Zoo celebrates opening of new veterinary hospital, California Trail project expansion in planning stages

Maria Trenary, a senior veterinary technician at Oakland Zoo, describes an anesthesia mask meant for larger animals like lions, at the grand opening of the zoo's new veterinary hospital on Thursday.

Maria Trenary, a senior veterinary technician at Oakland Zoo, describes an anesthesia mask meant for larger animals like lions, at the grand opening of the zoo's new veterinary hospital on Thursday.

The veterinary facility at Oakland Zoo was once so small and cramped that during one surgery, senior veterinary technician Maria Trenary had to crawl under an operating table, navigating beneath the dangling limbs of an anesthetized tiger, just to get to the other side of the room and continue working.

Now, at the zoo’s new veterinary hospital, which celebrated its grand opening Thursday afternoon, a camel, a bison or even a juvenile giraffe can be easily accommodated in one of the hospital’s revamped surgery suites.

“A veterinary hospital for a zoo is a unique building type,” said Alyson Yarus, senior associate at Noll & Tam Architects and Planners, the firm behind the redesign. “It’s invented fresh each time.”

The new $10.8 million, 17,000 square foot facility is an upgrade from the zoo’s most recent veterinary clinic, a 51-year-old space measuring just 1,200 square feet.

“This really ups our levels and quality of animal care,” said Rachel Wells, a registered veterinary technician at Oakland Zoo, gesturing to a hallway lined with new holding areas for the animals. “We’ll be able to actually bring some of our animals physically into an area, where a lot of the times as of now we have to go to the animal and go into their night houses or something like that to be able to work on them.”

Some of the hospital’s newest improvements include exam and surgery rooms individually tailored for large and small species. There are also animal holding rooms designed specifically for the needs of hoofed animals—like gazelles, zebras and camels. These types of animals are flighty and prone to agitation, Trenary said, so their holding cells have more visual barriers to keep them calm. A holding cell for a chimpanzee on the other hand, might provide them with access to skylights, because they’re less skittish and more curious creatures. Even the size and strength of the cell’s fencing varies from animal to animal. “We don’t want to put a chimp in a cell where it can rip the fencing right off,” Trenary said.

There’s also an indoor pool for animals like otters, a heated and covered aviary, and climate-and-humidity-controlled rooms for reptiles. Before the advent for the new center, “there was a little bit of jerry-rigging involved” to create conditions for the best interests of the animals, Trenary said. To accommodate reptilian patients for example, Trenary and her team had to experiment with different combinations of temperatures and humidity levels using heat lamps and humidifiers.

Because of space and equipment constraints, the Oakland Zoo veterinary staff once had to transport animal patients between centers like veterinary facilities at the University of California, Davis. Now the new building presents greater opportunities to care for the nearly 100 different species and more than 600 animals currently housed on the zoo grounds without having to outsource to as many outside facilities for care.  The hospital still plans to work closely in partnership with UC Davis, though. For procedures like root canals, for example, the zoo’s veterinary staff may still call in animal dentistry experts from the university, Trenary said.

The completed hospital renovations mark the end of part one of a $72 million, 56-acre upgrade. Next in the works for the Oakland Zoo is the California Trail project, an expansion into the hills of Knowland Park that will include more than 30 acres of open space habitat and over 20 acres of new exhibits showcasing regional and threatened species like California condors, mountain lions and grizzly bears. It will also feature an overnight camping area for organized camps and an elaborate aerial gondola system that will cart visitors into the hilltop to see the exhibit.

Plans for the Trail project have been controversial since its inception, as local environmental groups argue that construction is threatening native and threatened plant species and their habitat, like the Alameda whipsnake, which is classified as a threatened species.

The Oakland City Council first approved plans to expand the zoo in June 2011, after years of back and forth negotiations and environmental reviews. In opposition to the approved expansion plans, Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) tried to enact a three-week suspension of the project, a request that was later squelched by an Alameda County Superior Court judge.

