Orangutans at the Kansas City Zoo have never known grass or the confidence of perching high in a tree canopy, which is pretty sad for a creature so well suited to the forest.
But that changes with the opening Friday of an exhibit that gives the orange-colored apes more of the open and vertical world they instinctively crave.
“They haven’t had anything like this,” said Sean Putney, director of living collections at the Kansas City Zoo. “You can actually picture them in Borneo, climbing up these trees and being the largest arboreal animals in the world. They really do belong in the trees.”
The exhibit features viewing windows 14 feet high that look onto a landscaped environment with six steel “trees” for the apes to climb on overlooking a stream and waterfall. Visitors can watch from two levels, with the real trees of Swope Park as a backdrop. A plank will allow the orangutans access to a platform right in front of the viewing windows for an up-close look.
For decades after the Great Ape House was built at the zoo in the 1960s, humanity’s closest kin were consigned to a world of bars and concrete. The building was acceptable to zoo visitors back then, but it became antiquated with the trend toward more naturalistic zoo exhibits.
During the zoo’s expansion and makeover in the 1990s, the gorillas and chimpanzees got expansive and woodsy new homes. But their simian cousins languished in the ape house, which began to crumble and leak.
Under pressure from animal welfare officials — and the threat of losing its professional accreditation — the zoo in 2002 built a new stopgap exhibit for the orangutans. The outdoor part of the $2 million project was a “primadome,” a steel cage 27 feet tall and 34 feet wide. It was dry and new, but it was not a progressive step in a zoo otherwise freshly characterized by open vistas for animals.
“It just didn’t look natural,” Putney said of the dome. “They (the orangutans) were fine in there, but it doesn’t convey a very good message when people are looking at orangutans.”
Officials at the time said the dome was meant to be temporary. Thirteen years later, that promise has been kept.
The outdoor portion of the new exhibit is 3,400 square feet. The centerpiece is “a grove of artificial and flexible yet extremely strong trees, poles and vines (that) will provide climbing, exploring and resting areas above the naturally planted, contoured forest floor,” according to the zoo’s description of the design by the Portico Group of Seattle and the local firm of Bowman Bowman Novick. Those are the same designers of the penguin exhibit that opened here in 2013.
“This gives them more space, more opportunities to climb,” Putney said of the new orangutan exhibit. “There’s several different environments for them to enrich themselves. The goal is to give them the ability to act like an orangutan.”
The previous holding building has been retained, but the day room was brightened with color, large new windows and skylights, and new climbing equipment. Visitors and the orangutans can even interact via computer monitors.
The zoo’s two Bornean orangutan groupings will take turns occupying the day room and the outside exhibit. Each group has a mature male, and they don’t like to be around other mature males.
One group is headed by Rufus, who spends his time with females Jill and Kalijon. In the other, Berani lives with females T.K. and Josie.
The new exhibit was built mainly with money from the zoo’s taxing district, approved by voters in Jackson and Clay counties in 2011. It also received about $1.2 million in private donations. Significant donors included the Dixon Family Foundation, the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation, the Hall Family Foundation, the Harold Eldon Swenson estate, the Jeannette and Jerome Cohen Philanthropic Fund, Martha and Joseph Monello, the Oppenstein Brothers Foundation, the Sosland Foundation and the Sunderland Foundation.
The primadome will be repurposed as an off-exhibit home for the zoo’s chimpanzees.
The old ape house stands empty in a dead section of the zoo that is penciled in for a future “predator canyon” exhibit. The estimated cost to raze it is $200,000. Former Kansas City councilman and park board commissioner Bob Lewellyn, who was a strong booster of the zoo, once joked that when the time finally comes to blow up the old ape house, the orangutans should be allowed to pull the switch.