With Niabi Zoo staff back to its full complement and the facility operating in the black, director Lee Jackson told the Rock Island County Board that good days are ahead for the attraction in Coal Valley.
Speaking pn Tuesday before the entire board, which makes up the forest preserve commission that oversees the zoo, Jackson laid out his assessment and initial plans for the zoo after his first 90 days as director.
While the zoo is at full staff, Jackson let the board know that, “we have to increase the staff of the park if we want to get reaccredited and put in animals that will excite the public.”
“Our staff is extremely devoted and extremely hard-working, but the zoo is understaffed,” he said.
The staff takes very good care of the zoo's collection of animals, and each member of the staff is dedicated and passionate, he added. In terms of what he has seen in other zoos around the country, Jackson said that “none of them surpass the Niabi Zoo staff in terms of passion and care of the animals.”
But a bigger staff is needed because the staff now spends so much of its time caring for the animals that preventive maintenance rarely gets done, he said
Additionally, as Niabi grows, so must the staff, he added.
Jackson said a new attraction coming next year will feature two Aldabra tortoises. The Aldabra tortoise can grow to 300 pounds. There also will be a coral reef fish exhibit for the zoo’s ocean exhibit.
Within two to five years, Jackson said he would like to bring in Bactrian camels, which have two humps, as well as exhibits featuring flamingoes, African penguins and prairie dogs, among other ideas.
A number of buildings are in need of maintenance or need to be torn down, and maintenance and enhancements are needed in a number of the exhibits, he added.
For instance, the elephant building, which is being used to hold hay, “is not salvageable as a place to house large animals and should be demolished as part of that area’s renovation,” Jackson said.
Also, Jackson said, the zebra barn is old and is in the front of the exhibit, blocking its view, and the chain link fence around the exhibit is not an ideal barrier. The fence around the lion habitat is not ideal, and more shade is recommended. The Rainforest exhibit has outlived its usefulness and should be replaced.
Also, the Barbary sheep exhibit does not properly contain the animals. “As they are from a private collector, they should be returned,” Jackson said. And, the interior of the giraffe building has insufficient lighting, and the rockwork exhibit needs improving.
He said that most of the outdoor exhibits are not adequately shaded, and mesh netting in several exhibits, such as the sloth and marmoset, gibbon and colobus, is improperly installed and improvements will be made to prevent any injury to the animals.
Looking at the big picture, Jackson said that, “The zoo is running in the black and is in the best financial shape in 15 years.”
The new exhibits and the staff that will be necessary to care for the animals will cost a lot of money, so fundraising and seeking improved revenue streams will be essential, he said.
However, Jackson added that getting reaccredited by the American Zoological Association is critical to achieving the zoo’s goals for growth.
Jackson said that Niabi is “much more than a destination or attraction because our purpose goes beyond giving the public the opportunity to view wild animals.
“The zoo plays a vital role in educating visitors about conservation issues,” he said.
County board member Kai Swanson said the zoo's future "is much brighter now than it has been in many years."
"The top of the mountain is close," Swanson said after the Jackson's briefing. "Niabi has a brilliant future and the potential is outstanding. I see it every day."
Swanson said that with Jackson at the helm of the county-owned zoo, the scale is balanced between the right amount of management and the right amount of governance.