About half of the $3 million cost of creating a new saltwater attraction at the Kansas City Zoo will go toward a life-support system to keep ocean rays and sharks alive so visitors can touch and feed them.
“It’s all about keeping that water clean and filtered,” zoo director Randy Wisthoff told the Kansas City park board on Tuesday.
The zoo will rely on TJP Inc., an engineering company with extensive experience in animal exhibits. The company was responsible for the water filtration system at the zoo’s polar bear exhibit.
“One of the most popular things out there in the zoo world is touch tanks,” Wisthoff said. “The zoo had an experience with a touch tank a number of years ago. It wasn’t a very good experience. We certainly don’t want that to happen again.”
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More than half of the ocean rays died in a special summer exhibit at the zoo in 2002. The incident was blamed on an imbalance of chemicals in the water, exacerbated by oils from human hands and arms reaching into the tank.
The new touch tank at the zoo will be a permanent exhibit with hand-washing stations. Construction is expected to begin this fall with a spring opening date.
It will be in a building with open sides and no air conditioning. The water will have to be chilled in summer and heated in winter.
Zoo officials chose an underused space between the penguin exhibit and the Discovery Barn. It will be free with zoo admission but there will be a fee for a cup of fish to feed to the animals.
The zoo plans to stock the 20,000-gallon saltwater tank with two species of ocean rays and small bamboo sharks. The kidney-shaped tank will be about 60 feet long.
Kansas City owns the zoo, but it’s operated under contract with the private Friends of the Zoo. Any project costing $500,000 or more requires park board approval. Zoo officials plan to use $2.5 million from the zoo tax in Jackson and Clay counties and raise the rest in private funds.
“This will be great,” park commissioner Mary Jane Judy said of the ray and shark exhibit. “Everyone wants to touch them.”