Sedgwick County Zoo’s jungle exhibit ready to reopen

The Sedgwick County Zoo has finished upgrades on its Tropics exhibit. The building’s new, three-layer roof lets more light in but is insulated against Kansas weather extremes.
The Sedgwick County Zoo has finished upgrades on its Tropics exhibit. The building’s new, three-layer roof lets more light in but is insulated against Kansas weather extremes. The Wichita Eagle

Sedgwick County’s tropical jungle is back.

The steamy, green, noisy trademark exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo will open to zoo members this weekend and to the public beginning at 10 a.m. May 22.

The indoor jungle features more than 300 species of plants, 170 species of birds and plenty of interaction on the wild side.

Last year, the Tropics exhibit was closed for a $3 million renovation and roof replacement.

“We needed an upgrade of this building for a few years now,” said Scott Newland, curator of birds for the Sedgwick County Zoo. “We decided to take that big leap forward in making that improvement. We essentially cut every other project that’s needed to be done for two years around the zoo to do this. We needed to do it or shut the exhibit down and move our animals to better facilities.”

The 28,000 square foot exhibit opened to zoo visitors in the late 1970s. The last roof installation was in 1992 and had clouded over so much that it was barely letting any light into the exhibit, Newland said.

“We weren’t getting enough light for the plants to grow, we weren’t getting enough light for the animals to have a natural circadian rhythm,” he said. The circadian rhythm is the 24-hour cycle that living organisms follow to respond to light and darkness.

The new roof, which features three layers of Teflon-infused plastic, is filled with air in-between the layers. It is insulated from the Kansas cold and heat extremes, tough enough to handle most Kansas hail, but it allows sunlight to filter through, Newland said. During the renovation, the zoo also updated the building’s heating and air-conditioning systems and lobby.

Birds and fish were removed from the exhibit in March 2014 and the roof was removed – exposing the tropical plants to the Kansas elements.

The plants survived and the zoo can once again claim to have a tropical exhibit.

Beginning two weeks ago, the birds and other wildlife, such as fish and bats, were returned to the building.

“We don’t have the largest tropical forest building in the nation but we have one of the largest,” Newland said. “We don’t have any artificial trees in here. A lot of the ficus have been growing here since 1977.”

The new tropical exhibit is a plant- and bird-lover’s paradise. A blue-crowned pigeon nonchalantly walks along a mulch-covered path inches from a zoo visitor. Indian flying foxes – bats – hang upside down on tree limbs and walk on ropes to get their food. A river ray floats lazily in a stream while tropical birds such as sun bitterns, blue-gray tanagers, crested coua and wrinkled hornbills make their appearances.

Some of the plants include different varieties of bananas, pineapple, citrus, mango and papaya trees. Orchids can be spotted throughout the exhibit. In the past, the building’s humidity wasn’t high enough for orchids to thrive.

The humidity in the exhibit is kept between 50 and 65 percent and the temperature is 80 degrees.

People will sweat.

“It is never going to be as cold or as comfortable as we humans think it should be,” Newland said. “What we find comfortable is not what these animals or plants need.”

The exhibit still includes an immersion rainfall with lightning and thunder in the lobby, a strangler fig tree with roots children can walk through and graphics telling the story of the tropics and how they operate as ecosystems and can benefit humans.

“There is so much more for plant-loving people to see,” Newland said. “The plants look healthy and are reaching for the sun, which is what they are supposed to be doing rather than wilting because there isn’t enough sun. We have birds from all regions of the tropics across the world – birds from Africa, Australia, South America and Asia.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

If you go

Tropics exhibit

The jungle exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo opens to public at 10 a.m. May 22.

Admission: $8.95 for children ages 3 to 11; $13.95 for adults; $11.95 for senior citizens.

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.

For more information: www.scz.org or 316-660-9453