JUNGLE IN THE CITY
THE CREATION OF AN INDOOR RAINFOREST
By Janice Bjornstad
Where would you go if you wanted to find Bat Flowers, Sausage Trees, Chocolate Pudding Plants, Poison Arrow Frogs, or Umbrella Birds?
You could travel thousands of miles to Asia, Africa, or South America, or you could go to Omaha, Nebraska. The Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo is one of the world's largest indoor tropical rainforests. It is larger than two football fields and taller than four giraffes - if you could get giraffes to stand on each other's heads. You become not just a visitor but a safari explorer weaving your way through plants and vines as you hike along rope ladder walkways, bridges and dirt trails.
Your adventure will take you past lazy rivers, roaring waterfalls and creepy caves, but what's real and what isn't? The eighty-foot trees that support the building aren't real trees at all. The Larson Company (artificial tree and rock designers) and several zoo staff visited Costa Rica to learn how to create the look and texture of rainforest trees. They spread thick rubber paint on the bark. When it was dry, they peeled the mixture off, being careful not to damage the trees. The result was a textured rubber mold.
Back in Omaha, construction crews wrapped wire mesh around the steel support poles and sprayed the wire with concrete to create the basic shape of the trunk. Designers then pressed the rubber molds into the wet mixture to make the bark pattern. Finally, artists painted the dried concrete and sewed fabric leaves to make the fake trees look totally real. They created large rocks, caves, walls, and even a fifty-foot waterfall much the same way. The dirt on the walking paths is a mixture of topsoil, peat moss, compost and dried elephant poop.
The monster fake trees are amazing, but there are also hundreds of real trees and plants. Many of them have cool names like Strawberry Tree, Eggfruit Plant, Fairyland Bamboo, and Spinach Tree. Two years before the rainforest opened, horticulturalists (specialists who grow and develop plants from around the world) visited nurseries and private gardens in Florida and California looking for unusual tropical plants. During the planting process though, some of the plants went into shock and their leaves fell off! The horticulturalists expertly cared for these endangered species and slowly they returned to their original beauty and began to thrive in their new environment.
The Lied Jungle is also home to over one hundred species of animals, including the Red-backed Bearded Saki Monkey, Mouse Deer, Purple Swamphen, White-handed Gibbon, and Two-toed Sloth. To create the feeling of a real rainforest, most of the animals are not in cages. Their living areas allow them to enjoy their natural habitat, while keeping a safe distance from jungle explorers. Finger holes in the rocks are filled with putty and slippery moss grows on the rocks to prevent the monkeys from escaping. The zoo staff tried planting Spiny Palm Trees as a natural fence, but the monkeys just had fun snapping off the large thorns and using them to clean their teeth. Water-filled moats make it impossible for the four-legged animals to escape, but birds and bats glide freely through the treetops.
Every safari must be on the lookout for danger, but what about the things you can't see? Bamboo Moths, Banana Weevils, and Mealy Bugs hitched a ride to Omaha with the live plants. These tiny bugs feast on rainforest plants and destroy them. The zoo controls the problem by spraying the plants with a soap and water mixture that kills the insects. They also released thousands of ladybugs to help with the problem. Ladybugs may be cute insects, but they love to eat Mealy Bugs. So far these environmentally safe pest controls have been effective.
At the end of your rainforest adventure, you can learn about the world's rainforests and how we can help protect them.
Many people with ordinary jobs - Architects, Contractors, Engineers, Horticulturalists, Construction crews, Designers, Artists, Veterinarians, Electricians, Plumbers, and volunteers -used their skills and knowledge in imaginative ways to create an extraordinary Jungle in the City. What can you create with your imagination?