Yes, there will be safaris where you can spot giraffes and white rhinos from the comfort of open-air vehicles.
Yes, there will be an 11-story observation tower with views of mighty rivers and the Gateway Arch.
Yes, there will be glamping in three-season structures where you can hear the braying of zebras at night and have morning coffee before feeding a giraffe breakfast.
Zoo officials on Tuesday revealed details for its 425-acre St. Louis Zoo WildCare Park in the Spanish Lake area, which they purchased in 2018. They estimate the $230 million park will open to the public entirely in 2027.
Its first animals, Grevy’s zebras and addax, will arrive next year and live in a pilot conservation pasture within view of the Kent Family Conservation and Animal Science Center.
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Fencing for those areas is going up now, along with the work of converting a golf course turf to native grasses fit for the animals. The land was once home to the 18-hole Emerald Greens golf course, as well as a meeting and recreation area for the the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562.
“Look at this. You can see our baby grass in little rows. It’s so strong!” said Martha Fischer, general curator of the WildCare Park, driving a golf cart on a tour Thursday. She laughed. “Sorry. I’m so proud. I’m like the proud grass mother.”
In a separate phone interview, WildCare Park Director Jo-Elle Mogerman also fawned over the “baby grass,” which includes sideoats grama, little bluestem, Virginia wildrye and eastern gamagrass. But the animals, especially the hooved mammals they will welcome first, will need that grass to graze on and survive. “It seems small, but that’s a real first step,” Mogerman explained.
The zoo plans to pay for the park via donations, funding from Proposition Z, which passed in St. Louis County in 2018, cash reserves and the large part of a $135 million borrowing package that zoo officials plan to approach the Missouri Finance Development Board about Tuesday.
Because of Prop Z, St. Louis County residents will be able to enter the park for free and enjoy its basic attractions, such as the woodland safari, savanna safari, a walking safari, a nature adventure play area and a “zooseum.” Other amenities will cost extra. City residents and residents in other counties will have to pay for admission and extras.
Zoo officials chose animals based on what would live and thrive here, what is endangered or otherwise needs help, and what will not hunt or be hunted by native wildlife. Some animals will come from the zoo, but most will come from other accredited facilities. At least 17 species are on their initial list.
They are adding Grevy’s zebra and addax first because they know those animals well, with Przewalski’s horse, mountain bongo, Somali wild ass and roan antelope arriving next. Five conservation barns and several pastures totaling about 60 acres will be devoted to conservation breeding efforts and will include about 60 animals.
About 100 acres near the entrance and southern end will be devoted to a savanna safari, with about 100 animals. About 60 more acres to the north will be a woodland safari, including about 40 animals such as white rhinos and elands, a type of antelope.
There will also be a 60-acre nature adventure area geared toward kids as well as a walking safari where guests can explore on foot to see different animals.
“Like on a safari, being able to have the animals drive the storytelling for that day — that’s what going to be the cool and amazing part of it,” Fischer said. Guests can work together to spot roaming and hiding animals, and they may have to wait in their vehicle if a white rhino decides to sunbathe in the roadway.
The existing, Brutalist-style auditorium will be home to a science and the natural history zooseum, as well as a gift shop and membership desk. The building will have a new, attached restaurant.
Nearby, the zoo will build an events center, which can be rented for weddings and proms with views of the giraffes on the savanna. A round clubhouse already on the property will be renovated to offer 360-degree views.
Leslie Garner, the zoo’s director of architecture and construction, said her team is working on the architecture style of new buildings. Workers demolished a few buildings they couldn’t use, including an apartment building near the entrance.
“We’re kind of playing with building of economy plus nature plus kind of a nod to Africa,” she said. “The goal is to have the buildings kind of be secondary to nature and the views.”
The observation tower, called an “Aerobar,” is made by a company called Aerophile, which also makes tethered hot air balloons. The North County property is too windy for a loose balloon, but not for an 11-story tower with a balloon encased in a metal structure.
Guests sit in chairs that lift up in the air with a counter in front of them, and guests can take in the view while the circle rotates and an interpreter in the center explains the bigger natural picture. If guests want refreshments, a bar will be nearby at the base for the ascent or at the top, depending on the model planners choose.
“You should be able to see the confluence as well as the Arch,” Mogerman said. “You’ll be able to see all around you. You can see the greenery and the landscape, and we’ll help people understand that St. Louis was founded because of these assets.”
Mogerman, who came to St. Louis in 2019 after a career at Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, said that she was surprised by the natural beauty of the area.
“That’s not the narrative you hear about North County,” she said.
The WildCare Park is situated between Spanish Lake Park and the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, and sits along the Mississippi Flyway, an important migratory route for birds. Since acquiring the land in 2018, workers have studied which animals live there and have seen foxes, a bobcat, coyotes, slides made by otters, five species of bats, turtles, salamanders and lots of deer, eagles, herons, pelicans and turkeys, who like to come up to the headquarters building and fight with themselves in the reflective windows.
Officials expect the project will create about 1,000 construction jobs and about 100 full- and part-time jobs at the park.
For now, the zoo employees will continue to get excited over the baby grass.
“It represents the new in WildCare Park,” explained Fischer. “It’s just the first step, in the very many steps we’re going to have to take.”
First look: Renderings of plans for The St. Louis Zoo WildCare Park, and photos of it now