Franklin Park Zoo makeover brings primates, people closer together

Following a wild escape in 2003, Franklin Park Zoo's infamous gorilla, Little Joe, is receiving a brand new playhouse filled with toys, trees, ropes - the works. But he won't be living in this jungle dream palace alone. Little Joe will have to share it with six primate cronies who range from two to 34 years old in age.

The zoo's gorilla exhibit began reconstruction in September of 2006 and will re-open to the public this Saturday (Feb. 17) after six months of renovations. The new exhibit allows increased viewing for visitors and gorillas alike. Visitors are able to get up close and personal with the gorillas by looking through glass walls that have replaced the moats which originally separated viewers from the primates. More importantly, the new design allows the gorillas greater vertical climbing space, more climbing ropes, artificial trees, and soft mulch spread throughout the exhibit to provide the feeling of a true forest floor.

"One of the big initiatives in zoos is environmental enrichment," says John Linehan, Zoo New England's President and CEO. "We encourage more natural environment. For example, our keepers hide treats around the exhibit in order for the gorillas to forage, because that's what they do in the wild."

The exhibit spreads over one acre under a steel cable mesh roof and boasts 50 percent more floor space and 25 percent more vertical space achieved with the addition of climbing structures such as artificial trees and limbs.

According to Linehan, the "unique architectural flair" of the tropical forest is reflected in the meticulous design. Light levels on the inside of the exhibit change depending on the true light levels outside. The walls have been painted and foliage has been added to increase the naturalistic appearance of the "tropical forest."

"The steel mesh roof virtually disappears and looks like open-air," said Marshall Judges, Vice President of Operations at the zoo. "The viewing glass also makes for a more intimate experience between viewer and gorilla."

Despite the 75 percent increase in exhibit space, one of the main challenges that zoo keepers face is reintroducing the rebellious adolescent males, Little Joe and Okapara, back into an environment which includes another male gorilla, Kit, the 19 year-old father of six year-old Kira and two year-old Kimani.

Little Joe and Okie were removed from the public exhibit in 2003 after unruly behavior and Joe's escape. Though they were not held in isolation, Little Joe and Okie were housed in a spacious off-exhibit holding area that contained swings, toys and televisions - not too shabby. They also received individual husbandry programs which are meant to increase learning and mental activity for the gorillas. In addition, each night the two males joined their female counterparts in order to ensure that socialization for the animals was maintained.

"Gorillas are great analogies to people," said Linehan. "They're living beings with likes and dislikes. They're also very curious animals. They love it when visitors pull things out of their wallets and purses. They jockey for viewing space."

Linehan has served as President and CEO of Zoo New England since 2002; however, his experience working with zoos dates back to 1981 when he began his career as a Laborer at Franklin Park Zoo. Linehan helped both the Franklin Park Zoo and Stone Zoo become accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a very rigorous process in which only 212 zoos out of 2,200 national zoos have gained accreditation.

"The key to the zoo's success is for it to be a community effort," said Linehan. "We have had a big impact on the community through our educational youth programs. We have also received lots of support from the community."

Franklin Park Zoo received the $2.3 million needed to renovate the gorilla exhibit from the state, private donations, and a challenge grant awarded out of the surplus funds from the Democratic National Committee Convention held in Boston in 2004.

"We hope that the generosity of these private donors will set an example and encourage others to support our efforts to build even better zoo facilities for the people of Massachusetts and beyond," said Linehan. "The exhibit is going to be a great improvement for gorillas and visitors. It's going to engender a stronger love for animals."

The exhibit opens Saturday, February 17, 2007; 10 AM-4 PM daily. General admission: $8.50 for adults; $4.50 for children 2-12; children under 2 are free. Additional information: 617-541-LION or