ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – The Abilene Zoo is the place to be as school winds down across the Big Country. But for many of these kids, the zoo will look much different over the next decade.

School buses from across West/Central Texas were lined outside the Abilene Zoo Tuesday, as parents, teachers and chaperones rounded their students up going through the front turnstiles.

For Sherri and her young son, Austin, they have been attending the Abilene Zoo since he was born. Sherri said they have never had a dull moment when looking at all the animals.

“Just seeing the kids smiling faces,” Sherri began. “I mean, we’ve been coming for years and he’s always loved the giraffes.”

KTAB/KRBC spoke with the mother and son on the giraffe terrace, right after Austin fed a leaf of lettuce to his favorite animal, getting to see the giraffe’s 18-inch long tongue in action, up close and personal.

Meanwhile, Grant and Grayson, who were at the zoo on a field trip, told KTAB/KRBC all about their favorite parts of the Abilene Zoo.

“My favorite part is the Grant’s zebra over there, because its named after me,” Grant said, while Grayson said, “My favorite part is the reptile exhibit and how you can look at them closely.” 

While they all shared their favorite Abilene Zoo memories, we told them the zoo might look quite a bit different in the coming years.

“At the end of this 10 year master plan, I hope to look at the zoo and go ‘wow,'” said Clay Carabajal, Supervisor of Conservation. “The Abilene zoo is on par with some of the most up to date, modern zoos in North America.”

During the Abilene Parks and Recreation meeting, more details were unveiled about the Abilene Zoo’s 10 year master plan, including a sneak peak at some of the new animals that will call Abilene home.

Carabajal said the plan will be continuously funded. Once they break ground on phase one of their four phase plan, they will continue to raise funds to make a smooth transitions into phases two, three and four.

Carabajal said Phase one will begin with a brand new expanded rhino yard for their black rhinoceroses, as well as an air-conditioned café with both indoor and outdoor seating. The café will be adjacent to their new, ‘ultra-accessible’ lion enclosure.

The enclosure will embody the history of Abilene Zoo’s location, the former runway for Abilene airport, by featuring a large plane that will be planted in the habitat for guests to climb in and get a close up look at the King of the Savannah, connecting with the animals and the history of their own town.

The lions will be able to jump on the wings and on top of the plane, making for a very unique experience. The zoo also said it’s planning to remove the large, metal bars and replacing it with large glass panes to let guests get that up-close picture of their lion pride.

The lions will also have a wooden perch for them to observe the zoo from a higher perspective, as well.

The Abilene Zoo owns 25-plus acres of land behind its current location, which will be used for a new, expanded savannah habitat for their giraffes, zebras and other African hoofstock.

The new savannah habitat has plans to feature an elevated boardwalk, much like the current giraffe terrace. Carabajal said new species of animals will be located there, as well, such as Thompson’s gazelle and wildebeests.

Another staple for the zoo has been their train ride for young children, but that will be expanded in the new savannah, as well. Carabajal said the new train will give guests, both young and old, the chance to fit comfortably in a train car and ride through the new exhibit. Carabajal also said the train ride will take visitors to exclusive habitats, not viewable from the walking deck.

Carabajal said the zoo is looking to expand the habitats, not just for its current animal residents, but also bring in new animals that Abilineans may have never seen before.

He said a few animals potentially coming to the Abilene Zoo include a colony of meerkats, cheetahs, pygmy hippopotamuses, along with other African and Asian hoofstock.

“To gain new members of our Abilene Zoo collection, we have to look across all the other zoos and aquariums,” Carabajal said. “We have to see what animals they [have] available to send to our zoo through breeding programs, and what pairings we can put together to have sustainable populations here in the Big Country.”

The last phase of the Abilene Zoo’s master plan consists of a brand new amphitheater where live music, animal shows, children’s programming and other forms of entertainment can be held.

Carabajal said the Abilene Zoo is planning on sending a public funding campaign in Fall 2022.