News Update: Indianapolis Zoo to open $20M orangutan exhibit in 2014

The Indianapolis Zoo is making a promise: When it opens in 2014, the new International Orangutan Center will be the most spectacular exhibit the zoo has ever offered.

Looking for something at any other zoo with which to compare it?

Don’t even try, said Robert Shumaker, one of the world’s foremost orangutan experts who joined the staff at the Indianapolis Zoo to help oversee the planned exhibit.

“It will quite simply,” Shumaker said, “be the best zoo habitat for orangutans anywhere in the world.”

Officials made a public announcement of the planned project tonight.

The goal, zoo officials said, is not simply to awe zoo visitors. More important, they said, is raising public interest in conserving one of the world’s most unique species through preserving natural habitat in parts of the world where orangutans live.

Since summer 2010, six of the eight orangutans to be featured in the exhibit have been living at the zoo in a large private facility not open to zoo visitors. Two others are staying at a private facility and will join the zoo in coming months.

The $20 million cost of the new exhibit is being funded through a $30 million fund-raiser. The money also will help fund several other exhibits, including the Tiger Forest, which opened earlier this year; the ongoing renovation of the zoo entrance; the Flights of Fancy: A Brilliance of Birds exhibit planned to open next spring; and a new African lion habitat.

The orangutan exhibit will be built in the heart of the zoo’s 64-acre property, with construction to begin in the summer. It will cover more than four acres, but zoo officials say the exhibit’s size goes beyond the ground space it covers. Even more impressive, they say, will be the vertical space. One large indoor all-season facility called the atrium, for example, will have a ceiling 90 feet off the ground, and the space between ground and ceiling will be filled with a jungle-gym forest of platforms and bars on which orangutans can climb and move — “not,” says a zoo release, “as humans have constrained them in the past.”

Another feature of the exhibit — to be called the Hutan Trail — will be essentially a highway of cables and bridges that the primates use to leave the atrium and move to other parts of the exhibit. They can travel to vantage points above the zoo or choose to get away to climate-controlled private spaces — called oases — for quiet time.

Designers considered it a priority, said Paul Grayson, the zoo’s deputy director, to create an exhibit that will give orangutans the greatest possible capacity to exercise their own decision-making in what activities to pursue at any given time. That involves giving them as many choices, he said, as possible.

Besides making the orangutans happy, officials also considered how best to serve zoo visitors’ interests — such as building an aerial cable ride with enclosed gondolas 40 feet off the ground. The ride allows humans to get within about 25 feet of the orangutans Hutan Trail, said Jon Glesing, a zoo spokesman.

The exhibit also will feature a symbolic, 150-foot tall structure dubbed the “Beacon of Hope.” At night, the structure will be lit with lights turned on by the orangutans.

Other features of the exhibit intended to enrich both orangutans and humans will include several stations at which the two species can interact. Though separated by a pane of glass, humans and orangutans can play against one another in computer games and participate in other collaborative activities. Though those stations will require the orangutans’ cooperation, the animals will earn rewards for their cooperation, said Shumaker, the zoo’s vice president of life sciences. Besides, he said, orangutans naturally enjoy such mental stimulation.

 Courtesy of McCleery 12/06/11
Dr. Robert Shumaker is a member of the Orangutan Conservancy Board.
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