LINCOLN PARK — Lincoln Park Zoo on Wednesday unveiled plans for new state-of-the-art African penguin and polar bear habitats, an effort that officials say will "completely transform" the northeast portion of the North Side institution.
The 45,000-square-foot project will not only bring back a beloved animal — penguins — to the zoo, but will move them to an outdoor exhibit, while, officials say, greatly improving living arrangements for multiple polar bears.
The $22 million capital-improvement plan seeks to start the work on the new exhibits in the fall and be completed by the spring or summer of 2016.
Zoo staff said the reintegration of penguins and creation of an environment more like the tundra polar bears are used to in the wild will help push a new message of conservation — rather than biology — for visitors.
"These are very iconic species, so they are very easy to deliver a wide range of educational messages around," said Steve Thompson, senior vice president of capital and programmatic planning.
Both the African penguins and polar bears are threatened as their habitats are changing in the wild and both are affected in different ways by climate change, Thompson said.
"You can think of them as sort of ambassadors in that sense," he said.
At 32 years old, the polar bear exhibit is one of the oldest in the zoo. The penguin-seabird house closed in 2011 after 30 years in operation.
Formerly the penguins were housed in a dark, enclosed setting that treated the experience like a "theater," according to Thompson.
"We really wanted to get away from that and give visitors a feeling of connecting with nature rather than looking at something that looked a bit like a museum exhibit," he said.
The birds that will live there are native to the southern tip of Africa and will be able to handle the temperate Chicago weather in the outdoor exhibit, zoo officials said.
The new exhibit will have about a dozen penguins at first, with the population eventually doubling, and include a simulated sandy beach. A large window will allow visitors to see the penguins when they are above water and below.
The previous Antarctic penguins in the Kovler Penguin-Seabird House required frigid temperatures and water conditions.
The polar bear habitat will have much less of an emphasis on water than it does now and will include a pool that is 25 or 30 percent smaller than the size of the current one.
But the total area is more than triple the land the polar bears have now.
The latest scientific research indicates more land is better than having water-dominated spaces, according to Thompson.
The exhibit will also include boulders for bears to climb on and a cascading waterfall that will feed a stream leading into the main pool.
There will be lots of natural vegetation, which is lacking in the current exhibit.
"It's really time for us to build a new polar bear exhibit both for the bears, for the safety of our staff who are working with and around the bears and for the visitors," Thompson said.
Lincoln Park Zoo's curator of mammals, Mark Kamhout, said the zoo plans on starting the new habitat with a male and female with the hopes of a cub arriving after that.
The design of the new polar bear exhibit enables it to be divided into two separate habitats in the case of a newborn.
The mother and cubs would be on one side separated from the father on the other.
The new project is slated for the north end of the zoo and will mean the loss of a number of smaller exhibits on the "bear line" including the sun bear, the Andean bear and two hyenas. Those animals, along with the zoo's current polar bear, Anana, will be moved to zoos around the country through the Species Survival Plan sometime before demolition starts in the fall.
It is possible Anana, who gained national attention when she headed indoors to escape the frigid temperatures when the Polar Vortex turned the city into "Chiberia" this winter, could be back when the new exhibit opens, Kamhout said.
While zoo staff said both the polar bears and African penguins do well in Chicago weather, the plans for the habitats include areas to escape both extreme heat and cold.
The polar bear space will have an "ice den" consisting of a shaded area with cooling apparatuses near a viewing area.
The penguin area will have an indoor breeding area with 12 nests that can also serve as an escape from the heat or cold.
The announcement of the new exhibits comes a few months before the zoo is scheduled to open a 2.2-acre Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, exhibit on the site of the former Kovler Penguin-Seabird House.
That exhibit is set to open in the fall and is expected to become one of the zoo's major attractions.
A revamped children's train is also scheduled to open this fall.
“That’s one of the pleasures of working at a place like Lincoln Park Zoo," Thompson said. "There’s always something way out on the horizon that we turn around and something else will be 30 years old or 35 years old.”