OMAHA — The four resident orangutans at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium are about to have new digs that immerse the animals — and their human visitors — into a more natural habitat mimicking the rain forests of southeast Asia.
Zoo officials announced the $21 million renovation project Friday.
"This is truly a reimagination and essentially a redesign of that space," said Dr. Luis Padilla, the zoo's president and CEO. "It will feel and look like a totally brand-new animal space and guest space."
The existing orangutan building has been closed since 2020. Construction on the renovations started in September 2022, with the exhibit slated to open to the public in May 2024, Padilla said.
Zoo-goers will be greeted by traditional Indonesian architecture when they approach the revamped Hubbard Orangutan Forest.
Inside, they'll be immersed in the "land of orangutans," Padilla said. The space will feel tropical and will incorporate more natural elements, including plant life, water features and rock work.
Guests will have unobstructed views of the Bornean orangutans — and possibly other ape species. A curved acrylic wall will let guests stand eye-to-eye with the animals, if the animals choose. Educational elements will be sprinkled along the walls, teaching guests about the kind of care orangutans receive and about the biodiversity of southeast Asia.
Another space will let orangutans interact with their human visitors through technology. Padilla said that plan is still in the works, but could incorporate some sort of tablet-based tech to showcase the animals' intelligence.
Overall, the space is designed to showcase the animals doing what they do best — be orangutans. Visitors can see them climbing and building nests.
"People will walk out of this experience seeing orangutans in a way they've never seen them before," Padilla said. "As part of the transformation of this space, we want to stimulate a sense of exploration, wonder."
The project, thus far, is being funded entirely by philanthropic contributions, said Tina Cherica, president and CEO of the Omaha Zoo Foundation. So far, officials have raised $20.5 million, with the lead gift coming from Ted and Colleen Hubbard.
Officials have launched a campaign, dubbed "Forest for Us", to raise the remaining funds. Opportunities to support the project will be announced in coming months.
The renovations come with the goal of enhancing both animal space, caretaker space and allowing guests to connect with the animals.
Orangutans are critically endangered because of habitat loss and deforestation, Padilla said. He hopes zoo-goers leave with not only a memorable, immersive experience, but also with a better understanding of the animals and the trouble the species faces in the wild.
Orangutans have called the zoo home since the 1960s, with the orangutan house having been one of the original "zoo experiences." It underwent renovations in 2005.
"We are taking a space that we're very proud of, that has a lot of history and legacy. We're turning it into something entirely new," Padilla said.
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