A chimpanzee exhibit covering almost two-thirds of the property. A research center focused on the conservation of endangered species populations. A new welcome center with animal “ambassadors”.
These improvements and more are part of the vision Indianapolis Zoo officials set out to unveil at the Indiana State Museum Thursday night as they launched the public phase of a $53 million fundraiser that will run for the next two years.
The zoo has already raised 60%, or $31.8 million, of its goal through donations from multiple institutions, including the Lilly Foundation, which contributed $9 million. The Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, and dozens of individual donors also contributed.
“The community has responded with great enthusiasm and generosity so far, so we’re only optimistic about this campaign,” Indianapolis Zoo CEO Rob Shumaker told IBJ this week ahead of the announcement.
“What we are doing with the projects associated with this capital campaign [affects all our visitors]by absolutely redefining the zoo and the experience here,” he said. “It’s really transformative for us in terms of how [patrons] will experience a visit here.”
New rooms on the way
All projects of the campaign are already under construction. Work began quietly in March, with some construction work already visible to zoo visitors.
Dubbed the “Campaign for Our Zoo,” the fundraiser is the largest in the zoo’s 58-year history and will help fund several long-standing initiatives and new projects. These include a redesigned entrance and visitor area, as well as the Global Center for Species Survival, first announced in 2019 as part of a partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This program was launched in 2020 and runs from the Zoo’s administration building.
The $5 million Welcome Center will house tickets, restrooms and other amenities, including special “animal ambassadors” such as sloths, aardvarks, birds, snakes and juvenile alligators.
The zoo is earmarking $13 million for the species center, including $5 million for the center’s five-year operation. The center is where a team of local experts will work with others around the world to limit habitat destruction that could lead to further animal and plant extinctions.
“Our mission in terms of our commitment to biodiversity and global conservation is very clear. We did a very good job before launching this campaign. But we realized that given the state of the natural world and the pressures that are being placed on the survival of species around the world, we need to do more and want to do more,” Shumaker said.
“The time of [this center] was a response to threats to global biodiversity that have only accelerated year after year. So we really felt the urgency to move projects forward in our brand new department here, which is solely focused on global wildlife conservation.”
The Welcome Center and Species Center are expected to open to the public over Memorial Day weekend in 2023. Extensive improvements are also planned for the 27-acre site south of Washington Street, which the zoo acquired through a 2019 deal with Ambrose for a satellite parking lot. As portions of the zoo’s expansion eat up the existing parking lot, this satellite parking lot will be used extensively for years to come, Shumaker said.
Then there are the plans for the monkeys.
The International Chimpanzee Complex, a $25 million project opening in 2024, is expected to be a new centerpiece at the zoo, with the exhibit being the first to greet visitors to the facility after passing through the welcome center. The 4,500 square meter outdoor arena will be visible from almost anywhere on the zoo grounds with a tall, unique outdoor climbing structure.
The chimpanzees can also access other areas of the zoo via an elevated path that stretches along the zoo’s main walkways, stretching from a 3,100-square-foot area near the dolphin complex to the former sporting dog arena just south of the kangaroo exhibit.
The exhibit is expected to feature up to 30 adult chimpanzees and will be the first time the great apes have been included in the zoo’s program. Several chimpanzees have already been added to the zoo family, Shumaker said, as other zoos have asked to relocate some of their animals to Indianapolis.
“We want people to really understand what it means to be a chimpanzee,” he said. “And as a result, people will inevitably have more respect, concern and admiration for these great apes. This will directly lead to a much greater concern for their conservation in the wild. This is a very valuable lesson that we have learned from our previous work here at the zoo, particularly with orangutans. We applied all of these good lessons to design for chimpanzees.”
A big impact
The Indianapolis Zoo is a major employer and tourist activity hotspot in the city. It employs 700 people and welcomed 1.2 million visitors last year.
According to a study completed in late 2019 by Canopy Strategic Partners, the attraction is expected to have an economic impact of $535 million from 2021 to 2029 — an average of $59.5 million per year. About 63% of visitors come to the zoo from outside of Indianapolis, and more than 20% come from outside of Indiana.
