Worlds in a Bottle: Zoos, Rainforest
 Exhibits and The Lied Jungle

2. The Interweaving of Physical Simulations

by Ken Sanes

Let's start, then, by examining the elements that go into building your basic artificial naturescape. How, for example, how do the creators manage to fabricate an environment that looks like a rainforest? The first and most obvious answer is that they study the environments they are simulating by examining photographs, videotapes, books and journal articles, and by traveling to the locations in question. In the case of the Lied Jungle, a number of staff members from the zoo and the Larson Company, a designer and fabricator of artificial nature, traveled into the recesses of a forest in Costa Rica, where, according to Simmons, they studied the trees in preparation for the creation of artificial trees in the exhibit.

But, in addition, the staff also directly transferred the textures of genuine rocks and trees to their artificial counterparts in the exhibit. To accomplish this, work was done at two locations. First, latex was painted onto actual trees. After it dried, pieces were peeled off so they captured an imprint of the trunk's texture. These latex molds or imprints were then transported to the Lied Jungle where they were pressed onto the surface of tree-shaped columns of wet concrete that were 50-80 feet high. When the molds were removed, the concrete columns replicated the texture of actual trees.

As this process was going on, one could see construction crews and artists standing on scaffolds that encircled these giant tree sculptures, pressing in the molds along the surface of the columns, and doing additional shaping and painting with a palette of natural-looking colors. At times, brooms were used as giant brushes to come up with the right texture.

To create many of the "rocks" at the Lied Jungle, textured panels with rock imprints were assembled like jigsaw puzzle pieces into rocklike structures. The spaces between the panels were filled in and additional work was done, to create the illusion of single large rock formations.

Once these and smaller artificial trees were complete, genuine plants (most of which came from tree farms) were blended into the landscape, to fill out the rainforest. Since the real and artificial nature looks similar and is made to overlap, visitors to the Lied Jungle lose the ability to distinguish nature from artifice.

One can see this same blending of simulation and nature at JungleWorld where, at one location, the visitor looks up into two layers of leaves. The "leaves" in the first layer are made of polyester; the second are Ficus. Neither can be distinguished from the other. At another location, live bamboo trees and dead bamboo trees that are painted green, are placed in front of a mural of bamboo, to hide a wall. To visitors, it all looks like a living bamboo grove.

The interweaving of genuine and counterfeit nature can also be found in the "soundscape" of some of these exhibits, which is enhanced by "auditory enrichment." Thus, in JungleWorld, speakers hidden in artificial trees play a nonstop chorus of insect and bird sounds, recorded in a Thai rainforest, which blend in with the sounds of animals in the enclosure.

The end result of all this work is an exhibit that makes visitors feel they are surrounded by a rainforest and that also involves all their senses, creating both a physical and a sensory immersion in which many of their senses are played to. Here is how Simmons, of the Lied Jungle, explains it, in a description that he frequently provides to outsiders to explain what they are trying to accomplish: "Its not so much walking and looking at the rainforest and seeing it. You need to feel the humidity, to smell the leaf mold, to, in effect, almost taste the taste and the essence of the jungle when you breathe in, because it's there. You can smell it. You can taste it. You can feel it. So with just a little bit of imagination, you can come away feeling like you've been there."

With these elements in mind, we can see the way rainforest exhibits take simulations that are modeled after something authentic and seamlessly interweave them with each other and with other authentic objects. It is the realism of the individual simulations and the total configuration; the physical and sensory immersion, as well as the ability to multiply details, which creates the illusion that visitors are in a natural environment. With some variation, these qualities can be found in all the invented "worlds" that make up popular culture, from theme parks and movies to virtual realities.

But at this point, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of illusion. As we do so, we discover that immersion landscapes also rely on stealth simulations, which is to say, they use partial invisibility, cover-ups, distraction and disguise to hide features that might interfere with the illusion. As in any good magic act, the art is in what the audience can't see and what it fails to notice.

What features would an artificial rainforest want to hide? For starters, it conceals the fact that visitors are in a zoo, with animals that are confined to display areas, and not in a natural environment where animals roam free. To accomplish this, bars are out and hidden forms of containment are in. In most of these facilities, the two most popular forms of containment are moats and fabricated rocks, which blend in with the rest of the stage set. Visitors often perceive these as part of the landscape, which leads them to see an idyllic nature scene rather than a cage.

