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Zoo awash in conservation work

Exhibits' facelift saves energy, drains penguins' 'bathtub'
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Penguins are sharing space with the polar bears while a new water filtration system is added to the penguin pond, saving 6.5 million gallons of water a year. 

When it comes to sustainability improvements, it's all happening at the zoo.

The Oregon Zoo, that is, not the Central Park Zoo that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang about in their 1967 tune.

Thanks to voter approval of a $125 million bond measure in the thick of the nation's financial crisis in November 2008, the Oregon Zoo is trying to make good on its goal of becoming the greenest zoo in the country.

'If you're talking about conserving the wildlife and the environment, the best way is conserving your resources,' says Kim Smith, zoo director. 'We wanted to walk our walk.'

As the zoo modernizes the animal exhibits that opened a half-century ago, it's installing a litany of green building and renewable energy features - many of which will ultimately save the zoo money on operating costs.

A couple weeks ago, the zoo installed a 30,000-gallon cistern to collect rain water next to its nearly finished Veterinary Medical Center, among the first of nine projects funded by the bond measure. Rainwater collected for free, courtesy of Mother Nature, will be used to flush toilets and wash down animal quarters, says Craig Stroud, who is overseeing bond projects for the zoo.

Glancing into an otherwise drab concrete holding pen for animals being treated by vets, Stroud points out a newfangled system of solar tubes used to funnel sunlight from above, to minimize lighting costs.

'My office isn't this bright with the lights on,' Stroud says.

There's also an array of thermal solar panels on the vet center roof, which will harness the power of the sun to provide free or low-cost hot water. A large bioswale next to the center will help filter runoff, so that water doesn't need expensive treatment.

In another of the early projects funded by the bond, penguins have been temporarily relocated while a new water filtration system is completed at the penguinarium. Before, the 25,000-gallon 'doughnut pond' where penguins swam since 1959, functioned much like a bathtub. It had to be drained weekly, and required a constant supply of new water to replace material skimmed away.

That system used more than 7 million gallons of water a year, which were dumped into the city's water treatment system. The new system will slash water usage to an estimated half-million gallons a year, Stroud says.

Overall, the zoo has been using 85 million gallons of water a year, the 14th-largest nonwhole- sale user in Portland. The goal is to cut that in half, Stroud says.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • The nearly finished new Veterinary Medical Center at the Oregon Zoo has solar thermal panels, which harness the power of the sun to reduce the water-heating bill. Zoo managers are shooting to make it the greenest zoo in the nation. 

Many zoos going green

All around the country, zoos are trying to make animal quarters more natural, and so is the Oregon Zoo.

Many zoos also are undertaking sustainability improvements, says Debborah Colbert, vice president of conservation and finance for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

'I would say that Oregon is one of the leaders,' says Colbert, who was part of a team deployed to grant the local zoo its accreditation.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recently embarked on a five-year climate initiative designed to spur zoos and aquariums to 'green themselves' and lower their carbon footprints, Colbert says. Part of that effort is to educate the public about sustainability issues, she says.

The bond, approved by voters in Portland's tri-county area, will fund renovations for the oldest exhibits, which date to the time the zoo was moved to its current location in 1959. That means spiffy and more comfortable quarters for elephants, primates, polar bears and rhinos. The bond also will fund a new exhibit for California condors.

The zoo will strive to eliminate as much concrete as possible, Smith says, because it's bad for the animals and bad for the environment. Concrete manufacturing has a high carbon footprint, doesn't absorb water and requires a lot of cleaning.

New exhibits will rely more on sand, mulch or other natural flooring surfaces, which will cut down on the zookeeper cleaning bill, Smith says.

New exhibits also will more clearly show the public about the work of veterinarians and others who care for the animals. 'We're pulling back the veil on animal care,' Smith says.

Visitors can observe, for example, how zookeepers draw blood from a tiger through its tail.

One of the biggest improvements for human visitors is the Conservation Discovery Zone, also nearing completion. Students on school field trips and summer camps, adults attending lectures, and others will enjoy a complex of eight classrooms and interpretive material on conservation.

That will replace the zoo's far-flung classrooms, built wherever there was an extra nook or cranny.

'We've got some all over, in basement places that smell a bit,' Stroud says.

The Conservation Discovery Zone, located near the zoo entrance, also will be built to earn a silver or better Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating, known as LEED.

One of the features will be a huge vegetated ecoroof, which will filter rainfall so it doesn't end up in the storm drainage system. That also will be a learning tool to teach visitors about conservation.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • The planned new polar bear exhibit at the Oregon Zoo will be more animal-friendly, visitor-friendly and earth-friendly. Thanks to a voter-approved bond, the exhibit will feature a a new pool filtration system to save water and energy. Concrete under the bears' feet will be replaced with softer natural materials.

Water everywhere

The 65-acre zoo property now collects a considerable amount of water draining downhill from Washington Park, and that water has gone directly into the city's expensive storm drainage and treatment system. Part of that drainage system will be 'daylighted' - moved above ground - so visitors strolling through the park can walk alongside what appear to be stream segments. 'We're trying to also educate them about their own water,' Smith says.

Bond proceeds also are helping lay the groundwork for what will ultimately be a zoo-wide geothermal system of underground pipes.

'It's basically a campus-sized heat pump,' Stroud says.

Such ground source heat pumps provide energy for heating and cooling systems by taking advantage of the temperature differential of underground liquids.

Even the zoo's signature small trains are getting greened-up. Two of the three trains were switched this year from regular diesel fuel to biodiesel.

So far, the zoo has only authorized the sale of $20 million in bonds of the $125 million authorized by voters. All the projects aren't expected to be done for another eight years.

Zoo projects take a long time, in part because of the complexity of operating around animals, and of assuring that zoo operations continue while construction takes place.

'Visitors come when it's the best construction time of the year,' Stroud says.

Though the bond money won't provide the full funding needed, the zoo also is exploring ways to add an on-site water treatment plant of some sort, and a biomass plant, which will produce energy, fueled by animal and human waste and food scraps, Smith says.

The zoo already is blessed by good transit service from a MAX stop, and has seen a gradual decrease in the share of people coming via cars.

Visitors can take a cross-town train and walk right into the zoo.

The animals will love it if you do.