Gorilla exhibit to be one of nation’s largest: Apes and new oceans area designed to boost attendance, conservation

Fresh off the debut of a $9.5 million Oceans exhibit, the Indianapolis Zoo is already laying the groundwork for its next blockbuster. But it may come with a beastly price tag. A gorilla and bonobo habitat scheduled to open in 2013 is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.

“I can’t tell you if this is a $30 million project or a $50 million project,” said Indianapolis Zoo President Michael Crowther. “What I can tell you is that we’re not willing to design something that doesn’t change the world.”

The new exhibits are part of an attempt to reposition the zoo in people’s minds, Crowther said. The zoo wants to be known as a hotbed of conservation, not just a nice place to visit. Also, new exhibits drive attendance and revenue.

Both have been climbing in recent years. Attendance rose from less than a million in 2002 to 1.3 million in 2006. Earned revenue has gone from $14 million to almost $21 million in the same period.

The gorilla exhibit could leave those figures in the dust.

When a zoo is picking an attraction that both captures the public’s imagination and covers a pressing conservation need, you can’t really beat the great apes-a grouping that includes gorillas, chimps, orangutans and bonobos, according to Tara Stoinski, chairwoman of the Ape Taxonomic Advisory Group for the Silver Springs, Md.-based American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

“They’re just wonderful to watch because they resonate with people,” she said. In 2004, when the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., opened its revamped gorilla area-a three-acre, $14 million project-its annual attendance jumped 14 percent, to 1.5 million visitors.

The apes need all the exposure they can get; they’re on the verge of extinction due to the destruction of their habitats. Indianapolis’ exhibit will house two highly endangered species from the African rain forest: lowland gorillas, whose numbers in the wild have dwindled to about 25,000, and bonobos.

Wild bonobos now number around 10,000. The species, which is the closest genetic match to humans, are much smaller than gorillas and, like chimps, exhibit moods through facial expressions.

“We want this to be the most significant great-apes center in the world,” Crowther said. “We’re making a statement for the city and what it can accomplish … .”

That’s part of why zoo leaders in February allotted themselves 14 months to come up with the design. They’ve set up an advisory committee and hired New York-based producer Ed Sherin, who directed 163 episodes of “Law & Order,” to make sure the exhibit tells the story of the ape’s plight, moving visitors through it like acts in a play.

And they’ve brought in Steve Ross, a primatologist who studies habitats that suit the needs of apes. He spearheaded the 2004, $27 million redesign of the ape area at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

“I’m very excited because there are some things you only get [about designing an exhibit] after you’ve done it once,” he said. “The bar for exhibits is not as high as it’s going to go.”

The zoo also hired locally based Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Architects. Ross said the group has regular meetings and, though he and Sherin often begin talks at opposite ends of the spectrum, they usually find a compromise.

“We’re going to provide a great, lifealtering, emotional experience for visitors and create environments where the apes are comfortable,” he said.

While many of the details are still to be fleshed out or are under wraps, Crowther did spill some beans.

He said the square footage hasn’t been nailed down, though to be the nation’s biggest it would have to top the Bronx Zoo’s 6-1/2-acre habitat, a $43 million project that opened in 1999. Crowther said the committee is “considering going significantly vertical” and that plans will include both “significant enclosed and outdoor space.”

He said the construction would take up much of the west end of the zoo along the river near the entrance of the Great Plains area, meaning some existing areas would be reconfigured.

Crowther said the goal is to unveil detailed plans in August or September to gauge support. In 2006, the zoo closed a fund-raising campaign that raised $31 million to pay for the Oceans exhibit and the dolphin dome and to create an annual, $100,000 conservation award, known as the Indianapolis Prize, that was first awarded last September.

Previous successful campaigns can be a gauge of the likelihood of future success, said Gene Tempel, director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. If the exhibit really is the nation’s largest or most cutting-edge, that will be a big draw for donors, Tempel said.

“Indianapolis likes to be in a leadership position,” he said. “You might be able to generate a great deal of community pride.”

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