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Gorilla Forest is designed to both challenge and calm the primates, said Mark Beauchamp, president of Philadelphia-based zoo architectural firm Clr Design. A large hill in the middle of the exhibit serves multiple purposes. It not only provides exercise when the animals climb, but also brings a sense of security. Exhibits in which the apes are surrounded by people on all sides make them nervous, he said.
“They’re just like the gunslingers in the Old West who sat with their back to a corner so they could see everything that was going on in front of them,” he said.
The hill also allows the apes to literally look down on us.
“We discovered that the gorillas don’t like it when we’re higher than they are,” Jungheim said.
What’s behind door No. 2?
Beauchamp’s firm worked closely with the zoo’s staff in designing Gorilla Forest. A crucial element was versatility for both the animals and keepers, he said.
It’s “about giving the gorillas a choice,” Beauchamp said. “For instance, there are two doors [from the inside areas] to the outside areas, and we want them to make choices on their own. We want them to work a little bit; we want them to think.”
The gorillas likely will be around for years, if not decades. At 27, Schroeder, the oldest, is just reaching middle age, and 8-year-old Dara is the youngster of the group.
“It’s not unusual for zoo gorillas to live to be 50,” Jungheim said. “They live longer than their counterparts in the wild [where a typical lifespan is 30 years] because everything — food and such — is provided for them. Plus, if they get sick, they get veterinary care.”
The zoo had three male gorillas until Gordy died in 2010 from myocardial fibrosis. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of zoo gorillas, and Schroeder has been taught to let the keepers monitor his heart (which remains healthy). Togo was sent to Oklahoma City as part of the trade that brought Virgil, Samson and Jabir to St. Paul.
Despite all the work that went into the three-year project, not everything has gone according to plan. For one thing, the gorillas have been eating some of the trees that weren’t intended to be nourishment. Asked what could be done about that, Jungheim conceded, “Not much.”
What does a 500-pound gorilla eat? Anything it wants.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392