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

1. Overview

by Ken Sanes

Many people who are well into adulthood will remember going to zoos as children that relied for many of their displays on cages and cement enclosures with wild animals inside. In addition, these zoos often featured fenced-in fields for some of the larger animals such as giraffes and zebras, which gave zoos an appearance that was oddly reminiscent of family farms.

There are a still some zoos that fit this description, trapping animals in unnatural spaces they were never designed to live in or adapt to. But in the last few decades American zoos have been changing in a way that has redefined both their appearance and their mission, and that has also turned out to have consequences for the larger society. The cages and barren enclosures have given way to a new generation of natural-looking landscapes in which the animals are surrounded by fabricated rocks and artificial ponds, as well as by genuine plants and trees. In many instances, the bars and fences have been replaced by unobtrusive barriers such as moats, which tend to blend in with the surroundings.

But these more natural-looking exhibits are, themselves, only one step in the transformation that has taken place in many zoos. Starting in the early 1980s, a handful of zoos (and other institutions with nature displays) started to create another kind of exhibit that is taking these trends as far as existing technology will allow. Here, visitors find themselves inside artificial landscapes that occupy massive interior spaces, with transparent ceilings to let in natural light. Unlike most zoo exhibits, some of these look so real it seems as if entire environments have been transported from other continents and moved indoors. In effect, zoos, whose mission was once defined as that of displaying animals, have gotten into the business of creating simulations of nature, ironically enough, because they want their displays to seem more authentic to the public and the animals.

JungleWorld, which was completed at the Bronx Zoo in 1985, is widely regarded as the first of these exhibits to achieve something approaching the state of the art. When visitors go inside the main rainforest exhibit there, they find themselves in a giant "room" that is a half-acre in size and 55 feet at its highest point, carpeted with lush vegetation and populated by some 780 animals native to the world's rainforests.

Walking along the exhibit boardwalk, the visitor encounters towering rock formations, waterfalls, and artificial trees that spread what look like giant root systems on the forest floor. Among the sites, visitors find themselves looking out at silvered leaf langurs sitting on what appears to be a fallen branch that is some 35 feet long and that seems to be suspended horizontally, entangled in vines. Nearby is a large rock formation the monkeys climb on.

With the exception of the langurs, most of the scene is artificial. It is a material "image" that only looks like a natural environment.

A little further along, visitors look down into another rainforest scene in which gharials --- narrow-snouted reptiles that are a kind of crocodile, -- sit lethargically on the bank of an artificial river as waterfalls tumble down a fabricated rockscape.

The Lied Jungle, which opened in 1992 at the Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, may be the most spectacular and the most immersive of these "immersion landscapes". Contained in 1.5-acre building, with an 80-foot-high translucent ceiling, one can find another living replica of a jungle, created with artificial buttress trees that go clear up to the ceiling, along with genuine fig trees, gumbo limbo, bamboo and palms. There are six large waterfalls -- the tallest is 50 feet high -- and a fog that often hovers in the treetops, produced by misting machines hidden in the artificial trees and cliffs. Once again, there is a menagerie of some 140 species of animals, including clouded leopards, pigmy hippos, squirrel monkeys and free flying birds.

On entering the Lied Jungle, visitors find themselves on an elevated walkway that encircles the jungle below them. As they make their way along it, their journey begins to resemble something out of a safari movie. They go through caves; push away artificial vines that block their path; walk behind a waterfall, and cross over a swaying suspension bridge made of rope and planks. By way of climax, they go up to an artificial cliff with a bamboo fence around it, called "Danger Point," which is the highest vantage from which to get a view of the forest.

On the second part of their journey, visitors go down to the forest floor where a number of smaller animals roam free and where the same trees, cliffs, and waterfalls can now be seen towering over them as they might in an actual rainforest. A third view is offered by a restaurant, above the other two levels, with a picture window that provides a panorama of the entire space.

To appreciate the significance of places like the Lied Jungle, consider this: standing in front of a traditional zoo exhibit, with animals in a cage, is something like sitting in front of a television set, in the sense that one is a spectator looking in on a scene from the outside. Even many of those smaller fabricated naturescapes still leave visitors feeling like spectators. But with the elaborate landscapes found in places like the Lied Jungle, the audience begins to move inside the scene. At the risk of getting melodramatic, one might say that with the advances being made in immersion landscapes, we are leaving the age of television and becoming explorers of prefabricated imitation worlds.

But, impressive as these places are, it also becomes apparent to anyone who has seen two or more of them that they are variations on a theme, and there isn't all that much variation. We are, here, in the world of McJungles, fast food for the senses in which the visitor can expect to be served pretty much the same fare in Denver, Omaha or the Bronx. This is imitation nature by formula, which isn't exactly unexpected since most of popular culture, from sitcoms to Chinese restaurants, is based on variations on a limited set of elements.

These exhibits are similar, at least in part, for the same reason sitcoms look and sound alike: if something works it is quickly picked up and used elsewhere. As a result, a diffusion of information is taking place, resulting in rainforest exhibits around the nation that feature variations on the same imitation research huts and faux thunderstorms. At the moment, crumbling ruins are popular, because of their audience appeal, resulting in a growing number of exotic structures that have been built, carved and painted to simulate the look of collapse and decay, as carefully tended "jungle" foliage appears to close in around them.

The RainForest at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which opened at the end of 1992, seems to have incorporated as many of these features as possible, although it lacks the kind of well-developed central space one enters in JungleWorld and the Lied Jungle. On entering the exhibit, visitors are confronted by ancient temple ruins, which provide a backdrop for a 25-foot waterfall, and by wall of ferns, orchids and bromeliads.

