Welcome, lions! Lincoln Park Zoo officially unveils its new $41 million habitat

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The Lincoln Park Zoo officially unveiled its new lion habitat Thursday, a $41 million renovation, update and expansion for the lion house that boasts sweeping new outdoor spaces and vertical levels for its feline residents. Also making their public debuts: a pride of lions with one male and three females, two red pandas, two Canada lynx and two snow leopards.

Dubbed the Pepper Family Wildlife Center, the habitat is a new centerpiece for the zoo just inside its main gates. It fills roughly the same footprint as the former lion enclosure but feels much more expansive, both for zoo visitors and the lions. That due partly to the removal of the moat, replaced by high-tech transparent barriers and other containment systems, and partly due to the many new elevations and environments within the space.

The savanna-style grounds have trees for climbing and rocks to give the lions high vantage points, a la “The Lion King.” When off-camera, the lions also will have new areas to seek privacy, shade and shelter and there are heating and cooling systems inside and out. Visitors get long viewing windows and tunnel to see big cats up close. The leopards and other animals have their own enclosures on the other side of the building.

In describing the habitats, the Lincoln Park Zoo emphasizes animal choice. Various features encourage behaviors from the wild — including, most sensationally, a zip-line system that delivers food at speed, “prey” that lions can chase down.

The grand, landmark 1912 building is still there, restored down to original paint colors on the trim. The lions are all new, though — felines previously at the zoo have moved on, with new inhabitants coming from a network of zoos the Lincoln Park Zoo participates in.

Not coming back: Tigers.

“You’ll see we have more space for animals, but fewer species,” said Maureen Leahy, vice president of animal care, during a preview of the habitat in September.

The renovation project, which first broke ground in 2019, is the last step in the nonprofit zoo’s almost-decade long, $135 million Pride of Chicago capital campaign, that has included the new Regenstein Macaque Forest for Japanese macaques (opened in January 2015); the Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove for African penguins and Walter Family Arctic Tundra, the polar bear habitat (both in 2016); the Searle Visitor Center (2018); and other projects along the way.

Incoming zoo president and CEO Megan Ross helped dedicate the Pepper Family Wildlife Center in a ceremony Thursday morning. Opening weekend Oct. 15-17 will include a schedule of special events; more at www.lpzoo.org.

dgeorge@chicagotribune.com

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