Thursday, May 23, 2002

Zoo opens gorilla exhibit today

Louisville attraction will offer simulated journeys into Africa

By Lori Burling
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — Frank recently moved with his family to four lush, green acres in Jefferson County, but there's no minivan sitting in the drive — just a broken-down tour bus that has seen the wilds of Africa.

[photo] Madini, a young female, plays in a tree at the Louisville Zoo's $15 million Gorilla Forest exhibit, which opens today.
(Associated Press photo)
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        Frank is a Western lowland gorilla who is part of the Louisville Zoo's new $15 million Gorilla Forest exhibit that opens today. Frank, two adult females and three young gorillas came to the forest in March. Two of their neighbors from their prior home — Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago — joined them last week.

        “A private guided tour in the wild is one place you're guaranteed to see a gorilla — that's what we've tried to create here,” said John Walczak, assistant director of the Louisville Zoo.

        After passing the abandoned bus and the African Outpost — a last stop for gas and food — tour groups will embark on a simulated journey into Africa in search of the gorillas and two pygmy hippos, an added feature to the exhibit.

        Visitors will follow hoof and knuckle prints through a fog-ridden, misty trail surrounded by trees and bamboo. The first chance to see Frank or a member of his family is the Mudi Bai — a 16,500-square-foot area of land including five different types of grass for the vegetarian family. Such a clearing is typical in tropical forests of west and central Africa, according to Mr. Walczak.

        Before arriving at the indoor home of the gorillas, tourists will visit Hippo Falls, the pygmy hippo exhibit. The exhibit includes four animal stalls and an underwater hippo viewing area. Educational activities line the trails to help visitors learn more about preserving animal life.

        “This is a conservation project; we want to educate visitors about conservation efforts that can be made,” Mr. Walczak said. “We're trying to maintain a healthy family group to guarantee the species another 100 years.”

        The gorilla family that just moved in includes three males — 37-year-old Frank, 3-year-old Bengati and 5-year-old Jelani — and five females — 36-year-old Debbie, 43-year-old Helen, 4-year-old Mumbali and 5-year-olds Madini and Rollie.

        The gorillas are on loan from the Chicago zoo while it remodels its ape house. Four more gorillas will arrive at the Louisville zoo in the fall, according to Steve Taylor, general curator for the zoo.

        Each gorilla family is led by an adult male, known as a silverback. Frank is the silverback of the Louisville family. In that role, he makes important decisions such as meal, rest and play times, Mr. Taylor said.

        “He sets the tone for the gorillas. You can see he's very comfortable here,” Mr. Taylor said as Frank rolled onto his back, stretching his legs and arms — which reach about 3 to 4 feet above the floor.

        The gorillas' indoor home includes a 9,300-square-foot building divided into six rooms built in a circular format. Each room is divided by 14-foot-tall glass barriers. There are only two other zoos worldwide that have the circular homes for the apes, Mr. Taylor said.

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- Zoo opens gorilla exhibit today