CRESTVIEW — Fires and a fierce winter haven't deterred the Emerald Coast Zoo owners Rick and Sara de Ritter from undergoing major renovations and adding wildlife before its March 1 grand opening.

The de Ritters — including 16-year-old David, 11-year-old Suzy and 10-year-old Betsy — said The Emerald Coast Zoo renovations have been a struggle. A freak fire burned down a new barn and frequent frozen pipes had zoo keepers struggling to provide water to the animals.

"It has been crazy," Rick said. "Every morning we were trying to saw out water from the pipes. Now that it's warmed up, things are better."

The de Ritters, who moved into an RV on The Emerald Coast Zoo property, said they also had no running water for about five days.

Rick said his family's journey is turning out just like the movie, "We Bought a Zoo."

"We just passed our USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) inspection," Rick said. "During the winter we were at the point in the movie where the guy (Matt Damon) was upset and kicked the trashcan and now we're at the part where the USDA inspector said it wasn't going to work but then gave us our license."

On Thursday, the Emerald Coast Zoo welcome a pair of kangaroos into a newly built exhibit. Pounders Hawaiian Grill in Crestview sponsored the new kangaroo exhibit, which is located front and center at the zoo.

Rick said The Emerald Coast Zoo was unable to get any bank loans, so the family has paid for all of the renovations in cash.

"Pounders is the only one that has sponsored an exhibit yet," Rick said. "We'd love to have more help in the community. We will never stop adding until we make this the coolest zoo in the world."

 

In addition to the kangaroos, Mozey the sloth has a new girlfriend, Sandy. Three cotton-top tamarins and a capybara now also call The Emerald Coast Zoo home.

Rick, who has said he has a heart for the handicapped, also bough a gulf cart for transportation until concrete walkways can be constructed.

"We have a new, improved gift shop and, with the gulf cart, we are completely accessible for blind people or people in a wheelchair."

The de Ritter family said they have big plans for The Emerald Coast Zoo but, for now, they are focused on the tasks at hand.

"We've got everything cleaned up, so it looks like a zoo again," Rick said. "March 1 is when we'll reopen and we hope to see the community there."

Individuals can keep up with the zoo's progress and wildlife on Facebook at "Emerald Coast Zoo." To contribute to the animal's needs, visit the Amazon wish list at http://a.co/do4MmiB.