COAL VALLEY, Ill. — Niabi Zoo is set to open for the season starting Monday, April 17 but with some changes from last year.
News 8's Collin Riviello got the chance to speak with the zoo staff about what guests should know before opening day.
For starters, there are some new faces in the zoo like a baby African Cape porcupine that was born in January.
"So this is actually the first of the porcupine births here at Niabi Zoo," Primary Biodiversity Zookeeper Leanne Parker said. "So it was very exciting for us."
Other animals being added are red river hogs, which will be the first time the zoo has ever carried a pig species, bald eagles, prairie dogs and African-painted dogs.
"Red river hogs are a great species to just kind of showcase another type of animal and ecosystem that you'd see in Africa," Swing Zookeeper Nathan Beilke said.
"It's going to be a fun season," Zoo Director Lee Jackson said. "They won't be open when you come in tomorrow, but look for painted dogs to be open the end of June. And prairie dogs, which I might add will be one of the best prairie dog exhibits in North America when it's done, will be opened in early August."
Jackson said construction for the Prairie Dog Exhibit shouldn't impact guests but he asks visitors to please be mindful of signs explaining which areas are off-limits. In addition, its big cat and bald eagle exhibits will also be remodeled at a later date.
But not everything that's usually open will be open at the start of the season. The giraffe habitat that holds Kenya the Giraffe and other primates will be off limits due to COVID-19 precautions.
"COVID has affected animals in zoos as well as people," Jackson added. "We have a number of susceptible species here. You may not know this, but particularly big cats and primates are affected by COVID."
Jackson said the pandemic also impacted food sales last year, so a limited concession stand menu was offered in 2022. But he said this year, things are different, and more food options will be available.
"We lost our previous concessionaire [due to COVID-19]," Jackson said. "We could not find anyone for some time, and we had to do that ourselves. We are not set up to do that ourselves. And we're not [experienced with making high-class food]. We did a decent job, my staff really stepped up and everyone pitched in. But we're really excited to have this new group of professionals come in and do some really first-class food service for us."
Another new amenity for guests is its "Scooter Pals," which are e-scooters available for guests to ride to cover ground quicker.
The zoo has about 600 individual animals with around 150 being unique species, according to Jackson. The zoo opens daily between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. You can click/tap here for more information about Niabi Zoo.