The New and Improved Kansas City Zoo

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

My eyes have not yet adjusted to the darkness, and I must use other senses to feel my way down the narrow irregular path. An eerily enchanting woman's voice guides me forward. "We have been wild thousands of times longer than we have been civilized."

I try to focus on what is in front of me, but see only tree shadows cast upon the floor and the walls. Flashes of light reveal branches arching overhead and strange noises make me shudder. I feel something fly by my head, then convince myself it was just a puff of air.

From this primordial forest, the path leads me forward through time. Off to my right, a campfire glows and primitive tools lay scattered, as if their owners had recently fled. The eyes and teeth of a large predator flash above me on a cliff. Its threatening screams scare me forward, as it had my ancestors. I am soundly reminded that humans were once the hunted, not the hunters.

The next scene illustrates the beginning of human separation from nature. A wooden shelter and fence show that man has learned to use necessary plants and animals for survival. From up ahead, a blast of hot air hits my face. As I move forward, the noises of modern civilization drown out all sounds of nature. Cars honk, a radio blares and I find myself on an urban city block.

I have traveled from one extreme to the other and am reminded of how detached from nature most of us have become. As a welcome relief from the hot breath of the city, another glade of trees draws me out of the urban chaos and I return to nature. This forest feels like a magical place, filled with great intelligence.

Images of animals and of man are projected up onto the leaves. The woman's voice tells of humans as the hope of the planet. The faces of an eagle, a monkey and a human baby stare down at me. "When you see the animals on your safari today, look into their eyes and say you'll help. Or say goodbye forever."

I have just gone through "The Journey" in the Deramus Education Pavilion of the Kansas City Zoological Gardens. The Kansas City Zoo has completed a $71 million renovation and expansion project to make itself a model for zoos of the future. The Missouri Department of Conservation helped make possible the Deramus Education Pavilion, along with the Ozark garden courtyard and an aquarium displaying native Missouri fish.

As I parked my car in the Hippo Parking Lot of the zoo, my head was filled with everyday worries. I headed toward an archway that marked the path to the zoo. The zoo's statement of purpose on the arch interrupted my mundane thoughts. "The Kansas City Zoological Gardens is committed to environmental education and wildlife conservation through recreation and participation."

Beyond this sign, I saw the Education Pavilion nestled into a valley, its rolling copper roof reflecting the morning sun. A walkway edged in stone sloped down to the entrance. The facility first opened to the public in 1995.

The structure of the Pavilion itself strictly adheres to the zoo's conservation oriented mission. Friends of the zoo, which manages the building and raised the $16.5 million for its construction, originally directed the architects to create a building friendly to the natural environment in every way possible, including technology and materials. The building's walls and ceiling are super insulated and there is ultimate utilization of natural light.

Some of the building's most beautiful features conserved tremendous amounts of energy during construction. The building's structure is primarily of salvaged lumber with the wood surfaces from sustainably managed sources.

The Journey's entrance is the first thing visitors see when entering the Education Pavilion. Not putting visitors immediately out with the animals was a novel concept for a zoo. The Journey sets the stage, putting visitors into a certain mind-set for what they are going to experience on their visit.

Jay Tomlinson, one of the Deramus Education Pavilion architects, explained. "In The Journey we wanted to slow people down, turn off their senses that are barraged by everyday life and turn on the senses not normally exercised. We try to elicit a subconscious sense that man is a part of nature, not above nature or separated from it."

With the fateful message of The Journey echoing in my head, I looked out toward the Ozark Garden. A lush grove of native flora with a meandering waterfall forms a courtyard visible from all parts of the Education Pavilion. After crossing this quiet midwestern garden, guests decide which part of the world they wish to visit. Shall they tour the plains of Africa, the Okavango Elephant Sanctuary, Australia or Farmland in the U.S.A.?

A unique feature awaits visitors as they leave the education pavilion. Children's artwork covers an entire wall with tiles conveying heartfelt messages of conservation. More than 10,000 children in the Kansas City region participated in the artwork project, which was the final step in an educational program centered on the theme "extinction is forever."

Dr. Mark K. Wourms, director of the Kansas City Zoo, speaks with contagious enthusiasm about the mission of the zoo. "If we can funnel the excitement people feel here about the beauty and diversity of nature, then wildlife overall has a much greater chance." Wourms explains that the new Kansas City facility illustrates the next evolutionary step in the development of zoos.

That step revolves around participation by the visitors. Zoos began with a 'stamp book' mentality, leading them to collect more and more species. Animals were typically displayed in long rows of sadly cramped cages. The second evolutionary phase was a focus on public education of wildlife issues. Next, zoos concentrated on a naturalization approach to their displays, getting rid of the cage rows and giving visitors the sense of immersion in particular environments.

The new Kansas City Zoo is based on the latest evolutionary step of participation. The zoo tries to give people as many opportunities as possible to realize they can make a difference. At the zoo itself, volunteers can contribute their time in a multitude of ways, from painting fence posts to becoming docents, who share educational information with others at the zoo and in the community.

After touring various areas of the zoo, visitors funnel back through the Deramus Education Pavilion to exit the grounds. On their way out, they can visit the Sprint IMAX® theater, the first IMAX in any zoo worldwide. IMAX is a motion picture format that incorporates a screen large enough to envelop the viewer's entire field of vision. The theater features wildlife and nature films that give visitors an opportunity to experience many exciting aspects of our planet's environment.

The exit corridor of the building provides one last opportunity to catch visitors' attention and impart a final conservation message. It was a great challenge for the planners to stop people again after a long tiring day outside. The aquarium of Missouri River life provides the ideal web.

As visitors leave the zoo, this final exhibit reorients visitors to their Midwestern surroundings. They have been shown the diversity and beauty of wildlife around the world. They have also been shown how they fit into that web of life here, in their own surroundings. Wourms says that he is proud of the Conservation Department and how the Kansas City Zoo represents them.

The Department of Conservation was and continues to be a fantastic partner in this venture," Wourms says. "Our missions parallel each other in many ways. Both of us advocate smart stewardship in the use of land and wildlife resources. We want every individual to understand how they can make a difference. The environmental adage of 'Think globally, act locally' really applies here. We will be successful if we get visitors to say, 'Gosh, isn't nature wonderful, right here in our own backyard.'"

The zoo is located off 1-435 at 63rd Street, in Swope Park. For information on the Kansas City Zoo and its many exciting programs call (816) 871-5700. triangle

Summer Attractions

by Susan Tolleson, Kansas City Zoo staff

  • Koalas make big news at the Kansas City Zoo this summer. Thanks to the generosity of Kansas City Power & Light, Kansas City will be one of only 13 zoos in the country to exhibit koalas. Koalas visit May 3 through Sept. 1.
  • The Sprint IMAX® Theatre, with its 6.5-story screen, stadium seating and 12,000 watts of digital sound, provides movie audiences with a powerful, engaging film experience. New films this summer include The Living Sea, which celebrates the world's oceans, and Tropical Rainforest, which brings to life forests and the incredible treasures they contain. Call (816) 871-IMAX for more information.
  • The zoo offers some wonderful special events this summer, including "Purina Big Cat Day" on August 9, which promotes the grandeur of big cats.
  • The zoo recently brought a female black rhino from South Africa and is looking to breed her with one of the zoo's males. "Ginny" is the first Eastern black rhino to be imported from Africa to the United States in more than a decade. There are only 545 black rhinos left in the world today.
  • In 1995, the Kansas City Zoo had the second largest attendance increase of any zoo in the country. The zoo anticipates an attendance of more than 700,000 in 1997.

The zoo's internet home page is at http://www.kansascity.com/zoo

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