Monkeys take center stage in $15M Lincoln Park Zoo construction plan

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Lincoln Park Zoo will feature a new Japanese macaque exhibit and a new train for little kids under a construction plan announced by officials at the Chicago zoo Wednesday.

The $15 million project will replace the old penguin habitat — closed since late 2011 — with a state-of-the-art, predominantly outdoor facility for up to 20 of the macaques, known popularly as “snow monkeys” because they live furthest north of any non-human primate.

The 2.2-acre project site is immediately north of the zoo's West Gate, along the property's western boundary. The gate itself will be moved and widened to ease congestion at the popular entry point.

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About 180 feet long and surrounded by mesh, the Regenstein Macaque Forest habitat will include trees, rocks, a stream and a “hot tub” and heated rock floor to simulate the thermal springs the red-faced, sandy-haired monkeys use in their native Japan.

The two viewing areas will be 48 feet wide and deep enough to accommodate big crowds, part of an evolving philosophy favoring long, slender exhibits that maximize viewing opportunities.

There will be video screens and “there will be webcams,” Steve Thompson, senior vice president of capital and programmatic planning, said at the Wednesday unveiling.

The new rubber-wheel train route, the Lionel Train Adventure, will roll through planted areas, over a bridge and into a simulated canyon — an improvement on the current big, open circle. A new train station will also be built, as will enhancements to the Eadie Levy Cafe (also known as Landmark) and a new, much-needed ground-level public restroom.

The zoo is paying for the project, expected to be complete in autumn 2014, with funds raised privately and a $750,000 grant from the state, Thompson said.

Built more than 30 years ago, the penguin habitat was closed and animals sent on to other zoos because it was becoming too difficult to maintain and ensure the health of the animals, said Thompson. The zoo hopes to see penguins return, he added, but there are no firm plans yet.

In the 7,300-square-foot Macaque Forest, the initial population of “about five” monkeys will come from other North American zoos as the habitat nears readiness, and a breeding program will aim to boost their numbers to between 15 and 20, he said.

About two feet tall and 20 pounds each, the macaques were chosen for several reasons, Thompson said: “First, they're pretty cute.” Their intelligence and sociability, he added, makes them strong candidates for the primate research that zoo scientists conduct. And their adaptability to cold weather makes them good Chicago animals and allows the zoo to offer winter visitors more to see.

Situated between the Lincoln Park neighborhood and Lake Michigan on the North Side, the 49-acre free zoo, which draws an estimated 3.5 million visitors annually, has been rehabbing and modernizing its facilities steadily since 1989, said Thompson, with 10 new buildings and 29 renovations.

But there hasn't been a new exhibit building on zoo grounds since the Pritzker Family Children's Zoo in 2005. Nature Boardwalk, surrounding South Pond just south of the zoo, was the last big construction project, opened to the public in June 2010.

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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