Those numbers come as no surprise to Visit Indy executive vice president Chris Gahl, who said the continued investment in the zoo is good for the community’s tourism efforts. But he said the zoo’s continued focus on conservation efforts sheds light on Indianapolis’ role in global species conservation.
This awareness has been achieved in part through the Indianapolis Awards, a biennial award that recognizes individuals who have contributed to animal welfare efforts in their respective fields. The award is considered one of the most prestigious of its kind in the world.
“Build on something [the prize], you can see how the zoo has continued to transform into a physical place that prioritizes conservation and education, with tourist attractions that underpin education and continue to attract visitors across the country,” Gahl said. “This is a growing demand from visitors to continue learning and having meaningful experiences during their visits, so from our point of view the zoo’s work has been very deliberate and very meaningful. You can see how much care and attention they give to the preservation and the educational part in the physical space that is now growing again.”
Since 1999, the Indianapolis Zoo has raised more than $71 million through three fundraisers — not counting the current effort.
The first, a $10 million campaign that began in 1999, resulted in the African elephant sanctuary, as well as new snake and jellyfish exhibits.
The first phase of the conservation and community campaign – which led to the creation of the Indianapolis Awards, the Oceans exhibit and the Dolphin Pavilion – raised $31.1 million from 2003-2006. The second phase of this campaign – which ran from 2011 to 2014 – raised $30 million that funded the orangutan exhibit, entrance renovations, and the tiger and lion exhibits.
And since its last campaign, the zoo has spent nearly $20 million on nine new areas, including the Bicentennial Pavilion near the park’s entrance ($10 million) in 2017, the Elephant Camp ($1.27 million ) in 2020, and most recently Kangaroo Crossing ($2.2 million) in 2022.
But Shumaker said it was time for a bigger campaign.
“It’s been almost 10 years since we opened anything truly transformative here at the zoo,” he said. “All we knew from our evaluation of this campaign was that our timing in terms of campaign support is right. We have been very thoughtful, very considerate and very measured about the timing of this launch and moving forward.”
Donors promote the value of the zoo
Among the individual donors to the zoo’s campaign is Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts. Irsay on November 21 announced plans to give the zoo $1 million for its new entrance, which will be called the Indianapolis Colts Welcome Center Plaza. The gift is one of the largest single donations from private individuals for the zoo’s campaign to date.
“The Indianapolis Zoo is a global leader in animal welfare and conservation, overseeing efforts and projects that make a real difference around the world,” Irsay said in written comments at the time. “Not only is the zoo making great strides in protecting nature around the world, but it also provides world-class educational and entertainment opportunities for the entire Indianapolis community, making our city an even better place to call home.”
Tech entrepreneur Scott Dorsey and his wife Erin contributed an undisclosed amount. The couple and their Dorsey Foundation have also supported previous campaigns, including efforts to build the orangutan exhibit and support the Indianapolis Prize.
“This campaign solidifies the Indianapolis Zoo’s position as a conservation leader,” Erin Dorsey, who directs the couple’s foundation and is a member of the zoo’s fundraising committee. “The Indianapolis Zoo connects science and scientists with the public through its internationally recognized exhibits and programs, and most notably through the Indianapolis Prize.
Elaine Bedel, along with her husband Eric, donated an undisclosed amount.
She said the donation came after being approached during the so-called silent phase of the zoo’s fundraising campaign. Silence periods are conducted in hopes of generating a large chunk of financial support and momentum before a campaign goes public.
Bedel said while she appreciates the zoo’s impact on tourism — she’s CEO of Indiana Destination Development Corp. – their focus is on nature conservation. Bedel and her family have supported previous zoo campaigns as well as the Indianapolis Prize.
“We chose the zoo as a focus of our funding because we believe it is an important institution,” said Bedel. “When you think about what happened to many of the species that were here long before us – and now they’re gone – it’s important to do the necessary research to prevent this and save those who are in danger.” . From that perspective, the zoo is… a national asset.”