zoo wants to build new home for smaller critters
I remember visiting the black bear cages at Irvine Park Zoo every summer when I was a kid. The bears paced cramped, smelly, den-like cages protected by giant, iron bars and wire fencing. They lived next to what seemed like an endless cave that most likely housed a number of their bloodthirsty brethren. It was delightfully terrifying. I was a pretty dramatic 8-year-old. Looking back, the bear cages still seem scary, but for a different reason: I see them now as small, dirty, and, well, inhumane.
In the last decade, Irvine Park Zoo has been working hard to change that, and it certainly shows. The large animals – such as bears, tigers, and most recently, hyenas – housed in the zoo still inspire awe in park visitors young and old, but they do so from new, larger, natural-looking enclosures designed to give onlookers a good view while still affording the animals some privacy. Chippewa Falls Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department Director Dick Hebert believes that the newest round of zoo renovations will create a similar environment for the zoo’s birds and small mammals.
"The small mammal building doesn’t fit, and it sticks out because we have the new, modern, nicer (large) animal exhibits." – Dick Hebert, Chippewa Falls parks director, on why a new environment for small animals is needed at the Irvine Park Zoo
“The small mammal building doesn’t fit, and it sticks out because we have the new, modern, nicer (large) animal exhibits,” Hebert says. “You really notice the smaller cages: It’s dark, it’s hard to see the animals.” The new, 13,500-square-foot building will have wider enclosures with more natural sunlight, which will make them more accessible and easier to maintain. The new building will also allow zoo visitors to view exotic animals, such as the coatimundi or the newly acquired lemurs, year round.
In addition to updating the small mammal building and the aviary, the expanded Irvine Park Zoo will have a welcome center that will serve as a hub not only for the zoo, but also for the community. The proposed welcome center will include concessions, a gift shop, and a meeting room available for public use. It will be a starting point for zoo tours and a gathering place for visiting groups. Visitors will be able to learn about the region through a collection of donated historical artifacts that have been gathering dust in storage without a proper place to be displayed.
Although the facilities look different, Irvine Park Zoo has been a regional destination for generations. “I can remember using Irvine Park my whole life. The zoo has always been there,” says Lois Bodeau, World’s Best Grandma, lifelong Chippewa Valley resident, and the woman behind my childhood Irvine Park Zoo trips. Bodeau started visiting Irvine Park in the late 1930s with her family. She remembers it as a community recreation center where families would meet up for picnics, walks, and bear-watching. “There were just a lot of people around there and it was fun,” she says. “We always loved taking the same drive that you can still take up over the hill.”
Today, Lois likes to visit the zoo with her young grandchildren. Together, they read the bricks naming community members and organizations that support the zoo, they climb on the bear statues, they marvel at the tigers, they coo at the bunnies in the petting zoo – ultimately, they connect with each other, with the region, and with the environment. “It’s a community center,” she asserts. “It’s a good way for kids to learn about animals, but it’s also just a good way to engage with nature.”
The proposed improvements, which have been estimated to cost $2.3 million and were approved at a September park board meeting, will be funded entirely by donations. Hebert is hopeful that people living in the Chippewa Valley will demonstrate their ownership of the zoo by contributing to the expansion. “I’m very confident that the region will support this project,” he says. “The Irvine Park Zoo means a lot to a lot of people. … It holds a lot of wonderful memories.”
A formal fundraising campaign will begin later this fall, but interested parties can start sending donations to the Parks and Recreation Department, City Hall, 30 W. Central St., Chippewa Falls, WI 54729. Call 715-723-0051 or visit www.chippewafalls-wi.gov/Departments/ParksRec Forest/Park_rechome.htm for more information.