Lowland anoas, tigers and tapirs – oh my! Asian Forest Sanctuary preview

The crown jewel of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s redevelopment – the $10 million, multi-acre Asian Forest Sanctuary exhibit – is on track to be completed early next month, with a public grand opening scheduled for Sunday, July 18.

Zoo officials recently offered a media preview of the most ambitious project ever undertaken at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. The lush complex has six exhibit areas and includes a waterfall, pools and streams; mineral licks; a bamboo forest and sway poles. As vegetation matures, the exhibit is designed to give visitors the sense of being in an Asian forest.

The 5-acre sanctuary will be home to a variety of species, including Sumatran tigers, white-cheeked gibbons, siamangs (primates), a Malayan tapir, an anoa (a dwarf cousin to the water buffalo), crested porcupines, tragopan pheasants and Asian small-clawed otters.

The Asian Forest Sanctuary was designed with cutting edge features that will benefit the animals, zoo staff and visitors who come to see the exhibit.

Point Defiance’s newest attraction will be only the second such sanctuary in the nation to employ a rotational concept in which animals can be moved to different parts of the site. The first was the Islands Pavilion exhibit at the Louisville (Ky.) Zoo.

Interconnected habitats allow the animals to be moved into different areas of the complex. For example, on one day the gibbons may be with the tapir and the next day they may be in a different exhibit with otters or the anoa. Sumatran tigers might move into an exhibit area where the Malayan tapir spent the morning, with the scent left behind stimulating the tigers to explore the exhibit.

“We’ll be rotating them (the animals) through exhibits,” said Dr. Karen Goodrowe, the zoo’s general curator. “Mix and match.”

Zoo officials believe that as a result of these changing scenarios, the animals will be more active and their lives more interesting and enriched.

The transition to rotating animals will be gradual. Many of the animals are newly arrived, and zookeepers need time to allow the animals to acclimate and be trained to move from one area to another. Goodrowe expects the animals to be completely accustomed to the area and trained for rotation by spring 2005.

The rotational exhibit will also provide an ever-changing experience for visitors to Point Defiance Zoo. “This is kind of growing over the course of the year,” Goodrowe said. “It will be different next year.”

The animals of the Asian Forest Sanctuary will be living well. The waterfall panorama exhibit includes heated rocks, which will no doubt be appreciated during cold fall and winter Pacific Northwest days, as well as a hot tub for the animals.

State-of-the-art animal holding and exercise yards are also part of the Asian Forest Sanctuary. Staff biologist Shannon Smith described the holding area as huge, which is a good thing, she quipped, because you can’t just grab these animals and put them in a box when you need to remove them from their area of the complex for whatever reason.

It’s the little touches that make it fun for the animals and visitors, said staff biologist Andy Goldfarb. The floor of the holding area is heated and padded, so as not to strain the joints of the animals. “They deserve it,” Goldfarb observed.

The exhibit is also meant to create in zoo visitors a sense of sanctuary and reverence for the animals, said public relations coordinator Carolyn Cox. “We’re trying to educate people, literally, at every turn,” she said.

Throughout the exhibit, visitors will find interpretive graphic panels and interactive elements that introduce them to the animals and their habitats.
“We’re trying to engage visitors and show what’s at stake,” Cox said of the species – most of them endangered – that will populate the Asian Forest Sanctuary.

This year’s tentative projected attendance at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is 450,000, according to Cox, not including Zoolights.

The Asian Forest Sanctuary and other projects are being financed with proceeds from a $35 million bond issue approved by Tacoma voters in 1999. The zoo has already completed an outdoor theater, animal hospital, maintenance building and animal food preparation facility.

This summer, the zoo will also open a new visitor entry, education center, gift shop and expanded cafeteria.

A children’s zoo is scheduled to open in 2005, coinciding with Point Defiance’s centennial.

Philadelphia-based CLR Design and Jody Miller Construction of Tacoma are the Asian Forest Sanctuary’s architectural firm and contractor, respectively. The graphic panels and other interpretive elements of the exhibit were developed by Lehrman Cameron Studio out of Seattle.

“I think it’s going to be a pretty remarkable place,” Cox said.