A Big Home for Little Critters

Tom Giffey

CREATURE FEATURE. The new small animal building and visitors’ center at Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls is expected ot be completed by Memorial Day.
CREATURE FEATURE. The new small animal building and visitors’ center at Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls is expected to be completed by Memorial Day.

By the end of the month, the Irvine Park Zoo’s smaller animals – and the people who visit them – will have new digs.

Construction is wrapping up on a new small-animal building and welcome center at Chippewa Falls’ Irvine Park, which city parks director Dick Hebert hopes will be open by Memorial Day. Overall, the project will cost about $3.95 million, and more than $3 million is already in hand, Hebert says. Only $100,000 is coming from the city, while the rest is from donations.

The building replaced the previous small-animal building and aviary, which had deteriorated after more than 50 years of use. The prior building made it difficult to properly view and care for animals: The concrete enclosures were long and narrow, and animals were out of sight in the cold weather.

“I remember taking the volunteers who served on the capital campaign through the old building, and after they went through it the comment was, ‘We are done talking about why we need a new building,’ ” Hebert recalled.

“It’s going to be a beautiful facility. During our walk-throughs so far, people are very excited and amazed. They’re very impressed.”– Dick Hebert, Chippewa Falls parks director

By contrast, the new 13,500-square-foot building will provide larger, more comfortable quarters for both animals and humans. The exhibit areas will be taller and wider, making it easier to see the animals inside (and easier to clean up after them); the aviary will feature screened exterior exhibits; and the facility will be better suited to transferring animals, which will mean less stress when the veterinarian comes.

And the new quarters will keep unwanted animals out: The old building was a haven for mice, Hebert says.

Meanwhile, the welcome center will greet visitors to the park – from kids on class trips to senior citizens – and provide an informational area, a store for souvenirs and snacks, a rentable meeting and party room, and an area to display artifacts. While the exact nature of that display hasn’t been determined, it will likely showcase the history of the park and its namesake, 19th-century lumberman William Irvine.

“It’s going to be a beautiful facility,” Hebert says. “During our walk-throughs so far, people are very excited and amazed. They’re very impressed.”

The new building is the culmination of a decade of zoo improvements, which has included the construction of larger, more natural living quarters for the zoo’s bears and big cats.

Once construction is complete, the small animals and birds – who returned to their permanent owner, an animal broker, when the old building was demolished last year – will settle into their new residences. The new building will feature six animal exhibits, each of which will house two to three animals, and four bird exhibits, which will be home to two to five birds each. Because the animals come from a broker, Hebert isn’t completely sure what species visitors will see when the building opens, but in the past the small animal exhibit has featured raccoons, porcupines, and foxes as well as more exotic creatures such as capuchin monkeys and coatimundis.

Hebert expects the new building to attract more people to the already popular park; in fact, he says, the construction already has drawn curious visitors. And if you come to check out the small animals’ new home, don’t forget to take a gander at the domestic creatures in the petting zoo (which also opens Memorial Day), as well as the tigers, bears, and hyenas in the large-animal exhibit and the elk and bison who are pastured at the park all year long.

To learn more about Irvine Park and the capital campaign, visit www.chippewafalls-wi.gov/pr.

Tom Giffey 

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