By Jodie Jacobs, Special to Tribune Newspapers
December 28, 2013
When coupling the term "travel destination" with "zoo," San Diego's comes to mind, but the Indianapolis Zoo is about to become a bucket-list addition.
Imagine looking up and seeing orangutans swinging on cables outside on a trail about 60 feet above you. And you are not in the rain forests of Borneo or Sumatra.
Then picture yourself up there on the Sky Ride, about 20 feet parallel to their trail. Back down on the ground, you begin to understand how smart orangutans are when you interact with them so they can retrieve a treat.
They can turn a knob or lever to drop a treat from a box on their side of a glass enclosure to a box on your side. They'll likely think you are not particularly smart and may look exasperated if you don't play along. You have to lift or turn the lever on your side to drop the treat to the bottom box on their side so they can get it.
The interactive fun and amazing camera opportunities begin May 24, when the International Orangutan Center opens at the Indianapolis Zoo. The orangutans already at the zoo are out of public view, but their faces and personalities can be seen on a zoo website. Construction progress also can be viewed by webcam. Expect to see work on nine towers, a 150-foot-tall Beacon of Hope, three Oases where an orangutan might get away from others, and the main building. By the way, the orangutans will be able to flip the switch that turns on the Beacon tower's LED lights.
"We are building what will be fairly described as the best orangutan facility in the world," said Robert Shumaker, Indianapolis Zoo vice president of conservation and life sciences. "The facility will provide a phenomenal quality of life for the orangutans that live there and will be inspirational for anyone who visits," he said.
A leading orangutan expert worried about the apes' survival, Shumaker is directing the project. "The threat facing orangutans in the wild is so severe and shocking, we have to do anything we can," Shumaker said. He blamed agricultural expansion, particularly of palm oil plantations, for the deforestation and flooding of orangutans' habitats. He explained that orangutans are aerial creatures that can't survive without their forests. "If not reversed, we are likely looking at the last generation of orangutans born in the wild," Shumaker said.
The towers being built at the Indianapolis Zoo don't look woody or leafy, but they are high. "What the orangutan cares about is how they function, not how they look. The towers and connecting cables function like a forest," he said. Such a forest-type trail is important so they can move from place to place to make social choices, according to Shumaker.
The Indianapolis Zoo is at 1200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis 317-630-2001, indianapoliszoo.com. To see some of the orangutans, visit azyandfriends.com.
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