By Jeff Fox

The penguins are coming to the Kansas City Zoo in a matter of weeks – and maybe, maybe a baby polar bear is too.

The zoo’s $15 million penguin exhibit is scheduled to open in late October. The 18,000-square-foot indoor-and-outdoor exhibit will have four kinds of penguins – warm-water and cold-water species – that can be seen on land and in the water. Among them will be the well known king penguin. Three smaller aquariums indoors will show moon jellies, schooling fish and an artificial coral reef.

“You ... will have the opportunity to see penguins both above and below water,” Laura Berger, the zoo’s development director, said at Thursday’s Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon.

With the penguins on the way, the zoo has saved the last of its popular free-admission days for Dec. 30, a day when the exhibit will be open and kids will be out of school.

And there could be one more addition by then. Berlin might be pregnant.

Nikita the polar bear, on display near the zoo’s front gate, has been a popular draw since he got to the zoo in 2010. He’s now 6, old enough to mate. Last year, Berlin came to the zoo. She’s 26 and came to a new setting in Kansas City, “but they have grown to like each other,” Berger said.

They were, well, very friendly and then not so much, suggesting to keepers that something was up, so they are at the moment in separate quarters. He likes to swim, and she doesn’t, so he’s outside. Inside the polar bear exhibit it’s 65 degrees, much more to her liking.

Keepers don’t know if she’s pregnant, but they treating her as if she is. She’s taking it easy, and she has put on 200 pounds. In the wild, baby polar bears come between late November and late December, though it’s unclear if that’s a good guide here, Berger said.

“So she stays inside, he stays outside, and we’ll see what happens,” she said.

The penguin exhibit was among the promises made when the zoo went to the voters of Jackson and Clay counties in 2011 for a one-eighth-cent sales tax for continued improvements. It passed. The free-admission days – four a year – for residents of those counties was part of the deal, too.

Berger walked through the recent history of improvements at the 104-year-old zoo. In 2002, the zoo was reorganized as a private organization. A year later, it hired away Randy Wisthoff from the Omaha Zoo to become its CEO and executive director. In 2004, Kansas City issued $41 million in bonds for the new management to begin addressing deferred maintenance and making capital improvements.

One of the biggest complaints, Berger acknowledged, was about the Africa exhibit. It’s large – about 100 acres of the 202-acre zoo – and the walk around it is about a one-mile loop. There’s plenty of room for the animals, but they aren’t always easy to see. A few years ago the zoo came up with a “sky safari” – think of a ski lift – that travels over the exhibit.

“And it gives you a bird’s-eye view of the animals that live in that area,” she said.

The tropics building has been renovated, with animals from South America and Africa.

“It’s such a historic – such a wonderful – building that’s an original part of the zoo,” she said.

Zoo officials have also said that with the steady funding from the sales tax, they have a schedule of improvements in the years ahead. Those include:

• The Zoo Grill, replacing the current restaurant. It will have 100 seats inside and 200 outside, near the penguins.

• In 2015, an orangutan canopy. The big animals need trees to climb, Berger said.

• In 2016, a rebuilt elephant watering hole, making for easier viewing.

• In 2017, a “predator canyon” will go where the Ape House – well known locally but unused for years – now stands. Berger pointed out that predators can range from sharks to robins, which, after all, eat worms, so officials are trying to take an out-of-the-box approach to designing the exhibit.

The improvements to the zoo have been accompanied by attendance increases of about 7 percent a year, Berger said. In 2012, there were 824,000 visitors, and officials project about 850,000 for this year.