Zoo counting on koala appeal: Visit by cuddly creatures expected to draw big crowd

April 7, 2008

Stock up on the eucalyptus leaves. Cute, cuddly koalas will soon be coming to the Indianapolis Zoo.

The temporary exhibit will run from Memorial Day weekend through Sept. 1 and feature two of the slow-moving marsupials on loan from the San Diego Zoo.

Not since 1994 have koalas been in Indianapolis. The lengthy time lapse, coupled with the zoo's objective to introduce a new major exhibit every year-whether temporary or permanent-made the native Australian animals a logical choice.

"We're using the koalas as a hook to understand the ecology of Australia and why it matters to us," zoo spokeswoman Sarah Burnette said. "We did the same thing last year with [the Oceans exhibit]. Here we are landlocked in Indiana. Why the heck would we care about oceans?"

To be sure, the koala exhibit is the latest in a string of attractions providing educational value and, more important, a lure for gate receipts and revenue. The zoo's attendance figures annually have topped the 1-million mark since 2003, peaking at 1.4 million in 2005, the year the renovated Dolphin Pavilion opened.

Much of the credit for the steady attendance can be traced to zoo President Michael Crowther's vision to engage visitors as part of a three-step process that also includes piquing their interest, enlighten- ing and empowering them.

White River Gardens opened in 2003, the year after Crowther's arrival. That pushed attendance over 1 million, where it has remained ever since, with the help of the rhinoceros and seahorse exhibits in 2004 and the splashy Dolphin Pavilion the following year.

The $10 million dolphins attraction represented the zoo's most ambitious improvement in more than a decade. It features an underwater dome made of clear acrylic panels that gives visitors a unique view of the popular sea creatures.

The meerkats' arrival in 2006 helped bring in 1.3 million visitors. The Deserts building where the meerkats are housed was reconfigured to make room for a winding wooden bridge that takes visitors along a trail overlooking lizards and desert animals to the meerkat display.

For last year's much larger, $9.5 million Oceans exhibit, the interior of the existing building was gutted to produce space that welcomes visitors rather than restricts them. Patrons previously were forced to hang a sharp right once inside the building. Now they walk straight ahead and are surrounded by aquatic creatures. That upgrade helped attract 1.2 million people.

Zoo officials are projecting the koala exhibit will help draw 1.1 million people in 2008. The slightly lower projection is due to the fact the critters will be in Indianapolis for just three months.

Still, they'll be treated like royalty while they're here. When the San Diego Zoo flies the animals on loan to other locations, they aren't checked into the cargo hold but travel first class with a keeper who stays with them at the new zoo until they're settled.

"They have specific needs," Burnette said. "They have a special type of eucalyptus they eat. We've been working very closely with [San Diego] to make sure we meet specifications."

The local office of Muncie-based architectural firm Rundell Ernstberger Associates LLC designed the exhibit that will be housed in the Forest Biome. The challenge for architects was to design an area that can accommodate large crowds and long lines.

"We're trying to create sort of a journey," said Ann Hildner, an associate and landscape architect at Rundell, "so people can experience things while they're waiting."

Illustrations tying in the aboriginal and Australian cultures are painted on the pavement, and ancillary creatures such as snakes and lizards will be positioned along the path as well. Demonstration areas will include one that explains the cleaning of the eucalyptus bark to feed the koalas.

The rear panel of the cage will mimic a panoramic view of trees to make it seem as though visitors are in the koalas' habitat. Architects also designed a partition to put in the cage, in case the two male koalas are less than civil to each other.

Because the $190,000 display is temporary, architects tried to incorporate materials that could be reused, Hildner said.

Next year, the zoo will borrow two Komodo dragons from the Denver Zoo that will be housed in the Desert Biome. That exhibit should prove popular as well, particularly with 10- to 12-year-old boys, Burnette predicted.

Gorilla exhibit

Meanwhile, the zoo is laying the groundwork for its next blockbuster, a gorilla and bonobo habitat scheduled to open in 2013.

The 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, which number around 10,000.

Bonobos are the closest genetic match to humans, scientists say. They are much smaller than gorillas and, like chimps, exhibit a wide range of moods through facial expressions.

Zoo leaders in February allotted themselves 14 months to come up with the design. They've formed 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.

A 14-month window means the design should be completed sometime this month. It isn't finished yet and has not been approved by the board, Burnette said. The design remains on schedule, however, she said. An official fund-raising campaign for the expensive project, which is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, has yet to begin.

Zoo officials have said the new exhibits are part of an attempt to reposition the zoo as a source of conservation, not just a nice place to visit.
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