On an unusually warm evening for a Chicago fall, the clouds filled the sky, a sign of the rain to come. As the sun set, amber and coral cumulus mountains formed in the distance, casting a golden hour glow on the cityscape. It would seem like just another night in Chicago if it weren’t for the lion sitting atop ‘pride rock’ in the center of the brand new Pepper Family Wildlife Center. Lounging with his luxurious mane, male African lion Jabari seems to be soaking it all in.
This is the moment Lincoln Park Zoo staff, volunteers, members, supporters, and zoo-goers have dreamt of for nine years since the launch of The Pride of Chicago Campaign. It was the incredibly generous donation from Richard and Roxelyn Pepper that made all these dreams a reality as we open Pepper Family Wildlife Center, home to African lions, Canada lynx, red pandas, and snow leopards. This is the culmination of years of passion, expertise, data-informed habitat design, and research on the iconic Landmark building. But it is also so much more than that.
Often, the lion house on Main Mall is referred to as the heart of the zoo. If that is so, then the renovation could be compared to a miraculous quadruple bypass surgery, keeping the essential organ intact—in this case, a historic building erected in 1912—while expertly manipulating the life-supplying arteries. A historic Landmark building comes with its breath-holding challenges, hence the surgical metaphor.
With its Landmark designation, the renovation of the historic lion house had to adhere to a specific set of guidelines to ensure the historic preservation of the building before reopening as the Pepper Family Wildlife Center. Detailed restoration includes protecting original ceramic flooring underneath carpeting, repainting the transom windows along the grand arched ceiling matched to the original 1912 Arts and Crafts color palette, significant masonry and tuckpointing on the original exterior brickwork and lion mosaics, and restoring each grand entrance to its historical integrity.
Adding to the depth of the historic renovation was the desire to outfit Pepper Family Wildlife Center with modern and accessible facilities. This includes leveling aggregate pathways for accessible entrances, installing automatic entry doors, and incorporating universal design restrooms at each entrance while updating mechanicals for air conditioning for guests, and animals.
“This has been one of the most unique habitats to build in the zoo’s history,” said Vice President of Animal Care and Horticulture Maureen Leahy. “I am so grateful to our expert teams, from animal welfare scientists, to keepers, to facilities, horticulturists, and communications, for making this project a success. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to Col. Jennifer Pritzker and the TAWANI Foundation for underwriting the renovation of Great Hall, and Goettsch Partners who were instrumental in preserving the historic design of this magnificent building.
Some of the most beautiful work in the lion’s habitat, the public can’t even see,” said Leahy. “The lion’s behind-the-scenes space was built to provide world-class care and facilitate positive relationships with keepers and provide a private space for future denning.”
The lion behind-the-scenes space provides a 360-degree loop with several points of closure. This ensures the lions either have numerous pathways in and out of the habitat or, alternatively, can be safely separated in the instance of medical care, arrival of cubs, or other husbandry needs. The spaces are strategically designed with positive reinforcement training and optimal animal care in mind—spaces have small ports for voluntary blood draws from their muscular tails, a lion sized scale for regular weigh-ins, and a special platform with protected access underneath so veterinarians can conduct ultrasounds while the lions lay down comfortably in their own space. There are also 29 cameras throughout the lions’ entire exhibit so keepers can observe the lions and their behavior 24/7.
The magic for guests, however, will be the immense habitat, viewable both indoors and out. The 18,300 square-foot space provides rolling green hills, stippled with tall savanna-inspired grasses, leading your eye to the intricate rockwork highlighted by tall Forest Steward Council-certified trees for lions to climb and lounge on.
The rockwork is much more than a façade. The rocks were inspired by actual images of kopje rocks in Tanzania, taken by Lincoln Park Zoo’s Tanzania Conservation Research Program scientists, and then hand painted by Anna Tribbett, an artist with extensive expertise including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ at Universal Studios. The rocks themselves were expertly designed using years of ZooMonitor, a behavior monitoring app created by Lincoln Park Zoo, research regarding lions’ preferences for elevated spaces with high vantage points, options for shade, and comfort zones. With this data in mind, the habitat was strategically designed to provide vertical space to explore, heating and cooling elements throughout many rock features, and options for shade throughout 50 percent of the entire habitat.
“Animal welfare is still a relatively new science because it isn’t an easy feat asking a lion what they like or how they’re feeling,” said Director of the Animal Welfare Science Program Katie Cronin, Ph.D. “But with years of data from observing their behavior, including how they interact with their space and one another, we were able to design this habitat to their preferences—we like to think they helped build it themselves.”
The habitat is also equipped with enrichment in mind, including numerous substrates, sights, smells, levels, and even a zipline for meaty bones and other preferred food items.
Back inside the TAWANI Great Hall sits the Lion Loop, supported by the Women’s Board of Lincoln Park Zoo, an immersive pathway into the lion habitat with viewing windows on all sides, including skylights the lions can walk over. The pride has already been known to lay smack inthe middle of the cool glass, or curiously crawl to the windows to catch a glimpse at their human visitors below.
On either end of the TAWANI Great Hall are expansive viewing windows, enabling nose-to-nose views of the majestic lions. Zoological Manager Cassy Kutilek peeks through and checks on the big cats before heading home for the evening and snaps a photo of Jabari, sitting on his rock, overlooking his new kingdom and gazing out into the sunset skyscape.
This is The Pride of Chicago.