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$2-million gift to add Australia to the zoo

An anonymous donor helps finance Wallaroo Station, a new Australian-theme exhibit coming to the Lowry Park Zoo.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2000


TAMPA -- Lowry Park Zoo on Monday announced its largest gift ever, an anonymous $2-million donation that will help finance construction of Wallaroo Station, an Australian-theme children's zoo expected to open next year.

The new exhibit will offer up-close encounters with kangaroos and their smaller cousins, wallabies. It also will feature a treehouse in the canopy of a large live oak where kids will be able to see giant fruit bats and exotic birds such as kookaburras and cockatoos.

From there, children will be able to slide down to ground level, where they can play in the water of a simulated Australian oasis or look at examples of the continent's more arid terrain.

"Between 30 and 40 percent of our attendance is kids, and what we wanted to do is really look at how to make the experience more fun and more educational from a kid's perspective," said Lex Salisbury, Lowry Park Zoo's president and CEO.

The new children's zoo will have a domestic animal area with sheep, goats and pigs, and several features tied to Australia's wool and sheepherding industry.

Salisbury said the zoo used surveys and focus groups to determine what children, parents and teachers wanted when planning for the exhibit began. He compared the 4.5-acre expansion to a hands-on kangaroo exhibit at the first zoo he worked at, the Currumbin Sanctuary in Queensland, Australia, and said he wanted to re-create at Lowry Park Zoo the wide-eyed reactions he used to see in Queensland.

Zoo officials said little about the background of the donor, whom they said had asked to remain anonymous. Nor did they say how much of the $4.5-million they need for the new project has been raised so far.

"We're thrilled by the gift," said Craig Pugh, the zoo's chief development officer. He said the children's zoo is being designed and zoo administrators are still "very much at the start" of fundraising. The children's zoo is part of a $35-million expansion that should take another six years to complete.

Lowry Park Zoo is owned by the city of Tampa but is run by the private, non-profit Lowry Park Zoological Society. It receives only 2 percent of its operating budget from local and state government. By comparison, the average public subsidy for the zoo industry is 38 percent of the operating budget.

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