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Sunzet Zoo’s new building a big improvement over old facility

By Megan Moser

It wasn’t difficult to improve upon the 8-by-10-foot shack that formerly served as Sunset Zoo’s ticket booth and office. But construction is nearly complete on a new 15,000-square-foot Nature Exploration Center that will put the former structure to shame.

As the entryway to the park, the new building, set to open next month, will change the way patrons experience the zoo — or at least the way they perceive it, said Director Scott Shoemaker.

The $3.9 million center includes clasrooms, office space, a ticket booth, a year-round gift shop and more.

“I think it’s going to change the impression of the zoo,” Shoemaker said. “The old ticket booth was a small wooden box with windows. That was the first impression. When they come to this new facility, it’s a pretty amazing building.”

A large central rotunda anchors the space. The rounded design gives the walls interesting angles and shapes, he said.

“It’s a big circle,” Shoemaker said. “All the rooms and offices kind of radiate around that circle.”

The center will allow the zoo to offer programs and events it couldn’t before.

Four classrooms, divided by age from early childhood to high school, will accommodate school field trips and summer camp sessions.

A distance-learning center, created with technology funding from a Peine Foundation grant, will allow zoo employees to televise programs to schools throughout the state. And many of the spaces, including the rotunda, can be rented for meetings, wedding receptions and more.

The building also will house the educational animals zookeepers take when they speak to classes or at public events. Those animals, including snakes, tarantulas, chinchillas, ferrets, birds and more, have to this point been kept in various buildings in the zoo. Now they’ll be on display in rolling exhibits in the nature center — but they can be moved if the space is rented for an event.

“These units are also changeable, so whenever people come to the zoo, a different animal will be out,” Shoemaker said. “It keeps it fresh. It’s a nice way to get the education animals out.”

He said he’s also excited about the gift shop, formerly a seasonal operation in the center of the zoo, which will now be open year-round and available to the public.

“At the old one, you had to buy an admission,” Shoemaker said. “Now you don’t have to buy a zoo ticket. We’re also going to have a bee exhibit in the gift shop where you can see a living bee colony.”

The Nature Exploration Center opens to the public June 3, with the option for a sneak peek at the zoo’s Wine in the Wild event on June 2. Tickets for both are available now.

But until then, there’s still a lot to be done, Shoemaker said. The contractor has a checklist to go through. There’s landscaping and interior work to be done. And zoo employees have to move their things into the offices.

“We’re going to need all of that time to be ready,” he said.

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