ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – The Abilene Zoo is bringing the dead back to life in the name of conservation.

If you’re around the Abilene Zoo, you might hear their pride of lions roaring throughout the day. This weekend, it’s not a lion’s roar you’re hearing, but the ripping of a chainsaw through an old ash tree in the Madagascar exhibits.

Painted Chameleon and Tree Carving

“We opened Madagascar in the spring of 2021,” Zoo Director Jesse Pottebaum said. “We developed this whole plan around these three, beautiful 50-year old ash trees.”

Those three ash trees were planted by board members when the zoo’s gates first opened next to Grover Nelson Park in 1966.

However, after last year’s February winter freeze, Pottebaum and other board members feared the trees wouldn’t survive. Over the last year, Pottebaum and his team were hard at work, brainstorming ideas on how to preserve those trees.

Lemur Tree Carving

Pottebaum said they decided on repurposing the trees into sculpted artwork, bringing in artists to come carve the dead trees and make them into beautiful, conservation-centered sculptures.

Pottebaum reached out to Ray Banfield, a Granbury native and sculptor, to get the project started.

Banfield said the zoo provided designs for the first tree leading into the Madagascar exhibit.

“It’s a conservation-based tree,” Banfield said. “It’s basically going to have a world map on the trunk. They’re going to have a brand and each company where they send their money for their conservation funds.”

World Conservation Map Tree

The other design, Banfield said, his team of three freelanced, using the animals in the Madagascar exhibits at the zoo as inspiration. You can find lemurs, a fossa, several indigenous birds and insects, as well as plant life on the tree.

Sculptor Carving a Gecko

Pottebaum said these sculptures take the heart and soul of the zoo’s mission, which is to educate and inspire, and create a tangible foundation for future wildlife ambassadors and conservationists.

“These trees, I believe, will inspire our next generation to do something great for our zoological institutions across the globe,” Pottebaum said.

Ray Banfield and his team will also be staining the trees, not only as protection, but to give the animals a more realistic look and “bring them to life.”

The tree carvings are expected to be finished by Sunday.