At the 1993 convention of what is now called the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, Simmons and other staff members from the Lied Jungle presented a paper describing some of the disguised barriers used at that facility, which would undoubtedly come as a revelation to many visitors. For example, electrically charged wires and thorny plants were used to contain the animals. To prevent some of the monkeys from climbing out, the zoo staff applied Vaseline to some of the rockfaces and beams; they filled finger holes with putty and used water sprays to create a slippery layer of algae on concrete walls. Simmons says they still rely on these techniques, today.

Reading this paper, it becomes obvious that there is a drama going on here that is very different from the pretense that visitors are looking at animals in a natural habitat. On one side are the animal-prisoners, exercising the prerogative of every prisoner of war and keeping an eye out for potential routes of escape. On the other, are their captors, who use hidden forms of containment to keep them in their place.

One might say that artificial rainforests are forms of theater that have a captive cast of animal-actors who keep trying to leave the stage. So the producers turn the stage into a barless cage. The animals know the cage is there, but it has been made to disappear so it won't interfere with the audience's enjoyment of the show.

Interestingly, these exhibits also use winding pathways and barriers to hide visitors from each other, once again, so as to not interfere with the illusion that they are deep in the jungle.

But, having seen the way both cages and other visitors are hidden from view, we have still only begun to scratch the surface of the stealth simulations. For example, immersion landscapes have something else they conceal, namely that what looks like self-sustaining nature is actually made possible by an infrastructure of technology. Air conditioning ducts, misters, drainage and irrigation lines, roof supports, feeders and everything else required to maintain your basic imitation rainforest is made to disappear, hidden in rocks and trees and behind visual obstructions.

Perhaps, what many visitors would find most disconcerting is that doors are hidden in rockfaces and caves and behind waterfalls, both to let the keepers of these artificial paradises enter the forest and let the animals exit into their holding areas for the night. Late in the afternoon, the hidden doors in JungleWorld suddenly reveal themselves. The animals, their job done for the day, file through the doorways to their holding areas, enticed by the promise of dinner, where they are fed and monitored and ministered to, in preparation for another day.

Some things aren't hidden; they are excluded altogether, including the sights, sounds and climate outside, as well as something that actively tries to get in: "unauthorized" wildlife. To some animals, particularly mice and roaches, artificial rainforests are ideal habitats with a comfortable climate and plenty of food and hiding places.

As a result, the staff is in a constant battle not only to keep nature alive, keep it in, and keep it providing the desired effect, but also to keep out unwanted nature, which has a way of seeping in through cracks in the armature and threatening to interfere with the simulation. Most, if not all, of these facilities have to fight colonies of mice and roaches, which may rise and fall in size over time, but never entirely disappear (which is also a problem for zoos, in general.)

Just as unauthorized wildlife is kept out, so animals that are part of the display have to be kept from doing what comes naturally and creating a food chain. In true natural systems, life feeds on death and everything is governed by survival of the fittest. True nature is cruel beyond our worst nightmares; many animals are eaten alive and many have to be constantly on guard against predators. But in JungleWorld and the Lied Jungle it is the staff that is on guard against predation. Thus, toucans were removed from the Lied Jungle when they were discovered to be engaged in unacceptable behavior, destroying the nests and carrying off the fledglings of other birds, and eating assorted frogs and lizards in the exhibits. Semi-invisible nets, which, once again, disappear from the view of visitors, had to be placed over a display of reptiles, known as False Gavials, to keep wading birds from flying in and meeting an unhappy end.

I witnessed a good example of the difference between true nature and zoos many years ago at a zoo I was visiting. As visitors stared through a glass window, a wolf paced back and forth in an outdoor habitat. Suddenly, a baby bird fell inside the enclosure from a tree and began chirping frantically. In an instant, the wolf was at the spot and scooped it up with its mouth, so quickly one might easily have missed the entire episode. The families that were watching were scandalized and quickly departed for other, more benign, sights. They had had a momentary encounter with nature -- not the simulated nature of zoos, but actual nature -- where there are no saviors who will rescue a baby sparrow from the jaws of death at the last minute.

So immersion landscapes combine various elements and hide others, and they are constantly monitored and controlled to create a desired effect, all of which are characteristics that can be found in other complex simulations. But they aren't forms of nature, at least they aren't like anything we usually define as nature. They obviously include plants and animals, but they are no more natural than the artificial ecosystems in fish tanks in which fabricated rocks and plastic plants, along with genuine plants and animals, are placed inside a controlled environment. As in the case of fish tanks, the more one examines immersion landscapes, the less they look like nature and the more they look like artifice and technology.

- - - - - -

You can go on to Part Three
(or back to Part One)

or go to an essay on Disney's Animal Kingdom

There's also more on simulation at:
The Age of Simulation

1996-2011 Ken Sanes