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Anana, the female polar bear at the NC Zoo, looms at a glass enclosure during a Zoo Council lunch meeting on May 7 inside the Ice Cave at the park.    Eric Abernathy/Randolph Hub

Excitement builds in NC Zoo’s 50th year

ASHEBORO — With Anana the polar bear foraging on the other side of the glass, the North Carolina Zoo Council feasted on lunch inside the Polar Bear Ice Cave.


It was the regular May 8 meeting of the council, which was followed by a Zoofari tour of the Watani Grasslands. 


During the meal, zoo staff gave updates on happenings, including work on the Asia region, planning for the 50th anniversary and, of course, the animals.


Asia update: June 2026 

Crista McGee, director of Facilities Operations, said the opening of Asia, the newest continent, is scheduled for June 2026.


The facility will offer new experiences for visitors, including a restaurant with tigers prowling outside and bridges with animals walking overhead.


The overall budget for Asia is approximately $75 million.


Animals update

- Rich Bergl, acting deputy director and chief mission officer, reported that an ostrich is coming to the zoo to replace Pearl, who died a few months ago. 


- Gibbons, acrobatic, tree-dwelling apes of the Asian tropics, are behind the scenes awaiting completion of their public viewing habitat.


- There is currently a young komodo dragon on display in the Desert Habitat. Bergl said it should be full-size when Asia opens. The komodo habitat, he added, will allow visitors to view the large lizards underwater, the only such exhibit in the country.


- The Asian tigers, which will roam outside the restaurant in Asia, will soon be arriving. 


- The Kaleidoscope Butterfly Exhibit is now open for the warm months.


- The Rocky Coast will be closed while the facility is under renovation, he said. But when it reopens, there will be the largest colony of penguins in the country among the other animals.


- The geyser at the American Prairie exhibit, Bergl said, has been out of service and plans were to remove it. But technicians found that it could be repaired and it’s now being fixed.


Other Zoo news:

- An updated Zoo Trekker has been created for the 50th anniversary. It’s a booklet that youth can use to perform tasks around the zoo and score points for a prize.


- Bergl said the zoo is beginning to hire more than 100 new employees to work in Asia.


- Diane Villa, acting deputy director and chief communications officer, reminded the Zoo Council that the annual attendance surpassed one million visitors last year and this year has started strong, even breaking the record for a one-month total. She said the parking situation has improved but work still needs to be done. It’s expected that the zoo’s all-time visitor count will reach 30 million sometime in May.


- During the 50th anniversary celebration, Villa said, the zoo has been naming a monthly “golden guest,” providing that person with a swag bag and other perks. 


- Villa said new sculptures are coming to the zoo and the website, https://www.nczoo.org/, has been improved.


- The Zoo will soon be annexed into the City of Asheboro, which should benefit both entities, Villa said. “We’ve never had a better relationship with the city.” That was emphasized at a recent Zoo City Streatery in Downtown Asheboro. Other celebrations and festivities are planned with the city during the 50th anniversary.