Soon they encounter a large artificial kapok tree, which contains a spiral staircase that leads them to the exhibit's second level, where they immediately find themselves in an imitation researcher's hut full of the tools of fieldwork, such as a microscope and short-wave radio. Further still into the exhibit, orangutans can be seen making their way up a fabricated tree into a geodesic dome that tops the second floor. The attraction even includes artificial thunderstorms, which go off like clockwork on the moat in the monitor lizard exhibit, created with fans, lighting effects, sprinklers and recordings of thunder.

Whatever one may think of these elements -- and we will examine them more closely a little later -- they are an unqualified success when it comes to holding the interest of visitors. Children run along the boardwalks, pointing out animals in the foliage and staring at artificial trees and rock formations that seem unimaginably large. Adults often stand in awe at the scale and realism of the exhibits. It is safe to say that these places represent a new cultural creation that most people never thought they would see in their lifetime.

But precisely what kind of creations are they? The people who maintain these exhibits give a number of answers to that question. To hear them tell it, artificial rainforests provide a chance for the public to come in contact with nature or, at least, to observe a depiction of nature they might, otherwise, never encounter. Those claims are epitomized by what the education curator at the Henry Doorly Zoo was shown telling schoolchildren in the Lied Jungle, in a program titled Jungle Under Glass, produced by the Nebraska ETV Network, a public television station.

"Here you are in the real rainforest, now," she told a band of young students as she led them through the exhibit. "This is just like if you'd walk in the rainforest in South America. Here you are."

Those associated with these attractions also make another claim. Imitation rainforests are educational institutions, they say, that can teach the public not only about nature but about the destruction of nature, to help win converts to the cause of conservation.

Indeed, that message of environmental destruction is constantly conveyed to visitors, to the point where it has become as routine a feature as the fabricated trees and mechanically-driven waterfalls. Signs warning of disappearing ecosystems and ultimate extinction are usually given a place of prominence, suggesting that they are intended to frame the visitor's experience. This isn't just another world we are seeing, the messages tell us; it is a vanishing world. What is being portrayed is a replica of the victim -- the rainforest -- before the crime of its extinction is complete.

These messages suggest one of the many ironies of these places: even as rainforests are disappearing, we are preserving them in a material image. Science fiction is full of portrayals that connect up with this idea, of civilizations that have ruined their natural environments and then retreated into simulations of nature. If the reader will forgive a moment of literary name dropping, Keats had something similar in mind when he wrote his famous poem, "Ode On a Grecian Urn": the real lovers age and die but the image on the urn stays perpetually young, captured at a moment of existence. We preserve the idea -- the appearance -- but not the thing itself.

Except, of course, the messages that frame these exhibits aren't that subtle. At the exit to JungleWorld, visitors come upon a "countdown clock," an electronic display board that reveals the number of acres of rainforest being destroyed.

"Each minute, 100 more acres are cut and burned...and lost forever," the display informs visitors. "Tropical forest acres remaining at this moment: 1,825,233,024."

The number gets progressively smaller as you look at it, which has a way of creating a sense of urgency in the viewer.

A second clock provides the population count-up, telling us that we are reproducing at the rate of "180 people every minute, 260,000 every day...each person requiring more space, more food and more raw material. Human population at this moment: 5,691,872,559...We are crowding out nature."

At the RainForest in Cleveland, the final exhibit uses another form of simulation to make the point in the form of a holographic image that displays a time-lapse rendering of a fictional rainforest as it is razed, to the sounds of buzz saws and tractors. So, after enjoying the exhibit's crumbling ruins, the wall of exotic plants, the waterfalls, the high-climbing orangutans and the giant kapok tree with stairs inside, the visitor is hit on the head with a message of ultimate doom and destruction.

Dr. Lee Simmons, the director of the Henry Doorly Zoo, and the force behind the creation of the Lied Jungle, explained what all these displays are about on the public television program referred to earlier. The Lied Jungle, he said, is intended to be "a giant classroom to affect public attitudes and awareness."

But, on closer inspection, all of these claims turn out to be problematic, and they probably lead some visitors to put incorrect verbal labels on what they are experiencing. These exhibits aren't forms of nature and they aren't portrayals of any environment that can be found in nature. When we are encouraged to think of them that way, to some degree, we are being drawn into a state of "simulation confusion" in which we mistake an imitation for the thing it imitates or mistake it for an accurate rendering when it is not. Nor do most of these exhibits reveal very much about the reality of environmental destruction.

How then should we view them? They certainly include too much nature to be seen, merely, as clever fakes. Actually, that question breaks down into a number of smaller questions that come up again and again in contemporary culture: What is the nature of simulation? What is the relationship between a simulation -- in this case, a simulation of nature -- and what it simulates? And what is the role of simulation in the larger society?

What follows is an effort to answer those questions by "deconstructing" artificial rainforests, revealing the various layers of illusion that make it possible for them to have their effect. Our analysis will be conducted at two levels. We will start at the "ground level," examining the sensory or material simulations -- the fake rocks, imitation trees, et al -- that create the appearance of natural objects and a natural environment. Then, like visitors at Cleveland's RainForest, we will ascend the spiral staircase inside the artificial kapok tree, and progress up to the next level, examining the story lines, meanings or themes these places convey, to determine if they primarily portray nature or something else.

Ultimately, a similar analysis needs to be directed at all the creations of popular culture, so we can see contemporary society as it is and not as it pretends to be. If we are being turned into navigators through imitation worlds, we had better know how those worlds are constructed, so we will be in control of the simulation, instead of allowing those who design and manipulate the simulations to control us.

- - - - - -

You can go on to Part Two

or go to an essay on Disney's Animal Kingdom

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

This essay was posted in 1998, with
only minor changes since.

1996-2011 Ken Sanes