From Burundi to Boise 

Zoo Boise to open African Plains exhibit this fall

Dust swirls around hard hats and jackhammers in the blanketing early afternoon haze. Monica Hopkins, communications director for Zoo Boise, excitedly points to various half-poured foundations and piles of rocks, trying to paint the picture of an East African village in the middle of downtown Boise. Hopkins is part of a team that has helped raise $3.6 million for the zoo's biggest exhibit to date, the African Plains Exhibit. It's scheduled to open this October, but has been five long years in the making. From hiring zoological design specialists to contracting with an East African cultural expert, the zoo hasn't cut corners or spared expenses in bringing this massive project to fruition.

Hopkins explains that the zoo decided to focus its new permanent exhibition on East Africa—Kenya, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Burundi, Somalia, Uganda—primarily for the region's awe-inspiring native animal species, but also because zoo officials hope to shed light on the conservation issues that have become major concerns in the area. From poaching to habitat destruction to water depletion, East Africa's ecological problems are having a marked effect on area wildlife.

"East Africa is one of the places where people still live with some of the largest animals on the planet and come into contact with them on a daily basis. They have figured out how to preserve species in certain ways and keep numbers up—sometimes for economic reasons, like safaris," explains Hopkins. "This exhibit gives us an opportunity to focus on the animals but then to also say that people are a part of this as well."

The zoo hopes to present constructive solutions and ways for community members to make a positive impact on the region. For example, Hopkins explains that the zoo will have a cell phone recycling program to help raise awareness about coltan mining (a mineral that's used to make consumer electronics), which has resulted in "bushmeat" harvesting and gorilla habitat destruction in the Congo.

"Our motto is no tragedies before age 3," jokes Hopkins. "If we overwhelm people, they shut down, and that's not our goal. It's to present information in a way that brings attention to something, educates people, and then gives them an actionable item to go on."

Zoo Boise has collaborated with some of the best architectural minds to design an exhibit that does just that. The zoo first contacted WDM Architects, a firm from Kansas that has experience designing for Oklahoma City Zoo and Denver Zoo, to create a basic concept for the 3.5-acre space. The firm drafted a plan that begins with a travel agency, where visitors embark on a boat journey that leads them into the East African village. Upon entry, guests are greeted by a schoolhouse, a game preserve, and a ranger's station, all of which encourage visitors to ponder how the village relates to its local landscape and abundant indigenous animal species. After the initial design phase, the African Plains project was then passed to local firm, Erstad Architecture, to hammer out the minutia.

"When you pursue a project like this, there are a lot of different things that come up," notes Andy Erstad, principal architect at the firm. "Funny things like a giraffe having an 18-inch-long tongue that will strip a tree. You start to learn a lot of these things."

The Erstad team has been faced with a flurry of logistical setbacks in the process of integrating their design concepts with the zoo's necessary safety and educational demands. All of the structures in the exhibit have to not only be culturally accurate and meet certain International Building Codes, they also have to stand up to the 150,000 school-age children who visit the zoo every year. From figuring out the best height for a giraffe viewing platform, to determining the most natural contours for Pride Rock in the lion's exhibit, the Erstad team has collaborated with the zoo staff, East African experts, and the Boise State theater production department to ensure a flawless visitor experience.

"Our goal is to be more of a backdrop," explains Cheryl Pearse, senior project manager at Erstad Architects. "We provide the safety elements, but also provide a canvas for the Boise State group to come in and put those African touches onto the buildings and to bring them to life."

Michael Baltzell, professor and technical director of Theatre Arts at Boise State, has been working closely with Maasai tribesman Kakuta Hamisi to perfect the artistic flourishes that will realistically transform the exhibit's architectural structures. Their additions will range from decorating the ranger's station with kente cloth and fake animal heads to chipping paint and applying rust to the exhibit's brightly colored buildings. Baltzell has spent more than 20 years working in production and set design for many of Boise's prominent theater companies, including Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Boise Contemporary Theater. His background in creating inspiring, yet functional stage environments has lent him the experience necessary to build a permanent stage for Zoo Boise's newest animal performers.

"My job is to make it feel like when you go there that it wasn't just put up yesterday. That it has some authenticity and looks like something from Africa," notes Baltzell.

And though cultural components have figured prominently in the zoo's plans, at the heart of the African Plains exhibit are the animals. The new exhibit will house more than 32 animals from 17 different species, including lions, zebras, giraffes, rock hyrax, lemurs, weaver birds and even dung beetles. The giraffes and zebras will be in a special grasslands enclosure while the lions, for obvious reasons, will be housed separately. This is the first time that Zoo Boise will have animals of this size on display and the community has rallied to make the exhibit possible. Area schools in Boise and Meridian have helped raise more than $50,000 to cover the transportation costs involved in bringing the animals to the zoo. For the giraffes alone, transporters will have to use a special telescoping trailer with a compartment that can be lowered when traveling under highway overpasses.

A short week after tiptoeing around wet foundations and jutting rebar, the African Construction Camera reveals new gray-bricked buildings and yellow scaffolding. The exhibit is progressing daily at a pace that keeps the myriad people involved—zoo staff, architects, designers, landscapers, construction crews—constantly occupied. Though the African Plains Exhibit pre-opening tours don't begin until September 18 and doors don't officially open until October 4, to all concerned, these dates seem to be fast approaching. Standing with Hopkins in the sweltering sun, it's difficult to imagine exactly how different the space will look in a few short months. It's also difficult not to catch her infectious enthusiasm for what she jokingly calls, "the City of Boise's largest public art project."

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