Roomy new home for zoo's tigers will bring visitors closer to animals

 "It completely changes how you look at an animal."
That's how Chris Kuhar, executive director for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, describes the organization's approach to building new animal habitats, which will be wholly evidenced in the forthcoming Tiger Passage.
The zoo broke ground this month on the $4.1 million project, which will occupy a staggering 48,000 square feet, a number that includes the space designated for the cats as well as their adoring fans. The Cleveland Zoological Society has committed $2.5 million towards the project. Taxpayers in Cuyahoga County and Hinckley Township are footing the rest of the bill courtesy of a successful 2013 levy.
Visitors can expect a more immersive experience when Tiger Passage opens in summer of 2016, with the ability to view the animals in a more naturalistic way.
"We're switching the paradigm in how we design zoo exhibits," says Kuhar. "As opposed to the window shopping approach, where you walk up to a window and see an animal, we're trying to bring the guest through a larger space. The habitat will surround you with a complexity that you don't see in exhibits designed 30 or 40 years ago. The animal can be in a number of different places. You have to look for it and explore."
To that end, the new tiger habitat will include climbing poles, meadows, shallow streams, soaking pools and outdoor overnight access.
Panzica Construction Company of Mayfield Village is the general contractor on the job. Tiger Passage was designed by the Cleveland based firm Van Auken Akin Architects and WDM Architects out of Wichita, Kansas, which specializes in zoo design and endeavors to create sustainable, authentic environments that immerse and inspire zoo visitors.
"That combination of zoo expert and a local architect is really nice for us," says Kuhar.
The Zoo's two resident Amur tigers, Klechka, a 12-year-old he-cat, and Dasha, a 14-year-old she-cat, are vacationing in a protected veterinary center within the Zoo during the construction of their new home. In their absence, Kuhar suggests saying hello to the Zoo's lions in the African Savanna or the snow leopards in the Primate, Cat and Aquatics building. All of the Zoo's traditional animals such as the elephants, bears and wolves will be up-front-and-center as well.
"We have a very cute baby orangutan who's going to be visible all winter long in the Rain Forest," adds Kuhar.
As for Klechka and Dasha, who are ambassadors of an endangered species, Kuhar sees a bright future for them in Tiger Passage.
"I think it will be great for the cats—for exercise and stimulation, and I think it's going to be great for the visitors," says Kuhar.
"To see a cat perched up high or climbing on something up high? That's pretty cool."
For a preview of Tiger Passage, view this one-minute video of an animated rendering.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.