Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget would keep the N.C. Zoo on track to open its first new continent area since 1994, funding 50 full-time positions to staff Asia in time for the planned 2026 debut.
The governor’s budget also would give the zoo money to take down its old aviary building and design a replacement, and would provide funds for state parks to hire staff needed to keep up with the bigger crowds that came with the pandemic.
“It’s exciting,” said Reid Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, who visited the zoo outside Asheboro recently to see progress on the new section.
“I think everybody in North Carolina who has been to this zoo loves it,” Wilson said. “It’s the world’s largest natural-habitat zoo. But to go from two continents — Africa and North America — adding Asia, is just going to make it that much more special. School groups and families will be able to see a whole different array of animals that will just enliven the experience and provide more fun and education for people who go to see it.”
The original plan for the zoo when it was conceived in the 1960s and ‘70s included sections in the park featuring animals and plants from all seven continents and the four oceans.
Africa opened first in 1980, with elephants, gorillas, lions and zebras. North America followed in 1994, with polar bears, black bears, grizzlies and red wolves. In all, the zoo presently houses more than 1,700 animals.
When state legislators repeatedly failed to fund big additional continents, the zoo scaled back, developing sections with smaller footprints that designers say still will have a big impact on visitors.
Asia is the first of those.
Now expected to open sometime in 2026, Asia will cover 10 acres, about a fourth the size of just the Watani Grasslands Habitat in the Africa section, home to elephants, antelope, gazelles, rhinos, waterbucks, ostriches and greater kudu.
Asia will have tigers, Komodo dragons, Visayan warty pigs, Asian small-clawed otters, red-crowned cranes, wrinkled hornbills, king cobras, white-cheeked gibbons and Chinese giant salamanders.
An artist’s rendering of Asia, the new exhibit under construction at the N.C. Zoo. Gov. Goy Cooper’s budget asks for funding to hire staff ahead of the exhibit’s planned 2026 opening. N.C. Zoo
Guests will be able to walk above the tiger exhibit or watch the big cats from a 300-seat indoor cafe.
Cooper’s budget proposal includes more than $4.8 million in recurring funds and $1.4 million in non-recurring funds to cover the hiring of 50 full-time positions. Wilson said the money would be used for staff throughout the Asia exhibit, including customer service people, veterinarians, zookeepers, horticulturalists and maintenance staff.
Wilson said it’s likely that as the opening grows closer, additional positions above those 50 will be needed.
The N.C. Zoo is one of the state’s top tourist attractions, topping 1 million annual visitors for the first time last year.
TRYING AGAIN FOR AVIARY MONEY
Besides its charismatic animals such as gorillas, lions, elephants and bears, one of the park’s favored features was its Forest Aviary, which opened in 1982 and had to be permanently closed in April 2022. Accumulated damage to the building had reached a point where it would not be possible to make repairs, inspections showed.
Cooper asked for $5 million from the legislature last year to demolish the building and design a new one on a site in the park that suffers less erosion. The money didn’t come.
This year’s ask is for $6 million to do the same work.
Ethan Reynolds of Andover, N.Y., hikes through Raven Rock State Park near Lillington on a family outing during the pandemic. The park is one of several that hits capacity most weekend mornings as people search for places to explore outdoors. Eva Reynolds Eva Reynolds
Also in the governor’s budget are requests for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to get:
▪ $291,493 for five full-time positions to staff the new Dueling Dinosaurs exhibit at the Museum of Natural Sciences;
▪ $25 million for the Great Trails State Fund, money that will match federal funds and accelerate investment-ready projects in an effort to eventually connect all 100 counties of the state by trails.
▪ Money for capital improvements at several state parks and more than $10 million for 44 full-time positions at state parks across the state, including Umstead and Eno River in the Triangle. Wilson said the additional staff are needed because of increased visitation in the parks, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.