The proposed development site is located in the “heart of the park right next to extremely sensitive habitat,” including old-growth native prairie grasses, argues Laura Baker, conservation chair of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. “The veterinary hospital is a good thing,” she said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “It allows the zoo to keep its accreditation to provide for the animals that are there. We are very much opposed to the rest of the expansion.”

The California Trail project is currently still in the planning and fundraising stages, Yarus said, and it is expected to be completed in 2015.

For now, the veterinary team at Oakland Zoo is organizing and setting up the last of the medical equipment before its first patients are brought in, which may be as early as next week, said Joel Parrott, president and CEO of Oakland Zoo.

The veterinary team was adept at handling smaller animals in the past, but the new facility opens up a window of new opportunities for care. “Now, we can actually hold a bison in the veterinary hospital, and that’s a big animal to be able to hold in a hospital,” Parrott said. “To be able to go from that to chimpanzees, who are very powerful, or to tigers who are also powerful, or to grizzly bears, who could tear the place up—we now have the ability at the hospital to hold them. It has a much bigger breadth.”

Correction: This article was updated to correctly identify the correct date in which the Oakland City Council approved expansion plans for Oakland Zoo. 

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for including information from both sides about this very complex issue. In the interest of complete accuracy, I’d like to offer the following comments.

    Your statement that the Oakland Zoo’s proposed California Trail exhibit “will include more than 30 acres of open space habitat” is extremely misleading. If the project is built, those 30 acres would be behind an 8 foot tall chainlink perimeter fence, permanently removing those acres from use by wildlife and park visitors hardly what could be defined as open space. Furthermore, the additional 20 acres of exhibits, roads, buildings, and infrastructure are currently occupied habitat by a variety of native wildlife and plant species. That’s a net loss of 50+ acres of high quality native habitat.

    It’s also important to note that the project has not received its regulatory permits, nor has the zoo produced required financial documentation that it has the money to pay for the development, so talk about its opening date is sheer speculation.

    Some corrections: Oakland City approval took place on June 21, 2011, not in July. Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plant (not “Plants”) Society (CNPS) legally challenged the project approval in court which included filing a temporary restraining order (not a “request”, which was denied (not “squelched”) by the court. Laura Baker is not the current Conservation Chair of the East Bay Chapter. The proposed project would be built on top of the rare native bunchgrass prairie–acres of which would be bulldozed. The Interpretive Center and aerial gondola ride would be built in, over, and next to the rare and imperiled maritime chaparral community.

    Laura Baker
    East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society

  2. Alexa Fraser

    The Oakland Zoos new veterinary facility is very nice and does not intrude to much into Knowland park.
    Knowland park is already home to mountain lions, bobcats, foxes and coyotes.
    “an expansion into the hills of Knowland Park that will include more than 30 acres of open space habitat and over 20 acres of new exhibits showcasing regional and threatened species like California condors, mountain lions and grizzly bears.” I don’t think open spaces can be fenced in. How will the animals of Knowland park get in and out? Wont they be disturbed by a massive gondola ride and a 34,000 sq ft restaurant, museum and office building? I also thought the zoo didn’t have enough money to take care of the animals they had. Isn’t that what measure A1 is about? Why are they building a new expansion if they don’t have enough money to keep educational programs open and care for their animals?

  3. Jim Cook

    Measure A1 on the current Alameda County ballot is being promoted by the zoo as a source of funding for improved care of zoo animals. However if you read the actual text of the measure, you will find in chapter 2.30.010 paragraph H ” ‘Services & Projects’ that the definition of the zoo operations for which this measure will supply funds are not limited to the advertised purpose of this measure. Zoo operations are defined as “including but not limited” to a long, worthy list of activities that include this sentence:
    “Financing and construction of new or renovation of existing Oakland Zoo capital facilities is within the definition of services and projects”
    In other words the zoo administration is free to spend any portion of these new funds for the construction of their expensive and completely perverse new project in Knowland Park, celebrating vanishing California wildlife by destroying just that habitat that supports endangered creatures and plants.
    Please vote NO on A1. .

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