DODGE CITY, Kan. (KSNW) — The City of Dodge City has announced that Wright Park Zoo is closing to the public until further notice. The last day for visitors will be this Sunday, Sept. 18.

“The decision that went into the closing until further notice had to do with some improvements that need to happen with the zoo,” Melissa McCoy, Dodge City assistant city manager, said.

The Dodge City City Commission will consider the zoo’s future direction as part of the 2023 budget planning process. The budget will be approved at a special meeting on Monday, Sept. 26, at 7:00 p.m.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the City was ready to kick off the “Redo the Zoo” master plan. The anticipated cost for the multi-phase 10-year project was $4.4 million, of which the City Commission had considered committing $2 million.

“We were looking at that back in 2020,” McCoy said. “We were just literally getting ready to kick off the campaign and, in fact, we had an initial kickoff meeting for the public, and it was the day before the pandemic started.”

The pandemic was a significant setback for everyone.

“That happened, and that’s why we decided to take a step back with the things that were going on, not only in our area but with our state and our country as a whole at that time,” McCoy said.

Construction costs have gone up since the master plan was written.

“So, City staff has been looking at different potential options, potentially to modify that original plan and have looked at presenting that to Commission,” McCoy said.

“In the meantime, we are also looking for public/private partnerships that we can work with to help improve the zoo and make the adjustments that we had been looking at, especially within the first phases of the master project,” she said. “We’re not necessarily looking at creating a new master plan but rather taking the master plan that was created, and we received public input on, and making adjustments to that to create options for the Commission’s consideration and for administration’s consideration.”

McCoy said they will go back to the public for input like they did in the past.

“I think we had maybe 87% of the public that saw that the zoo was important to our community, and we will be reaching out to similar groups as we go forward,” she said. “Ultimately, it does become a question of looking at the budget and what the scope of work can be for the project.”

Some of the items in the master plan may not happen.

“We’ve made some adjustments,” McCoy said. “One of those adjustments were with the river otters, and part of that is because of the cost of that addition but also just the specialized care and maintenance that it would take to have that sort of animal in part of the zoo plan.”

In the meantime, zoo staff is working to find temporary and sanctuary homes that will provide nurturing and safe facilities for the animals.

Daniel Cecil, director of parks and facilities, says the zoo has 45 to 50 animals ranging from carnivores to primates to birds and a wide range in between.

“We’ve had many of these animals for long periods of time,” Daniel Cecil, director of parks and facilities, said. “This is the only home that they’ve ever had, so it’s important to us to make sure that they have proper care and food and enrichment, those types of things, as we move forward.”

Shakira, the zoo’s Siberian tiger, will be permanently rehomed later in September at the Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary in Missouri. The sanctuary is a nonprofit big cat rescue and educational facility.

Cecil and McCoy want the public to check the master plan and share ideas about what they want to happen with the zoo.

“Our goal with this is to provide a quality public space for our community members and anybody that visits the zoo,” Cecil said. “We want to make it very nice for the animals and provide them a good quality of life, and we also want, as the public is entering and utilizing the facility, we want to make sure that they are enjoying (themselves) and have a good space to play with their family or eat lunch or do whatever they would like to do.”