Zoo to build ‘learning playground’

Franklin Park Zoo announced last week plans to replace its children’s zoo section with a $6.6 million “learning playground” project called “Nature’s Neighborhoods.”

The “nature-based educational exhibit for children,” as described by Zoo New England’s Vice President for Development Suzanne Thompkins, will compare various ecosystems to neighborhoods. Grasslands, woodlands and wetlands will form the main areas with themed smaller exhibits and play structures.

Featured animal exhibits will include red pandas, North American river otters, prairie dogs and many more.

Construction was slated to begin later this year or early 2015 for a Spring 2016 opening, according to zoo officials.

Animals currently housed in the children’s zoo area, which include the Amur leopard, will be temporarily moved in non-exhibit areas, and may be permanently relocated to other accredited zoos, according to Brooke Wardrop, the director of marketing and communications for Zoo New England.

The child-oriented Franklin Farm area next to the current children’s zoo will remain.

“Franklin Farm complements the neighborhood theme of Nature’s Neighborhoods and will be integrated into it,” said Wardrop.

The George Robert White Fund has made a $3 million capital investment to build Nature’s Neighborhoods. To date, $4.5 million has been raised toward the capital campaign to build Nature’s Neighborhoods.

By comparing ecosystems to neighborhoods, zoo officials say, children will be able to explore various habitats and the roles that living creatures, including themselves, play in healthy environments.

Mayor Martin Walsh, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, state Rep. Liz Malia and City Councilor Tito Jackson attended the announcement.

“Franklin Park Zoo plays a number of important roles in our city. It brings people together from all walks of life,” Walsh said at a March 17 press conference at the zoo. “A world-class city deserves a world-class zoo.”

Zoo New England is the owner and operator of Franklin Park Zoo, as well as Stone Zoo in Stoneham.

CORRECTION: This article has been edited to correct Brooke Wardrop’s name and project construction dates.

A designer’s concept of what the new Franklin Park Zoo facility will look like. (Courtesy Franklin Park Zoo)

A designer’s concept of what the new Franklin Park Zoo facility will look like. (Courtesy Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc./ Main Street Design /Coyle & Caron, LLC.)

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