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THE BRIDGE TO ASIA — An artist sketch of an entry point into the new continent of Asia at the NC Zoo.

Newly infused with money, NC Zoo ready to add continents; Asia first

ASHEBORO — The North Carolina Zoo will receive more than $80 million after Gov. Roy Cooper signed the state budget last week.

Reid Wilson, secretary of the NC Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, joined a Nov. 17 zoom meeting of the Zoo Council and Zoo Society to announce that the state budget will include $75 million over two years for the construction of Asia and Australia and another $5 million for trams and public parking. 
He said the budget also includes funds for a veterinarian, a curator and another position.

“The governor pushed for this, some legislators pushed for it and the zoo pushed for it,” Wilson said. “There’s no real opposition. Everybody loves the zoo. They will love it even more with Asia and Australia.”

Wilson added that another $1.7 million or $1.8 million will help the zoo to replace losses due to the pandemic, primarily having to close for several months.

Later, Pat Simmons, executive director of the zoo, said plans for the new regions are ready to go and that now it’s just a matter of receiving the money and breaking ground. Asia will be constructed first. Hopes are to open the region in 2023 or 2024.

“It takes a lot to build a continent,” Simmons said. “I’ve never built one, but we’re going to build it now.”
Asia will be the first new continent since North America opened in the mid-1990s.

2021 big year for NC Zoo

Simmons then gave a presentation on The Best of the Zoo, highlighting events from the past year. “Secrets of the Zoo” on NatGeo Plus was a series that featured the North Carolina Zoo on national TV.

The zoo was re-accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and received an award from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The zoo also was honored with the 2020 AZA International Conservation Award. 
During the past year, the zoo hosted 1,500 guests for a Boy Scout Jamboree.

Boo at the Zoo in October set records in attendance, with nearly 7,500, and raised more than $50,000, Simmons said. 
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the zoo became a vaccination site for the public. Some of the animals also received shots. 

Zoo staff supported graduate students and partnered with Randolph Community College in setting up a horticulture certification program.

Renovations continue on the new baboon exhibit as well as renovations to the grizzly bear exhibit. A new entrance road to Zoofari was completed.

Cheryl Armstrong, executive director of the NC Zoo Society which is the fund-raising arm of the zoo, gave a financial update, saying 2021 may be the most successful year yet. She said that at the end of third quarter, net operating income stands at $11.3 million compared to 2019’s $5.8 million, a 94 percent increase. 

Despite restrictions on the number of zoo visitors during the first half of the year, Armstrong said year-to-date net sales from the gift shops were a reported $1.5 million, compared to just more than $1 million in 2019, the previous best year. 
She said that Zoo Society memberships were on an upward swing: “We ended 2019 with 31,000. We started 2021 with 21,000. As of the end of October, we have a membership base of 29,880.”
At the end of third quarter 2021, Armstrong said, three donors had committed $4.3 million for bequests and planned gifts, compared to close to $500,000 in 2019. 

Contributions through September totaled $2.8 million, a 106 percent increase over 2019’s $1.4 million.

The new continents capital campaign amounts to a total raised of $18,338,811, this year alone totaling $5.3 million.
“We’ve weathered a tough year and a half and come out stronger,” Armstrong said.