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Hippos & Penguins & Lemurs Oh My

Water’s Edge: Africa at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Zambezi smiles with Lemur Island and the waterfall in the background.

Zambezi smiles with Lemur Island and the waterfall in the background.

Good news! The zoo is open, and the hippos are back. So are the penguins. Happy in their new home, the long-time fan favorites are now living the good life in their stunning new exhibit, Water’s Edge: Africa.

The beautiful Nile sisters, Zambezi, 27, and Kasai, 20, have settled in after spending nearly four years at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, while their new quarters were being built. In late May, there was cause for celebration when two huge transport crates riding on a 72-foot semi rolled into Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZ), carrying the “girls” to their new exhibit. After their 12-hour, 750-mile road trip, their triumphant return was marked with tears and cheers from zoo staff.

Transporting two 3,000-pound hippos is no piece of cake, and the animals prepared and trained for a year to get used to their crates for their journey home. Zambezi has been at CMZ since 1993 and Kasai since 2001.

In addition to the hippos, 11 endangered African penguins arrived from the Toledo Zoo, Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, and the Denver Zoo. Their new luxury digs include an indoor and outdoor pool surrounded by a sugar-grade sandy beach that mimics the famous Boulders Beach near Cape Town, South Africa, home to thousands of African penguins.

In the new space, you can see the penguins swim underwater and also enjoy their company as the adorable flightless birds with impressive beaks are free to leave their open beach and waddle among you.

How to tell the boys from the girls? They wear color-coded armbands—males on their left flippers and females on their right.

“To our knowledge, there are a number of firsts in this exhibit,” says Bob Chastain, president and CEO of CMZ. “We think we’re the first zoo in America or the world to do a penguin exhibit where the penguins can choose to go into the public area.” He also believes CMZ is the only zoo in the world to have an infinity-edge hippo pool—very cool.

The centerpiece of the hippos’ outdoor pool is Lemur Island, home to a breeding group of three critically endangered ring-tailed lemurs. Here, Hercules, a three-year-old male, and twin seven-year-old females Allagash and Rogue, live among lush plants and trees overlooking the hippos. The cute, charismatic primates—with their delicate cat-like faces and magnificent tails—can be seen swinging from trees on their private island.

The Space Itself

Water’s Edge: Africa can be described as spectacular, phenomenal, stunning…a jewel in the zoo’s crown. To make way for the amazing new exhibit—funded through the $10.4 million Making Waves capital campaign—the original 59-year-old aquatics building was demolished.

“We have designed Water’s Edge: Africa with the goal of implementing a hippo breeding program to add to the assurance population of hippos in zoos. This is important for species like hippos that are experiencing massive drops in numbers in the wild,” says Jeremy Dillon, Water’s Edge animal care manager.

Bob Chastain and Frank Haas, CMZ’s landscape architect and planner, worked closely to establish the initial design. During the three years of construction, the design of the exhibit constantly evolved, but the goal was always to bring guests closer than ever to hippos, penguins, and lemurs. From the ashes, the new vision took shape in collaboration with local companies CSNA Architects and G.E. Johnson Construction.

The final cost? About $14 million, down from an estimated $25 million after a redesign and many return visits to the drawing board. “The team and the community should be really proud of what G.E. Johnson was able to do with us here,” Chastain says. Of the 230 U.S. zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, CMZ is one of only nine operating without tax support. “So this exhibit truly is a labor of love.”

Every visual and physical barrier possible has been eliminated to give guests up-close and personal experiences with the animals. “They’ll be looking directly at the hippos with next-to-no visual obstructions. The idea is to evoke the feeling that you’re a part of the environment rather than an observer,” Dillon says.

Now you can get nose-to-very-large-nose with the exhibit’s two reigning stars. Their indoor space allows visitors to have close encounters with the girls never possible before—and get to know them. Kasai, for example, has pink spots on top of all four of her feet. She is larger than her older sister, Zambezi, and tends to have a more dominant personality.

Although, in the wild, the water-loving herbivores are among the world’s most dangerous animals, CMZ’s sisters have been cared for by humans their entire lives, and are considered gentle giants by their keepers. A big part of beloved Zambezi’s and Kasai’s appeal is their generally calm and gentle demeanors.

So come waddle with a penguin, get close to a hippo, and be visually stunned by Water’s Edge: Africa.

Fun Facts

• Only 30 zoo organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in North America house hippos.

• “Hippopotamus” comes from the ancient Greek for “river horse.”

• Hippos’ eyes, ears, and nostrils are on the top of their head, allowing them to see, hear, and breathe while almost completely submerged.

• They are the most dangerous animals on the African continent as they are highly aggressive and unpredictable.

• In the wild, lemurs exist only in Madagascar and are critically endangered.

• African penguins are also known as jackass penguins because their call sounds like a donkey braying.

More Good News!

On July 30, the CMZ welcomed Biko, a 17-year-old male Nile hippo from Florida. Following a careful introduction, he will join the long-single hippo ladies for, hopefully, a productive liaison. He is the first male hippo at the zoo since 1989, and any offspring would be the first ever for CMZ.