New zoo exhibit shows primates in prime form :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
Optimus Prime had never seen people before moving into his new Lincoln Park digs. Now that the Regenstein Center for African Apes is officially open to the public, he is free to make faces at people for as long as they stare at him through windows in a new Lincoln Park Zoo facility designed from his own point of view.
"He'd never seen children before, so now he always runs up to the glass and asks them to play," Lincoln Park Zoo behaviorist Steve Ross says of the chimp.
Living at other zoos since construction began two years ago, 24 gorillas and chimpanzees returned home in early July to find a state-of-the art facility that gives them something they have never had before: choices, says Ross.
In the old building, chimps could not go outside, and gorillas had to pass through a small door often guarded by a dominant male, Ross says. Now, apes have the option to go outside in three new outdoor habitats to catch a breeze off Lake Michigan or view the Chicago skyline.
A number of animal-activated features also are included in the exhibit. Apes can now control how much misting water they want to cool themselves and they can control when they eat by pushing a button that automatically scatters snacks. They can also play with visitors by shooting air cannons from the inside.
"They've embraced the elements in the exhibit as if they read the design documents," says Dan Winter, director of planned giving for the zoo. "They really immediately seem at home."
It took a little bit of adjustment, however. When the exhibit first opened, no ape would go near a waterfall in one of the new outdoor habitats at the zoo. The pressure was too high, scaring the gorillas away.
But no more. One recent summer day, 6-month-old Azizi was playing quietly alongside the waterfall as his mother, Makari, hovered nearby to keep an eye on him. Neither gorilla was phased by the crowd vying for a glimpse.
Daniel and Ismael Irizarry Jr. were especially excited to be there. The 5- and 6-year-old, respectively, couldn't wait to get inside and see the animals, according to their dad, Ismael Irizzary, winner of a zoo-sponsored scavenger hunt to find the key that would open the exhibit. Finding the key won him a full-tuition scholarship to Robert Morris College.
Zoo spokeswoman Kelly McGrath says the center is the most "crucial exhibit for us because of the work we do with African apes." Dedicated to the study of apes for the past 30 years, the zoo has seen the birth of 45 gorillas and currently houses the third largest research facility among zoos in the country, she says.
At $26 million, the center is also the largest and most expensive project for the zoo to date, McGrath says.
Joan Wagner, Medill News Service
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