Worlds in a Bottle: Zoos, Rainforest
The Lied Jungle
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
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
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
to Part One)
or go to an essay on
Disney's Animal Kingdom
There's also more on simulation at:
Age of Simulation
© 1996-2011 Ken Sanes