How a Gorilla World makeover will change the Zoo

Posted at 12:54 PM, Sep 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-15 12:54:56-04

CINCINNATI -- After more than three decades, Gorilla Worldat the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is slated for an extreme home makeover of sorts, with $12 million in improvements to its current facility. The proposed greenhouse-like structure will allow for year-round viewing by visitors as well as engaging new features for the zoo’s most popular primates. The project will be funded solely through corporate and private donation.

According to Ron Evans, the zoo's curator of primates, the new structure will better reflect what they now know about the great apes.

“The building we have now was built in 1978, and at the time it was by far the state-of-the-art gorilla facility, light years ahead of its time,” he said. “But of course in 35-plus years, we’ve learned a whole lot about gorillas and what they need. Gorillas are smart and very curious – they’re like kids with super-human strength, basically. So we plan to expand and retrofit the facility to better meet their needs."

The current structure is essentially an enormous two-story building Evans explained, with the top floor being the open-air exhibit and the lower floor a series of behind-the-scenes spaces for the gorillas to explore and stay warm during the winter months.


Because the zoo’s silverback male gorillas, Jomo and Harambe, would quarrel over females, the primates are divided into two family-style groups. The new 4,600 square foot facility will essentially double the size of their current living area, Evans said, allowing keepers to better rotate the gorilla families utilizing space both above and below ground. Evans said that in the wild, gorillas stay engaged by continually wandering and exploring. 

“By having this new habitat, it just gives the gorillas a lot more options to explore and rotate through and be happy,” he said. “And because this habitat is going to be an indoors, you’ll be able to see gorillas year round and they’ll have that big space to go to during the middle of the winter when it’s really cold. So it’s good for the gorillas and it’s good for our visitors.”

Adding the year-round option allows the zoo to better fulfill its mission to inspire every visitor with wildlife every day, said director Thane Maynard. He explained while the zoo strives to provide a fun-filled family experience, it also exists to educate visitors about preservation of species. In the case of gorillas, he said their numbers are dwindling in the wild due to decimation of rainforests, destruction of habitat from mining and people hunting gorillas as a food source.

“You can make a long list of what’s depressing for gorillas,” he said. “On the other hand, people are working very hard on conservation. So the subtle message behind all this fun and these great improvements is there is a future in the wild for gorillas -- it is possible for them to thrive a hundred years from now. Not by chance, but by public education, by good environmental laws and enforcement and by people in west and central Africa realizing there’s an incentive for them to keep gorillas alive.”

While the zoo would like to break ground immediately, funding for the project must first be secured before the zoo can begin construction, Maynard said. If all goes as planned, he said they’d like to start construction next year with proposed completion in the spring of 2017. Unlike other zoos across the country that use tax dollars or bond issues to raise money, Maynard said the Cincinnati Zoo is one of the few that solely relies on private donation for capital improvement.

“Our vast experience is this is a very philanthropic town and we will raise the money,” he said. “So as always, we rely on the kindness of people who love the zoo.”

As donor’s pockets are not limitless, Maynard said they chose to use an in-house design team for the new facility. He said the zoo is fortunate to have one of the world’s leading gorilla experts on hand, curator Evans, to add his input, as well as the zoo’s full-time architect to create the dynamic design. Maynard said the ideology behind creating a livable environment has changed dramatically since the zoo displayed its first gorillas 84 years ago in what he described as tiny antiseptic spaces with tile wall and concrete floors.

He mused that even in the late 70s keepers immediately extracted gorilla babies from their mothers fearing the male or others would injure the infants. Since then, he said they’ve learned gorillas know all too well how to raise their young, as can be seen with their newest addition, baby Elle, the 50th gorilla born at the zoo.

“You can see how things have changes because there’s a 500 pound dad out there – and that’s the best thing to have,” Maynard said. “If any of the other females start to hassle the mother, he just gives them a look and the hassle is over. So that’s part of what we’re doing today to help animals live more naturally.”

As part of their mission, Maynard emphasized the zoo’s commitment to each animal’s wellbeing, ensuring “even our termite mounds have a good experience.” He believes their new exhibit will reflect the wave of the future in zoos, providing a space that best mirrors animal’s natural habitat.

“That’s important for a bunch of reasons,” he said. “They’ll live longer, they’ll reproduce more, they’ll just stay healthier than if they’re stressed somehow in a difficult situation that doesn’t meet their needs. So it’s something we’re seeing a lot more of as we go.”

Both Maynard and Evans point out the exhibit is equally important to the zoo’s visitors. Evans said he hopes the facility will serve to engage guests not only at the zoo, but to inspire them to focus on conservation of gorillas in the wild.

“I always say, it’s a win for the gorillas in this facility, it’s a win for our guests and it’s a win for the Cincinnati Zoo’s mission,” Evans said. “So it’s a win, win, win situation -- everybody’s happy.”

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