Towering tree with network of overhead trails will be visible almost immediately to visitors as they enter African Forest exhibit, which encompasses four acres of naturalistic habitat for the gorillas, bonobos, mandrills and lemurs that will call it home.
Two western lowland gorillas paused while sunbathing Monday to glance at a 48-foot tall steel, woven cable mesh and sprayed concrete Kapok tree reaching skyward nearby what soon will become the signature centerpiece of the new African Forest exhibit at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
The gorillas went back to basking, apparently satisfied at the progress of the human primates building the first-of-its-kind zoo structure — a combination observation tower for zookeepers and researchers that also incorporates multiple wellness and enrichment features for the animals — in the heart of the Great Apes Loop.
Crowned with an umbrella-shaped 45-foot-wide canopy, the towering replica of the tropical tree will be hollow, boasting a spiral staircase inside the massive trunk that will be accessible only to zookeepers and researchers.
"Every part of this. Every limb, every handhold is designed for the animals first and then we make it to accommodate the keepers," said Cullen Richart, the zoo facilities manager overseeing the construction project.
The stairs will lead to a series of specially designed mesh covered viewing portals, called "think pods," at varying heights where zookeepers and scientists can discreetly study, or interact with the animals via specially designed windows.
"It is the signature piece of this exhibit. It's really going to stand out in people's minds as being really cool, really unique," Tony Vecchio, the zoo's executive director, said of the huge tree being built at an estimated cost of about $1 million.
"The tree is just a key piece. We're building it as we design it," Vecchio said of the unique structure created from a tailor-made design developed by zoo staff to enhance the wellness of the animals while also engaging human visitors at viewing areas.
The towering tree with its network of overhead trails will be visible almost immediately to visitors as they enter the African Forest exhibit, which encompasses four acres of naturalistic habitat for the gorillas, bonobos, mandrills and lemurs that will call it home.
Projected at a cost of $9 million, the African Forest exhibit — expected to open in a few months — replaces the nearly 20-year-old Great Apes Loop, which was one of the zoo's most popular, albeit outdated, exhibits.
Donations are paying for the project.
The zoo raised $8.4 million in an ongoing capital fundraising campaign. It's seeking contributions for the remaining $600,000, Vecchio said.
The African Forest incorporates a wellness-inspired design. The exhibit will feature an overhead trail system covered in see-through mesh to allow the zoo's seven gorillas and dozen bonobos to leave their main habitat, explore and make choices in activities intended to enrich them.
The gorillas and bonobos will share the tree, but won't be together when they use it.
Bonobos get along well with each other but don't play well with gorillas. So, the gorillas and bonobos will take turns on the trails and at the tree. Each time people visit the exhibit, they might see different animals at various times of the day.
The trail system is modeled after the zoo's popular Land of the Tiger exhibit.
The design components support the concept of animal wellness, which modern zoos around the world have embraced. Animal wellness is more than the practice of humane treatment and care. It emphasizes ways to provide enrichment through environmental stimulation and challenges to keep the animals active and help them thrive.
The tree will have built-in tubes, similar to PVC pipe, to allow zookeepers to provide enrichment such as toys or food to the animals as they climb up and all over the it.
"It's a quality of life issue for the animals," Vecchio said. "There are lots of things you can do to make life more interesting for the animals. We call it wellness here in the zoo. It's about mental, emotional and physical health as well as what the focus was originally, which was physical. We look for things to keep the animals stimulated."
He said real Kapok trees originally are from South America but now are found in the forests of Africa and Southeast Asia. They're found in tropical forests all over the world. So, the tree would be a part of the gorilla and bonobo's natural habitat.
The African Forest will also include a new bonobo house and two large outdoor, mesh-covered naturalistic habitats to be built where the lemur and mandrill exhibits now stand. The lemurs will get a new habitat, and the gorilla and mandrill enclosures will be remodeled and refurbished.
Enclosing the bonobo yards will let visitors view the apes at eye-level rather than from above, the zoo said. It will also give the bonobos the chance to go out into the yard at night.
There will be viewing areas where visitors can observe zookeepers training the apes using a learning process in which behavior is modified by reward or punishment, which will not harm the animal.
The project has presented a few challenges," Richart said.
"The first challenge is that we're building right in the middle of the heart of the zoo where there were existing long-term exhibits," Richart said. "And then there was unknown nature of this tree. It was a vision we had over a year ago, so just trying to put it together, and putting all the people together to make sure we're doing it right."
Noting construction is going well, Vecchio said his goal is to have the African Forest open by September.
"The rest of the components tie into the tree. So until we have the tree finished we're not going to be able to predict when this all will be finished," Vecchio said.
The zoo, which sees one million visitors a year, opened the Great Apes Loop in 1998 and expanded it the following year. It's one of the zoo's oldest exhibits. Replacing it was a decision based on standards set by Range of the Jaguar, which opened in 2004, and Land of the Tiger, which opened in 2014. Both exhibits earned national recognition for their quality and innovative design.
Zoo officials closed the Great Apes Loop in early July for demolition to clear the way for the new construction. That area is inaccessible to the public during construction.
The gorillas, bonobos and other inhabitants of the Great Apes Loop have remained at the zoo throughout the project. However, the gorillas and bonobos won't be in direct public view until the African Forest opens.
The zoo has been sharing photos and video of the animals regularly with visitors during construction.
The exhibit's other animals were relocated to other areas of the zoo, where the public can view them.
The tree is going up just beyond the wall of the gorillas' current enclosure. They can see the workers scrambling up the scaffolding surrounding the tree.
"I think they'll like it. Everything we're doing. It's for them," Richart said.
For more information, to donate or volunteer, visit the zoo's website http://www.jacksonvillezoo.org/
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075