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Americans Coming Home to an American Trail

Journey through our stunning new exhibit to encounter some true national treasures.

By Cristina Santiestevan

Daily, the staff at the National Zoo work tirelessly with endangered species native to countries around the world. But this fall the Zoo will be celebrating a bit of good ol’ Americana in the form of furry, feathery—and flippery—friends. The new exhibit area, American Trail, will feature animals near and dear to American visitors, reminding them of the natural treasures in their own backyards. Fan favorites seals and sea lions will return to new spectacular pools, which they’ll share with pelicans. Guests will delight in the antics of the beavers and river otters, who have been off exhibit for the last two and a half years as construction progressed. And America’s national animal, the bald eagle, will nest on exhibit not far from new ravens, particularly intelligent birds. And for the first time, gray wolves will join the Zoo’s collection as ambassadors for a species that has been making a comeback.

(Meghan Murphy/NZP)

“We spend a lot of time at the Zoo talking about pandas and talking about elephants. But there is some phenomenal wildlife right here in North America,” explains exhibit developer Cheryl Braunstein. “We should learn more about it, appreciate it, and take care of it.”

That’s the theme for American Trail, which is scheduled to open Labor Day weekend, in the area formerly known as Beaver Valley. In the style of the popular Asia Trail exhibit, American Trail will lead Zoo visitors past numerous exhibits dedicated to North American wildlife.

“These animals are so cool,” says Malia Somerville, one of several keepers assigned to American Trail. “Even the beavers. When people get up close to this wall, and there’s a beaver right in front of them, they always marvel, ‘Oh my gosh, they are so big’ and ‘Look at that tail.’ You don’t really appreciate them until you can see them up close.” Rebecca Miller, another keeper assigned to American Trail, agrees. “I think the beavers are one of the coolest animals we have here. People really are amazed when they see them.”

That’s one of the best things about this new exhibit. American Trail is an opportunity for Zoo visitors to get nose-to-nose with some of America’s most iconic—and coolest—wildlife.

Repairing the Leaks

American Trail started as a life support improvement project. “The seal and sea lion pools we had before were built in the late 1970s. They were state-of-the-art at the time, but obviously had become outdated. The original project was supposed to fix all that,” explains Somerville. “It’s expanded a bit since then.”

That relatively modest project was a necessity. Much has changed in the way we care for and house marine mammals since the 1970s. And there were repairs that needed to be done. The facility needed to be updated, a chiller was malfunctioning, and pumps were outdated. Plus the exhibit was leaking.

(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

“We were losing 150,000 gallons of water a day,” says facilities manager Dan Davies. “We had a waterline feeding the pool. A three inch line. 120 pounds of pressure. And it wasn’t keeping up.”

The renovation fixed that leak and accomplished quite a bit more besides. There will be more shade, to protect the seals’ and sea lions’ sensitive eyes. And the pool bottom will be a dark, non-reflective color. It will look more natural to visitors, and will help reduce the glare from the sun. “It won’t have that reflective swimming pool look,” explains Miller. “It will look very natural.”

The renovation fixed that leak and accomplished quite a bit more besides. There will be more shade, to protect the seals’ and sea lions’ sensitive eyes. And the pool bottom will be a dark, non-reflective color. It will look more natural to visitors, and will help reduce the glare from the sun. “It won’t have that reflective swimming pool look,” explains Miller. “It will look very natural.”

“When you walk into the exhibit, you’ll have a moment when you feel like you are somewhere else,” says Chuck Fillah, who oversees and facilitates the entire project. “That’s the idea. You’ll remember that moment.”

“When you walk into the exhibit, you’ll have a moment when you feel like you are somewhere else,” says Chuck Fillah, who oversees and facilitates the entire project. “That’s the idea. You’ll remember that moment.”

The West Coast feel extends beyond the seal and sea lion pool. Boulders wrap around the pool and stand tall alongside the ADA-compliant walkway. Conifer trees line the hillside, where gray wolves prowl and ravens chatter. The buildings—home to filters and life-support equipment, behind-the-scenes space for animals, and offices for keepers—look like they’d be right at home on the foggy Pacific coast. There’s a tide pool for wading in (yes, really!), which looks much like a typical tide pool on a West Coast beach. Adults and children are invited to strip off their shoes and socks, roll up their pants, and splash through the tide pool.

