COLUMBIA — Thousands of the once- or twice-a-year visitors who flock to Riverbanks Zoo and Garden next week will find plenty of changes, from a makeshift, crowded temporary entrance to a spacious, inviting renovated restaurant.
They wont see the hyenas or the alligator. And they might want to stop to say see you in a year or so to grizzly bears Butch and Sundance.
The zoos $32 million construction effort is in full swing, creating a series of changes similar to a game of musical chairs.
The first obvious change for visitors will be the temporary entrance, which has been in use since February. Its to the right of the entrance road instead of to the left. If you want to park as close to the entrance as possible, go right, but those spaces will fill early. One of the first projects in the improvement effort will be an expansion of the old entrance.
The new restaurant, called Tuskers, replaces what once was a Burger King and more recently was called Kenya Cafe. When Service Systems Associates took over the food and concessions operations at Riverbanks a year ago, upgrading the restaurant was a major goal. With a more open dining area around a stone fireplace, Tuskers opened in March.
About $1.3 million was spent in a complete remake of the old restaurant. Gone are the multi-leveled floor and fast-food booths that made things difficult for large groups to eat together or for families with strollers. What formerly was outdoor seating was enclosed, increasing the air-conditioned seating from 88 to 140. For those who still want to eat outside, about 50 seats are available in the area that once used to be the tram loading area.
The menu is revamped, too, aiming for the fast-food casual concept, according to Laura Caster, general manager for SSA at Riverbanks. It includes the old standards such as hamburgers, chicken fingers and pizza as well has new options such as Asian chicken salad, pulled pork salad, tuna salad croissants and a marinated chicken breast sandwich with smoked gouda and apple bacon slaw on a ciabatta bun.
On the animal front, Butch and Sundance, two grizzlies who came to Riverbanks as cubs, will be transferred to Tulsa Zoo in Oklahoma for about a year while their new exhibit, which they will share with otters, is built here. Their last day on exhibit will be April 20.
The hyenas, already off exhibit, will be sent to another zoo permanently, and Riverbanks baboons will move into the old hyena exhibit. The former baboon exhibit space will be incorporated into the new grizzly-otter exhibit.
To begin making room for the new sea lion exhibit, the ring-tailed and red ruffed lemurs will be shifted to the Riverbanks Conservation Outpost tunnel exhibits. To make room for them there, the howler monkeys will be sent to another zoo. (Howler monkeys are not the creatures that make such a racket those are Siamangs.)
The alligator named Little Boy despite his bulk has been sent temporarily to Alligator Adventure in Myrtle Beach during renovation of his lagoon. A deck will be added outside Tuskers along the edge of the revamped lagoon, allowing for more outdoor dining.
The changing animal lineup also includes two new giraffes. Glenda was sent here from Zoo Atlanta in January and Bruce came from Jacksonville Zoo in February.