Connecting Indianapolis with the wildlife of the world — it’s been part of the Indianapolis Zoo’s focus since the beginning. Yet the ways we’ve made those connections have been evolving almost as long.
That evolution has motivated each of the Zoo’s major accomplishments of the past 25 years, from the move to White River State Park in 1988 to the present day and the upcoming opening of the International Orangutan Center.
The original Zoo on East 30th Street opened in 1964 with the idea that each major city should have a zoo as one of many opportunities for education and recreation. While the old Zoo offered a glimpse at exotic species the community had never seen before, the exhibits did little to connect people with the wild world.
Flash forward to 1988 and the opening of the new Indianapolis Zoo. Recreation remained a strong focus, but the educational component had grown more important than ever.
“The Zoo combines the opportunities of pure education with pure pleasure in a way few institutions can,” John Neighbours, then-Indianapolis Zoological Society president, wrote back in 1987. “Each visitor’s emphasis varies, but no visitor can leave our spectacular facility without receiving some measure of both recreation and education.”
Another goal was also taking shape. The image of a “world-class zoo” enlightened the design and construction of the new facility, which abandoned traditional cage exhibits in favor of an innovative biome design that closely resembled the animals’ natural habitats.
“Regardless of the goals of the 1988 Zoo, I’m impressed by the amount of thought that went into the Zoo’s design,” said current Indianapolis Zoological Society President and CEO Michael Crowther. “It embraced the somewhat radical biome organizational structure and also took what I believe was a remarkable and prescient step: it created fewer exhibits but of higher quality and greater potential for guest involvement.”
While the old Zoo brought the animals of the world to Indianapolis, the new Zoo helped transport the people of Indianapolis into the natural world. But at the time, Zoo officials were just coming around to the idea that Indianapolis could also help strengthen the natural world through conservation.
“I’ve always held that our greatest potential for improving the sustainability of the natural world is to create ‘bridges’ that connect the people and resources we can access to the needs and opportunities of wild things and wild places,” said Crowther. “Once we’ve created those bridges, we can encourage those people and resources to cross them. The design decisions encompassed in the new Zoo were a huge step in the creation of those bridges.”
Animal conservation is now an integral part of the Zoo’s mission. It took form during recent exhibit renovations, including Cheetah: The Race for Survival in 2010 and Tiger Forest in 2011.These exhibits aim to engage guests with animal interactions, enlighten them with interesting information and empower them to take simple yet effective actions to help wild things and wild places.
“The International Orangutan Center is our most thorough application of engage/enlighten/empower to date,” said Crowther. “Orangutans are on track to become extinct in the wild during our children’s lifetimes, and their biggest challenge is that they are off most people’s radar screens.”
Set to open in May 2014, the International Orangutan Center is the Zoo’s single largest construction project since the 1988 completion of the White River State Park facility. This awe-inspiring exhibit has been heralded as one of the best zoo exhibits in the world, and the most engaging aspect will be the orangutans.
“We are beginning,” Crowther said, “by placing orangutans in an environment that permits and encourages them to exhibit their adaptive excellence: people won’t see them merely as shaggy throw-rugs draped over a branch or on a lawn, but will see them moving like tai chi masters on skyways high above their heads; people won’t just see them as stupid or clownish, but will see them communicating and solving problems; people won’t see them as nothing but irrelevant wallpaper in a primitive home a world away, but as sentient, thinking, emotional beings not entirely dissimilar to themselves.”
Not only will guests be able to interact with the orangutans, they can also learn more about their struggles in the wild and take direct actions to help save this amazing species.
“I personally believe that the greatest entertainment is becoming part of a story, not just hearing someone else’s tales,” Crowther said. “The Indianapolis Zoo will build on that concept over the next several years, with the goal always being to engage, enlighten, and empower people to sustain the wild things and wild places that make our lives not just richer, but possible.”