Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL

Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL

This month’s awesome article (and I do mean AWESOME) comes from Dave Bernier, a General Curator at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Thank you so much to Dave Bernier, as well as Sharon Dewar and Tiffany Ruddle in the PR Department. It was a pleasure working with you all!

Q:  How long did the design and installation process take for the Regenstein African Journey?

A: The creation of Regenstein African Journey spanned about three years from planning to completion. As with all of our new exhibits at Lincoln Park Zoo, the creative process began with brainstorming sessions across all platforms of the zoo to ensure the space would perfectly fulfill our three main objectives of highest quality animal care, education about the natural world, and emphasis on conservation.


Q: What inspired the Lincoln Park Zoo to create this exhibit?

A: The current Regenstein African Journey occupies the same space as an older building that had run its course and was completely redesigned from the walls in. Lincoln Park Zoo wanted to transform that existing structure into a dynamic, exciting experience that also reflected the zoo’s commitment to providing high quality homes for the animals as well as compelling exhibits for our visitors to enjoy. The idea was to emulate a voyage through Africa, so it was important that the experience include a mix of land and aquatic exhibits, multi and single species habitats, and sensory opportunities heightened by music, texture, and visual excitement.


Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the exhibit to install?

A: Although the current Regenstein African Journey structure has the same footprint as the original building, the zoo was basically starting from scratch for each individual exhibit. Beginning in that way introduced many obstacles and puzzles during exhibit construction, particularly with aquarium areas. The mechanical spaces that house the water pumps and filter needed to be physically near the tanks themselves but not viewable by the public, meaning significant behind-the-scenes area had to be allocated for them. In its previous life, the building had not had water exhibits, so those elements needed to be created from scratch. Because the original building’s exterior walls had to remain in place, the exhibits and their life support equipment had to fit in to a predetermined space. Finding a way to shoehorn those elements into an existing space was more challenging in many ways than designing an entirely new building and required a fair amount of ingenuity on the part of the zoo and the architects.

Q: There is a lot of detail in the design of the exhibit. What materials were used to create such a stunning environment for the Regenstein African Journey?

A: In the aquarium exhibits at Regenstein African Journey, the hardscape is gunnite, also called shotcrete.  The pools, embankments, and decks were first constructed out of metal support pieces called rebar with a metal mess overlaying the frame. Once all the plumbing and other elements were added to the exhibits, the frames and mesh were covered with concrete that is sprayed on. As the layers developed, craftsmen begin shaping the top layer to provide the texture and finish to make the rock work look natural. Some areas look like rough muddy river banks, others are water-smoothed rock surfaces. There are several artificial trees in the exhibits as well, and these are also created from metal frame structure with concrete sprayed onto the surface. The detail is a little more artistic on the trees, and the work was more like sculpting than building.


Q: When designing the exhibit, what was a must-have feature / species?

A: For the aquatic exhibits within Regenstein African Journey that are home to pygmy hippos, dwarf crocodiles and different species of fish, we were careful to ensure the environment contained features that enabled the resident creatures to use the habitat year round. Each exhibit pool is temperature controlled to provide the appropriate water temperature for maximum comfort for the animals. There are also rock formations in each exhibit that provide heat from below for the animals to rest on.  For the pygmy hippos, we needed a system that would clear up the water quickly after the animal eliminated in the water, which hippos do regularly. The filtration system does this well, but the addition of the tilapia butterkoferi is what really gives us the clear exhibit water. They were added not just to give the exhibit some regular movement and a more dynamic presence when the hippos were not active but to eat the organic material introduced to the pool by the hippo and to aid with water clarity and quality.


Q: How many different species are within the exhibit? Which species was the most difficult to transport and place in their new exhibit home?

A: Regenstein African Journey is home to 33 species ranging from small golden orb spiders to towering giraffes. The building is a mix of single species exhibits (meerkats, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, golden orb spiders, colobus monkeys) and mixed species exhibits (giraffes, gazelles, ostrich; pygmy hippo, tilapia butterkoferi; dwarf crocodile, Mozambique tilapia; spoonbill, ibis, stork, teal; klipspringer, lovebird, hornbill, roller; and mixed species cichlid). The toughest to transport and move into the exhibit are the animals on the ends of the size spectrum, so the very largest and the very smallest. There are a lot of logistical issues with transporting giraffes and rhinos, but they are overcome with good planning and the use of the right equipment. The building has entry and exhibit areas for these particular animals built in to ensure smooth transitions. Some smaller specimens like fish and spiders require special handling and acclimation to their new enclosures to ensure that they remain healthy and strong.

Q: The cichlid fish of Lake Malawi exhibit is breath taking! How many fish are in the actual exhibit? What is their story?

A: While it is not possible to count the exact number of fish in the exhibit on a given day, we estimate that there are around 1,700 individuals of a range of cichlid species. We started the exhibit with eleven different species of cichlid that we acquired from other institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The numbers varied from a few of each sex to dozens.

Q: I know the Lincoln Park Zoo is very dedicated and invested in the conservation and science area. Are there any projects at the moment that the Lincoln Park Zoo is involved in that relate to the Regenstein African Journey?

A: Conservation is a huge part of what we do here at Lincoln Park Zoo, and we are proud to have projects ranging from saving critically endangered Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes in our own backyard to working with logging companies to curtail the negative impact on pristine gorilla habitats in the Democratic Republic of Congo. One project that we are particularly proud of relates to African wild dogs, a pack of which can be seen near the entrance to Regenstein African Journey. Thanks to zoo teams providing rabies and distemper vaccinations to domestic dogs in the areas surrounding the Serengeti National Park, populations of these vibrantly colorful and charismatic wild dogs have rebounded – as well as populations of other native carnivores like lions and cheetahs. The Serengeti Health Initiative saves hundreds of human lives each year, and we recently passed the milestone of vaccinating our one millionth domestic dog!


Q: Since education is an important component to the Lincoln Park Zoo in their exhibits, what is the most important info you’d hope visitors walk away with?

A: Our mission is to connect people with nature, and our main goal is that visitors leave the zoo with the sense that the natural world is fascinating, diverse, and, most of all, relevant to them. We would like our guests to understand that they matter in the context of global wildlife, and we want them to feel they can make a difference through conservation, continued learning, and sharing of their positive experiences with others.

Q: What is your personal favorite aspect of the exhibit?

A: Regenstein African Journey is just that – a trip through another place. The best part of the exhibit for us is the fullness of the guest experience. The journey begins in a free-flight forest characterized by the flap of wings and the hoots of colobus monkeys and meanders through a cavernous riverbed bringing the guests right up close to a splashing hippo and unfathomably busy school of tilapia. The next turn introduces a busy savannah teaming with meerkats and giraffes, before the guest finally bursts out into the sunshine only to be greeted by a hulking rhino. Our goal in creating the exhibit was to provide a multi-sensory, immersive experience, and accomplishing that goal so beautifully is the ultimate success for us.