NEW: Zoo Knoxville opens doors of ARC

King cobra at Zoo Knoxville’s new ARC facility. Photo from Zoo Knoxville.

Zoo Knoxville’s cold-blooded residents have a new home this week as the largest project in the zoo’s history opened its doors to the public.

A King cobra, Cuban crocodiles and a slew of critically endangered tortoises are among the many denizens of the Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) facility.

There’s even a really cute two-toed sloth named Joe.

Hundreds of people showed up Monday for the ARC’s grand opening, including many of the zoo’s most ardent financial supporters as well as regular East Tennessee families drawn by the promise of a great way to spend time together.

The Johnson family of Lafollette, for instance, said they were so excited by the ARC project that all four of their children were pulled out of school so they could make the trek to Knoxville on opening day.

“Sometimes you just can’t let school stand in the way of a good education,” quipped Amy Johnson as her kids played with a hands-on exhibit meant to teach how snakes slither across the ground.

The Johnson family of Lafollette plays with an exhibit that teaches how snakes move. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

While it’s hoped that the facility draws in plenty of visitors, its core mission is conservation, explained Zoo Knoxville board chair Chelly Clayton at Monday’s ribbon cutting ceremony. 

“It’s a large part of the solutions that are the last hope for some of the world’s most endangered reptiles and amphibians,” Clayton said.

Knox County Commissioner Dasha Lundy said she believes the new zoo exhibit will help bring in tourist dollars to East Knoxville.

“It’s a great zoo for any city of any size,” Lundy said. “This day is only the beginning of a brighter future.”

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon summed up the ARC by saying, “Knoxville deserves the best, and we’re getting the best.”

Zoo Knoxville’s CEO, Lisa New, said the $18 million facility was paid for primarily through donations with some money also coming from the city, county and state governments. “There’s nothing like it in the entire region,” she said.

It currently houses 89 different animals, she said, and the long-term plan is to ultimately move all the zoo’s reptile species into the facility.

The 13,200-square foot building contains over 80 different ecosystems and will house at least 85 species.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon at the ARC’s opening ceremony. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

Zoo Knoxville spokesperson Tina Rolen said many younger people aren’t entirely comfortable with zoos. Many people aren’t familiar with the importance of zoos in the worldwide fight to save endangered species and promote conservatives.

“As an accredited zoo, we are mission-driven,” she explained. “That’s the gold standard for facilities that house animals.”

To demonstrate Zoo Knoxville’s commitment to conservation, Rolen provided a fact sheet that listed its many accomplishments and programs, including:

  • Zoo Knoxville has a long track record of being a leader in amphibian and reptile conservation, specifically with turtles and tortoises. Beyond its breeding programs here, Zoo Knoxville works with critically endangered reptile and amphibian species in the wild. 
Joe the two-toed sloth. Photo submitted by Zoo Knoxville.
  • Zoo Knoxville is considered the leader in the conservation of tortoise species native to Madagascar and has been working with two of the six endemic species since 1975. It is the only Association of Zoos and Aquariums facility in the United States to keep all six species and subspecies. 
  • As founding members of the SAFE programs for Radiated tortoises and North American tortoises, Zoo Knoxville is part of a network combating the crisis for animals being caused by illegal wildlife trafficking.
  • These SAFE programs are partnerships with our colleagues both in zoos and aquariums and in the wild working together and combining our areas of expertise to save animals from extinction.
A tortoise in its enclosure at the ARC. Photo submitted by Zoo Knoxville.
  • The Radiated tortoise is suffering a catastrophic decline in the wild due to illegal wildlife trafficking.  The Radiated tortoise will be extinct in the wild within the next 15-20 years if we don’t act now.
  • Zoo Knoxville is working with partners in Madagascar and with the local people that live within this region to reverse this course, and to help return confiscated tortoises back to the wild. 
  • Here in North America, Zoo Knoxville is combating the illegal trafficking of our native turtles by partnering with state wildlife agencies, academics, non-government organizations and law enforcement.  Being able to hand over the care of confiscated turtles to expert care providers like Zoo Knoxville allows agencies to focus on prosecuting traffickers.  
  • Locally, Zoo Knoxville has led the effort since 1991 to release critically endangered bog turtles into Appalachian Tennessee, and has assisted the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission by incubating and head-starting bog turtles for eventual release into North Carolina.
Tortoises in an underwater exhibit at the ARC. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.
  • The zoo’s legacy with bog turtles goes back to the early 1980s when Bern Tryon, then the Curator of Herpetology, discovered Southern Appalachian bog turtles in upper East Tennessee and his work resulted in their protected status as an endangered species.  
  • Through our bog turtle program the zoo established strong partnerships with the locals, the TN Nature Conservancy, the TN Wildlife Resources Agency, the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  
  • Zoo Knoxville houses 28 turtle and tortoise species or subspecies, including 17 that have been identified as critically endangered, seven as endangered, and four considered vulnerable. Over the last few years Zoo Knoxville has successfully reproduced 15 of those species.
A python at Zoo Knoxville’s ARC. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.
Dart frog at the ARC.
Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.
  • J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on April 14,2021