar bears’ outdoor dens will be expanded and upgraded for breeding; the rhinos will get a larger multispecies yard with room for zebras (plus an upgraded indoor visitor viewing area); and the sea lions will receive several behind-the-scenes upgrades like a better water filtration system and more shaded areas.
Another major feature of the project will be the addition of Roo Valley, a multi-activity zone that’s set to become one of the most experiential sites in the zoo, replacing the current Wildlife Canyon. For the first time ever, visitors will have the opportunity to walk among the marsupials in the 15,000-square-foot Kangaroo Walkabout. The area will also be home to the zoo’s little blue penguins, which are receiving a new underwater viewing exhibit within Roo Valley.
When the zoo launched More Home to Roam this summer, it detailed the extensive remodeling and addressed the elephant in the room: How much will it cost? Well, it won’t be cheap. Because of the amount of work required, the zoo is seeking $150 million. The good news is that it’s already more than a third of the way to the goal, but there’s still a long road ahead.
Coinciding with the project’s kickoff, longtime Cincinnati philanthropists Harry and Linda Fath, proprietors of locally based real estate company Fath Properties, announced a $50 million donation toward the project, the largest single gift in the zoo’s history. (The Faths simultaneously donated an equal amount to nonprofits Lindner Center of HOPE and Mercy Ships.) Supporting the zoo is just as important as backing other city institutions, like schools and parks, Harry Fath says. “Anything that makes Cincinnati a better place, I’m in favor of. We’re just trying to make it a better city, that’s all.”
The sizable initial funding has generated momentum for the project’s grassroots-style capital campaign, raising an additional $10 million through other gifts and small donations through its website.
As the zoo mapped out its project goals, it prioritized creating attractions for its returning 67,000-plus member families to enjoy on repeat visits. Maynard says that while zoos in larger cities receive a sizable portion of their visits from tourists, Cincinnati is considered a hometown zoo, so it relies heavily on local membership and contributions. “By making the zoo more active, it encourages people to join the zoo,” he says. “And then they really buy in and get involved.”
As part of that strategy, the renovation will include a two-tiered adventure ropes course built into the canopy above Roo Valley, and the area will also house more than 3,600 square feet of picnic and private event space. For guests looking for a leisurely day at the zoo, a new beer garden will be a place to relax and enjoy the view overlooking Roo Valley. For the little ones, Elephant Trek will include a nature-based play area and a splash park.
To execute the project, the zoo has mapped out a multiphase plan that will take place between fall 2018 and fall 2025, with Elephant Trek as the last phase. Changes to the animal habitats and recreational areas are, of course, most exciting for visitors, but to make it all happen requires shifting areas around first to make room. That process will address a goal the zoo has had for more than 25 years: removing all parking from within the zoo footprint and adding a 1,800-car garage just south of Erkenbrecher Avenue. A new entrance gate at the corner of Erkenbrecher Avenue and Vine Street will help visitors enter the park faster.
Through More Home to Roam, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden hopes its members and Greater Cincinnati residents will become dedicated to bettering the zoo and contributing to its long-term viability, something the organization believes is crucial to the city’s overall financial prosperity. In the past 10 years, the zoo has doubled its annual attendance to 1.8 million visitors, becoming the region’s No. 1 attraction. The park generates $143 million in economic impact, which is a 350 percent return on investment on its operating costs.
This fall, construction began on Roo Valley (scheduled to debut in spring 2020), the parking garage, and the new entry gate (opening next summer). At the same time, the zoo is reaching out to the community seeking small donations to ensure their vision is a success.
Maynard knows it’s a big ask. But because the zoo is one of the city’s most beloved privately funded institutions, he has hope that Cincinnatians can help make it happen, like they’ve always done in the past. “It is the least [tax] supported of any of the top 10 zoos in America, but we still thrive,” Maynard says. “We do it Cincinnati-style: with a Pete Rose headfirst slide. We just get up and do it.”