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Red Apes of the Rain Forest

Located in the center of the Los Angeles Zoo, the Red Ape Rain Forest will immerse visitors in a naturalistic home for our orangutans.

By Jon Charles Coe | Photographs by Michael N. Marks

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he Los Angeles Zoo’s patient orangutans will be moving back to Asia, without leaving the Zoo. The new $6.5 million Red Ape Rain Forest exhibit, opening July 13, 2000, will transport the apes and their Zoo guests to the rain forests of tropical Indonesia.

Photo of exhibit model, by Michael N. Marks.
This architectural model shows the entrance to the Red Ape Rain Forest.
The trip begins at a small plaza (later to be developed as an Asian market and banyan tree grove) surrounded by delicate palms and towering timber bamboo. A formal kiosk (modeled after a traditional spirit house) flanked by traditional Indonesian "jumping stones" marks the entry to the red apes’ forest. Passing between slender betel nut palms, visitors cross a canopied bridge over a dark, slow-flowing stream to an elevated deck surrounded by graceful trees and colorful hibiscus. From this canopy vantage point visitors can look back to the stream and ahead to the green wall of bamboo beyond. There, playing in the stream or swinging high above on fruit-laden vines are the orangutans, or "people of the forest."

As the red apes swing along vines, tree limbs, and bamboo "sway poles," visitors can follow at a respectful distance, walking along elevated decks and bridges. Passing through the trees, visitors arrive at a small Indonesian-style pavilion. From inside, visitors can come nose to nose with the orangutans, separated only by glass.

Throughout the exhibit the apes are protected from the public by a diaphanous tent-like enclosure of strong fine mesh which extends more than 25 feet high and 250 feet long in a semicircle, connecting to both ends of their sleeping quarters. The mesh enclosure is subdivided into three zones through which the orangutans can rotate. This allows the animals to be separated if needed and makes it possible to alternate use of habitats, allowing plants time to recover from the "tender mercies" of the curious apes.

Behind a wall of bamboo is the off-exhibit animal area, including six heated night rooms for use in inclement weather and a large mesh-roofed group room where the orangutans will spend most of their time together sleeping under the stars when the Zoo is closed. There are also keeper work areas and a procedure room that enables veterinarians to monitor the apes’ health.

After leaving the pavilion, visitors will pass under the orangutans’ aerial pathway on a covered bridge, emerging at an observation deck where they may be literally surrounded by the apes and immersed in the orangutans’ world. Here, in the heart of the red apes’ forest, time can appear to stand still as all attention is focused on the wonderful orangutans. The apes swing purposefully through the forest clearing, going about their orangutan business, their long, copper-red coats highlighted by the sun, bright against the azure sky and verdant bamboo. The orangutans, the sky, the trees, even the visitor path are seen as one. The parts all fit. People will see orangutans as they really are, what Henry Beston called "other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of earth."

The holding area will provide spacious off-exhibit living quarters for the orangutans.
Leaving the observation deck and viewing pavilion, visitors once again pass under the orangutans’ overhead pathway and enter the dense bamboo forest. Here in a small trailside clearing, children hear stories about orangutans and other forest creatures — the same stories children learn in Indonesian villages from their parents and elders. Again, Zoo visitors are encouraged to reflect upon their recent experience with the orangutans, the urgency of great ape conservation, and the role they themselves can play in ensuring the long-term survival of the orangutans and their Southeast Asian forest home.

Just beyond the bamboo clearing, visitors emerge to discover they are on the main Zoo path, a short distance from the Asian plaza. Those wishing to continue their exploration of the Great Ape Forest will follow the new Hillside Trail past the elephants to the Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains exhibit. The Hillside Trail will be a renovation of the present Zoo path, but will not be nearly as steep, providing instead a series of interconnected forest pathways with comfortable seating and rest areas, as well as abundant views of bongo (large colorful forest antelope) and elephants. The Hillside Trail not only serves the needs of the elderly and less ambulatory in our community but will also assist those pushing strollers and walking with their small children. All of our diverse visitors will continue to experience the lush tropical vegetation and unexpected surprises of the orangutan exhibit trail even as they anticipate reaching the chimpanzees in their new exhibit.

The Red Ape Rain Forest exhibit, together with the Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains exhibit and connecting Hillside Trail, will give Angelenos a sweet taste of what they can look forward to at the Los Angeles Zoo. Imagine new and better habitats for the gorillas and elephants. Imagine the Zoo of the 21st century unfolding, project by project, over the next decade and beyond. Imagine what you can do to be part of this exciting and fulfilling work.

Jon Charles Coe is a principal in the Philadephia-based
firm CLRdesign, Inc., designers of the Chimpanzees of
the Mahale Mountains Exhibit.

Originally published in Winter 1997 Zoo View. Copyright © 1997-2000 GLAZA. All rights reserved.

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