(Meghan Murphy/NZP)

“This is an area for play,” says Braunstein. “The idea is that kids can take their shoes off and get their feet wet. It’s a pretty dynamic wading pool. To our knowledge, this hasn’t been done anywhere else.” Just like a real tide pool, the water moves and swirls around, entering and exiting the exhibit on a two-minute cycle. The tide pool also features models of several species that live in tide pools, which visitors are invited to touch and explore. “There’s a lot of natural history in there,” says Braunstein. “One of the big messages we have is that if you were out in a coastal environment and in a real tide pool, you would have to respect the animals that live there. We’ve created this space for you, but in the wild, it’s those animals’ home.”

American Trail will be a fun, beautiful, and impressive exhibit. There’s no denying that. But, from the perspective of the people who care for the animals, the most important part of this exhibit is buried underground. There, in concrete beneath the new, ADA-compliant walkways, run countless yards of water pipes, sewer pipes, and utilities, including the cables and utilities that support several other sections of the Zoo’s 163-acre campus.

“If you were to take the top off of what we’ve done, what’s underneath—down to a depth of probably ten feet in some places—is solid utilities,” says Davies. “Pipes coming and pipes going. Sewer. Electric. Water. System water distribution. It’s massive pipes, and packed in there tight. We literally ran out of space.”

The system is designed to last a very long time. The pipes have a lifespan of 150 years and are encased in a flowable fill, which will prevent them from shifting in the future. These utilities should not require maintenance for a very, very long time. That’s a good thing. Because, once this project is complete, the construction crew won’t be able to bring their heavy equipment into the area. They are literally building themselves out of the exhibit space, much as a homeowner might paint herself out of a room.

“They literally have to back out of the job. They have to sequence their work in a way that enables the big stuff to go in while they still have access,” says Davies. “We will leave behind construction that will prevent us from reentering the space.” That construction includes trees and naturalistic rocks and ADA-compliant walkways. When the last of the construction equipment pulls out of the space, they will leave a little slice of West Coast-inspired America behind.

Backyard Treasures

American Trail is about North American animals, but it’s also about survival.

Nearly every animal in this exhibit has flirted with the endangered species list. Bald eagles and pelicans nearly disappeared before DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, and were both listed as endangered until recently. Beavers and river otters, although never officially listed on the U.S. Endangered Species List, were both once heavily hunted for their pelts and oils. They, too, have since recovered.

(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

“This is really a conservation success story,” says Somerville. “For example, beavers are really common now. We’ve probably all seen them. But there was a time where they nearly went extinct, and we almost lost them. We wouldn’t have species like beavers if we didn’t make an effort to conserve them. Same with wolves and eagles and the rest.”

As Somerville explains, these stories of success and survival extend even to ravens. “Okay, they’re common. But we’re glad they’re common. That’s a good thing. That means we’re doing something right.”

Some of the animals here have personal stories as well. The bald eagle fell from his nest as a chick, and cannot fly. Several of the ravens are wild birds that suffered injuries, and can no longer survive on their own. The pelicans are also rescues. Summer and Calli, two of the California sea lions, are also rescues, but what’s really exciting is that Calli is bringing Sophie, who was born a year ago at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium where the sea lions have been residing. Selkie the gray seal retired from the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. “Since we have so many North American species, we are able to provide homes for rescued animals,” explains Somerville. “I think this is a good role for us.”

Some of the animals here have personal stories as well. The bald eagle fell from his nest as a chick, and cannot fly. Several of the ravens are wild birds that suffered injuries, and can no longer survive on their own. The pelicans are also rescues. Summer and Calli, two of the California sea lions, are also rescues, but what’s really exciting is that Calli is bringing Sophie, who was born a year ago at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium where the sea lions have been residing. Selkie the gray seal retired from the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. “Since we have so many North American species, we are able to provide homes for rescued animals,” explains Somerville. “I think this is a good role for us.”

This is what American Trail offers Zoo visitors. Here, visitors will get a chance to learn the names of the Zoo’s beavers and seals and wolves, while also meeting some of America’s most iconic wildlife.

We tend to walk by our own wildlife,” says Vince Rico, curator of American Trail. “We save our money to go to Africa. We save our money to go to these international destinations and see these wonderful animals from around the world. But we don’t have to go that far. There is amazing wildlife right here in North America. In our own backyards.”