“I don't think much has changed over the years,” Angela said, as she stood looking for the elusive bobcat. “It looks pretty much the same to as as it has for years.”
For the most part, Autry is correct. Though plans are afoot within the city to change that and make the animal habitats more appealing to the 200,000 visitors who come through the gate each year.
“We've issued a Request for Proposals for a redesign of all of our animal habitats,” said Rob Cole, park manager at Bays Mountain. “Like the rest of the park, we're 46-years-old and have aging facilities. Our animal enclosures are not immune to that.”
Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium opened in 1971 and most of the 3,600 acres of the property remains in a natural, forested condition. The current animal exhibits have a “park” or “miniature zoo” style, initially designed as enclosures for mostly close range viewing while providing a natural setting for their inhabitants.
Animals found on the mountain include bobcats, white-tailed deer, grey wolves, raccoon, an otter, a variety of birds in the raptor habitat, marine animals in the nature center and a herpetarium. The idea behind the RFP is for all of the habitats to be replaced, except the herpetarium, Cole said.
“We want our animal habitats to be aesthetically pleasing, have natural features that will obviously give the wildlife a sense of belonging and mimic their natural habitat the best we can,” Cole said. “We also want to enhance the visitor experience the best we can too.”
Kingsport's capital improvement plan – a five-year projects list used for planning and budgeting purposes – has $1.27 million earmarked over the next five years for the animal habitat project. The goal is to maintain the same number of animal habitats the park currently has.
The deadline to submit an RFP is July 6.
“We don’t have the resources or space really to do extra (habitats) at the moment. We want to do this in a responsible way, as much for the animals themselves,” Cole said. “To have a place to go and have a quality of life in a safe environment. And it helps our visitors understand what's in our back yard.”