One of the nation’s oldest and most visited zoos has opened an exhibit that takes visitors on a virtual trip into the jungle and onto the savannah. The goal is to give people a better idea of what kind of habitats animals need and why it’s so important to save those wild places. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on an African Journey that starts in a big city:
One of the nation’s oldest and most visited zoos has opened an exhibit that takes visitors on a
virtual trip into the jungle and onto the savannah. The goal is to give people a better idea of what
kind of habitats animals need and why it’s so important to save those wild places. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on an African Journey that starts in a big city:
The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago is almost always a busy place. Three-and-a-half million people
visit it each year. For years, the Lincoln Park Zoo, like many other zoos, displayed its animals in
groups of like animals. Big cats in one area… primates in another… birds in yet another. But a
new exhibit, the Regenstein African Journey, groups animals by geography rather than by
Kevin Bell is Lincoln Park Zoo’s Director. He says the new exhibit appears to be an African
jungle in some places… and the dry plains in others…
“We gutted the inside of the building and then rebuilt the inside. When we create new exhibits,
it’s artisans that come in and make the artificial trees and the rock-work all look real and paint the
lichens on the rocks and what-not. So, it’s a very complicated long process and a very expensive
The zoo spent 25-million dollars renovating the building. Now that it’s finished, visitors are
encouraged to suspend disbelief for a moment and visit wild places in Africa.
Monkeys sit in trees overhead. Birds are loose with the people. Pygmy hippos are viewed above
and below the water line. And giraffes roam with antelopes and ostriches. For visitors, it’s a
unique perspective on animal interaction. For the animals… it’s a more natural setting.
Robyn Barbiers is the General Curator at Lincoln Park Zoo. She says it’s not the same as being
loose in the wild, but the habitat created for the captive animals is a little closer to the habitat that
is their natural home.
“So, these exhibits provide the space, the shelter, the hiding spots, the feeding spots, the social
aspects that the visitors like to see and that the animals need.”
Not only are the animals grouped together with other compatible species, but in a controlled way.
Barbiers says animals not so compatible are put near each other.
“We introduced the wild dogs and the wart hogs to their exhibits yesterday – side-by-side.
They’re not in together, but it’s predator and prey. But, these animals were born in captivity.
There was some excitement, but I don’t know if they really recognized each other as predator
The Lincoln Park Zoo’s African Journey is the latest in a trend among zoos called immersion
exhibits. It enriches the animals’ lives and immerses the visitors in the environment to give them
a better idea of how the animals live.
Jane Ballantine is a spokesperson for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. She says
zoos have always entertained, but more recently, zoos have seen their role as one of educating
people about animals that are threatened by habitat loss.
“We want them to think about those conservation issues and how things are all interconnected,
but while having a good time. We’re not there to lecture. We’re there to show and showcase and
get people to have these experiences and realize ‘Wow! This is what it’s really like and we should
care about this.'”
And the hope of zoos is that these new exhibits will do a better job of that than simply displaying
wild animals in a cage.
Lincoln Park Zoo Director Kevin Bell says this new exhibit was a huge effort toward that goal…
“So, hopefully, by doing these more immersion exhibits, people get a sense of how exactly the
animal relates to its environment, what its needs are and what it’s going to take to save that
species, long term.”
The Lincoln Park Zoo’s African Journey just opened to visitors and admission to the Chicago zoo
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.