Indy Zoo breaks ground on new orangutan exhibit


The Indianapolis Zoo broke ground Tuesday on its new $21 million orangutan exhibit.

The exhibit is considered the first of its kind - a space designed from the ape's point of view intended to give zoo visitors a unique look at the orangutans and how they interact.

Zoo CEO Michael Crowther said the exhibit will play a critical role in conservation efforts.

"It's our hope the exhibit will be the catalyst for change that can save these amazing animals from extinction in our lifetime," said Crowther.

Call Dr. Robert Shumaker's longtime research partner a big, hairy ape and he won't disagree.

Azy, after all, is a 260-lb. orangutan with covered with gorgeous, red locks who loves fruit juice, sugarless bubble gum and Cheerios.

Shumaker, the Indianapolis Zoo's Vice President of Life Sciences, is one of the world's leading experts on orangutans and Azy has been with him every step of the way.

Shumaker and Azy met 30-plus years ago, while Shumaker began volunteering at the National Zoo in Washington. Initially, he intended to be a veterinarian, then became interested in animal behavior.

When Shumaker took at job at a primate center in Des Moines, Iowa, Azy followed. The same when Shumaker took the job here.

Over the years, the two have worked together on several different research projects.

He says orangutans "have deeply rich minds and it never fails to grab your attention in some way. We share more than we're different in terms of cognitive ability."

Most recently, Shumaker and Azy have been working on the use of symbols, often using a touch screen computer to communicate.

"It's important he learns the symbols as symbols," Shumaker said. "So it's not just the name of one cup. He knows any cup of any size, shape or color, made of any materials. Even though he's never seen it before he can label it accurately."

Shumaker and Azy have also worked on understanding numbers and quantity.

Besides a research partner, Shumaker considers Azy a friend, or perhaps better yet, a brother "because we've known each other so long... we've grown up together."

Azy is one of five orangutans now living in a private area at the zoo. Three are females, Lucky, Katie and Knobe. Rocky is the adolescent male who likes to put on T-shirts, swing from the ropes and create a bit of mischief.

All will move into the zoo's new $21.5 million orangutan exhibit when it opens in May of 2014.

The exhibit will be the first of its kind in that it's built "from the apes point of view." They'll choose where to hang out, who to socialize with.

Shumaker, who's helped design it said they had to make sure it was "orangutan-proof."

"They're incredibly bright and their natural inclination is to explore by seeing how things go together and how they come apart," he said noting they "also have endless amounts of patience and determination to problem-solve."

For instance, that means nuts and bolts must be welded.

Shumaker said the exhibit has a much larger mission than most others.

"The primary reason we're building this exhibit is based on the fact that orangutans in the wild are likely to be the first great apes to go extinct in recorded history and that's happening right now," he said. "Our desire with this is exhibit is simply to raise that awareness for people and give them the opportunity to do something that can make a change."

Having partners and friends like Azy and the rest of the crew should make that job a little easier.

Rob Shumaker showed us the private digs of the zoo's five orangutans and handed out juice boxes.

You quickly learn they love treats and they don't mind cleaning up. Azy and Rocky handed back the empty boxes to Shumaker.

The exhibit is set to open Memorial Day weekend 2014.

Five orangutans will move in several months before it opens to acclimate to their new home.

Indianapolis Zoo