SAN DIEGO — With the help of some pacaranas and meerkats and a North American porcupine, San Diego Zoo officials Wednesday broke ground on the largest and most expensive animal habitat project in the acclaimed zoo's 86-year history.
Dubbed the New Heart of the Zoo, the $26-million project will take the place of the Monkey Quadrangle, the collection of cages that have served as the entryway to the zoo since 1922. Though other parts of the zoo have been modernized to provide more spacious and realistic settings for animals, the monkey habitat has largely been unchanged.
Now the primates are slated for a habitat fashioned after Asian and African tropical forests. The new surroundings are meant to be more comfy and to allow the zoo to keep a larger number of animals--an important consideration as the number of certain species dwindles in the wild.
One of the more delicate parts of the project will be relocating an 80-foot tall, 50-year-old, multi-trunked ficus tree estimated to weigh 1 million pounds. The tree has been near the zoo entrance but will become the centerpiece of the new exhibit.
The old cages--which provided shade and trees and other necessities--were once considered the state of the art for housing animals for exhibit.
But in recent years their age and maintenance problems had raised concern among zoo officials and representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects zoos.
"The cages were old and starting to fall apart," said Karen Killmar, the zoo's assistant curator of mammals. "Our zookeepers spent a lot of time trying to improve the cages, but a concrete box just does not give you everything you need."
For one thing, the cages gave the primates little privacy. The new habitat will allow them to hide if they tire of the steady stream of visitors. "The animals need an opportunity to at least feel like they're not in front of people all the time," Killmar said. "They need to feel safe."
The cages were torn down a year ago, after temporary quarters were found for the orangutans, siamangs, mandrills, guenons and others in an area of the zoo off limits to the 3.5 million people who visit each year. Most of those animals will remain in the temporary holding areas until construction ends.
With the summer tourist crush over, construction can begin on the first phase, targeted for completion by Easter.
In recent years the USDA's animal and plant health inspection service has ordered a number of zoos to improve their facilities, including the Los Angeles Zoo, which was told to upgrade its gorilla exhibit or face penalties.
Department spokeswoman Laura Reiser said the San Diego Zoo was inspected in April without any citations being issued.
But older facilities such as the Monkey Quadrangle pose potential problems with sanitation and visitor safety, and the department recommends that they be improved or replaced, Reiser said.
Yvonne Larsen, vice president of the Zoological Society of San Diego, said during the groundbreaking that one reason for building the three-acre exhibit is to keep the zoo from falling out of compliance with federal rules.
New primate facilities have been on the zoo's agenda for years.
"Wow," said Doug Myers, the zoo's executive director. "We've been planning this project forever."
Along with the orangutans, siamangs and mandrills, other animals will be relocated to the habitat: clouded leopards, bearded pigs and numerous other mammals, birds and reptiles.
Joan Embery, the zoo's longtime goodwill ambassador, known for her many appearances on "The Tonight Show," noted that the Monkey Quadrangle was home to some of the zoo's more famous animals, including the late Ken Allen, an orangutan who became a local legend with his many escape attempts.
This being San Diego--the late Times sportswriter Jim Murray once called San Diego "a zoo with a city attached"--zoo animals have not just names but support groups and constituencies. Many primate lovers attended the ceremony.
"I'm concerned about the mandrills," said Jim Lockwood, a retired Navy chief petty officer and longtime zoo patron. "My wife is more interested in the orangutans."