For Australian born-and-raised Tim Sinclair-Smith, it’s a chance to bring some "home flavour" to the Assiniboine Park Zoo.
A brainchild of Sinclair-Smith, the Zoo’s director of zoological operations since early 2011, opening May 17 is a new permanent seasonal exhibit: Australian Walkabout, which will allow visitors to enter an outdoor enclosure to interact with 14 female red kangaroos and their young, plus two emus.
The site occupies the former zebra pen, Sinclair-Smith says.
According to a press release from the not-for-profit Assiniboine Park Conservancy, which manages the Park’s operations, the space – located just south of the Shirley Richardson Butterfly Garden that opened in 2011 – will approximate the size of a school gym.
"The concept was dreamed up just over this winter," says Don Peterkin, the Conservancy’s COO, noting that the walkabout concept is featured at multiple Australian facilities.
"For me, it’s very normal," says Sinclair-Smith, who as a former zookeeper looked after the same animals in various locations around his home country.
It will not, he stresses, be a petting zoo; rather, there will be abundant open space for the animals to move freely.
"It’s a unique opportunity to interact with animals in a safe way that doesn’t stress them," Sinclair-Smith says.
Found throughout much of Australia, red kangaroos are the largest kangaroo species and the largest native Australian mammal. The emu, also an Australian native, is the world’s second tallest bird after the ostrich, its relative.
While the emus will be brought in from a private facility, the kangaroos have been residents of the zoo for years; Sinclair-Smith says they can live 20-25 years in captivity. What the new plan constitutes is a "reinvention."
"It was an inexpensive option," Peterkin says, quoting the total cost at $30,000 – $35,000.
"It creates something exciting near the Roblin Ave. gate," where the former zebra site has long stood vacant, Sinclair-Smith says.
It also fits into the larger project of the Zoo and Assiniboine Park’s larger, $200-million ongoing renovation.
While the exhibit will be seasonal, "We want to make the zoo a year-round facility," Peterkin says.
In 2011, the former tropical house reopened as Toucan Ridge, featuring ocelots and crocodiles; more recently, the Tundra Grill restaurant opened Feb.1 and has already proven a winter draw, Peterkin declares.
The 150-seat restaurant will enable polar bear viewing as part of the 10-acre, interactive multimedia exhibition Journey to Churchill, set for a 2014 opening.
Open since Jan. 2012 is the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. This past February, Hudson the polar bear took residence in an adjacent new facility. This summer will also see a temporary exhibit near the IPBCC featuring African penguins, creating a northern-southern hemisphere dynamic.
Watching Journey to Churchill develop is itself a point of interest, Peterkin declares.
The Walkabout exhibit will be put "in play" for a time before further expansion or additional animals are considered, he continues.
Altogether, Sinclair-Smith feels the varied renovation has finally reached a culmination:
"We want to give the public a zoo to be proud of."