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Anonymous $1 million gift lets zoo rebuild critical critter conservation center

January 6, 2016 Updated: January 7, 2016 at 5:59 am
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photo - A Black-footed ferret is pictured at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on Wednesday, January 6, 2016. During torrential rains in the spring of 2015, an isolated landslide destroyed the breeding center at the zoo. This forced the evacuation and relocation of the zoo's national Black-footed ferret and Wyoming toad breeding programs. Due to an anonymous donation of $1 million, the zoo is making plans to rebuild. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette
A Black-footed ferret is pictured at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on Wednesday, January 6, 2016. During torrential rains in the spring of 2015, an isolated landslide destroyed the breeding center at the zoo. This forced the evacuation and relocation of the zoo's national Black-footed ferret and Wyoming toad breeding programs. Due to an anonymous donation of $1 million, the zoo is making plans to rebuild. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette 

Torrential rains in the spring of 2015 led to a slow-moving landslide that destroyed an exterior wall of the breeding center at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, forcing animal evacuations and dealing a major blow to conservation and reintroduction programs at the mountaintop facility. Thanks to a $1 million gift, the zoo is moving forward with building plans for a new, expanded center to house its populations of endangered black-footed ferrets and Wyoming toads, both of which have played a critical role in species survival in recent decades.

"It was great news for us, for black-footed ferrets and Wyoming toads. It's really nice to know someone cared enough to help us out after we had kind of a tragic event this summer," said zoo president and CEO Bob Chastain. "We've been dedicated to saving black-footed ferrets since 1990 and Wyoming toads since 2004, so it was difficult to comprehend what setbacks we'd face by not having a dedicated place for them."

The damage to the conservation center came at an unfortunate time, during the early phases of a capital campaign raising money for a new hippo and penguin exhibit at the zoo, one of only 10 nationwide that receives no money from tax dollars.

"The great thing about our community is, when your back's against the wall, generous individuals step up and show their support," said Chastain, adding that the donor has asked to remain anonymous at this time. "They want to highlight our zoo's conservation work, rather than promoting themselves."

The original metal building housing the conservation and breeding program was constructed in the early 1990s, snugged against the mountainside high above the main grounds in an area only open to staff.

"It was built right up against the mountain but, originally, there was a few feet of space behind the building," said public relations manager Erica Meyer. A season of unrelenting rain changed that. "The staff started noticing that the mountain was coming closer and closer and closer to the building and one day, the mountain was pushing right up against it. We had to abandon the building and move the animals, quickly."

In mid-June, almost 1,500 Wyoming toads and tadpoles, which are extinct in the wild, and 42 black-footed ferrets were relocated. A number of the zoo's ferrets joined the world's largest captive population at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Fort Collins. Female ferrets who had recently given birth, along with the zoo's population of "headstarting" Wyoming toad tadpoles too young to thrive in the wild, were moved to temporary space inside a nearby multipurpose building.

"It was a big task to move everybody. It was right in the middle of breeding season for the ferrets," said conservation area lead animal keeper Jeff Baughman.

In addition to providing permanent housing for the zoo's endangered species programs, the new center will highlight its work with amphibians in Panama and feature an education area that will be open to the public.

"Even though it's an unexpected construction project for us, there's a lot of excitement about it," Meyer said. "It will be fun for people to actually see what we're doing to save these species."

Chastain expects the new center to open by 2020.

"We're in the design phase now and have several locations we're looking at. One is at the top of the (Mountaineer) sky ride," he said. "There's an area up there that's quite big from a land standpoint ... and quite flat."

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Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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