A new exhibit that lets kids "be one with the monkeys" drew gasps from an audience of corporate officials and wealthy donors on Thursday as the Minnesota Zoo's director pitched it at the Minneapolis Club. Here is what's on tap this summer at the state-run zoo, which is seeing record attendance already but remains keen to offer something new each summer to maintain momentum: The basics

Faces of the African Forest, a permanent exhibit now being built within the zoo's tropics building, will showcase several charismatic species drawn from the African rainforest, an area that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean almost all the way across the continent's midsection.

The concept

"Most people think of the Amazon, the biggest rainforest on Earth with the greatest diversity of species," said Lee Ehmke, zoo director. "But the African rainforest is an amazing world. I have spent a lot of time in the Ugandan rainforest, both in this job and my previous one [with New York's Bronx Zoo], and it's full of interesting, beautiful, endangered animals. We're bringing a little piece of that to Minnesota permanently."

The design

Nationally known for his work in "immersive exhibit" design, lending visitors the illusion of entering an animal's world, Ehmke has overseen a design process aimed at "letting you look up from beneath a pond and see dwarf crocodiles basking in the sun, and crawl through a log 'into the habitat' with beautiful primates called black-and-white Colobus monkeys -- and be one with them."

Featured species

In addition to the Colobus monkeys and the dwarf crocs, species include DeBrazza's monkeys, whose faces look a bit like an African work of art; fruit bats; red river hogs, and rock hyrax, cute little mammals resembling plump rabbits.

Timing

Not to be confused with the African plains animals, such as giraffes, which the zoo has brought in as temporary summer attractions, the new exhibit is to open May 29 along the Tropics Trail.

To learn more

The zoo says it won't have its own fact sheet for some time yet, but in the meantime the African Wildlife Foundation has briefings on the Colobus monkey and other species at www.awf.org/content/wildlife.

In other news

Target Corp. has agreed to donate $1 million to build a new theater within the planned Heart of the Zoo project, replacing the crumbling, vacant Beluga whale tank and other aging features. The facility will be the new home of the bird show, as well as other events.

DAVID PETERSON