JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Suddenly, the bonobos were shrieking.
Maybe the small chimpanzees were welcoming the small crowd gathering for the opening of their new African Forest digs at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Or maybe they were commenting on its centerpiece, the 50-foot, replica Kapok tree on which they were literally hanging out.
“The excitement is building,” said a voice in the crowd.
A few minutes later, after t he requisite ribbon cutting, guests and zookeepers swarmed around the $9 million exhibit, which used to be the Great Apes Loop. Home to gorillas, bonobos, mandrills, lemurs and colobus monkeys, the Loop was 20 years old and in need of a face lift. The new 4-acre African Forest has larger and more naturalistic habitats, a built-in research program and what the zoo calls a “wellness-inspired design.” The focus is the buttressed tropical tree enveloped in mesh that is connected to the ape enclosure by trails.
The exhibit is the zoo’s latest effort to improve the quality of life of its animals, particularly animals that cannot be returned to the wild, said Executive Director Tony Vecchio.
“The truth is, that doesn’t happen very often. That is still an important mission to us, but we had to come to the realization that a lot of the animals here were not going to have the opportunity to go back to the wild,” he said.
So the goal is for those animals to not only survive but thrive at the zoo, which has developed “a reputation for setting the standard” in animal wellness, he said. For the zoo’s primate population, that meant replacing their aging exhibit with a new “cutting-edge” one specially designed to keep them healthy and stimulated.
On opening day, the bonobos were in the Kapok tree. But the tree was designed as a “time-share” feature, so gorillas might be there another day. The animals are encouraged to climb, explore and problem solve and enjoy views, heights and challenges, zoo staff said. The tree is connected to an elevated trail system similar to the trails in the zoo’s Land of the Tiger exhibit. Animals walk over-head, visitors look up to see them.
“Everyone who has been following the progress knows this is not like any zoo exhibit they have ever seen before,” Vecchio said.
The exhibit allows the primates to make more decisions, said Dan Maloney, deputy director of animal care and conservation.
“More choices, more control over their lives,” he said. “We don’t call it a renovation. We call it a transformation.”
The African Forest animals were introduced to the new exhibit slowly, “one step at a time, one group at a time,” said Nicole Monell, senior mammal keeper. “This is all new to them.”
The leaders of the respective primate groups, including a 35-year-old Silverback gorilla named Lash and a particularly brave bonobo named Jumanji, were the first to test out the trails and the tree. Once they endorsed the new environment, the others followed.