Gorillas In New York

A spectacular new exhibit opens at New York's Bronx Zoo next week, and it's one of the most elaborate and expensive zoo displays ever attempted. CBS News Saturday Morning Co-Anchor Russ Mitchell reports that the goal is to not only educate visitors but to motivate them to help save the vanishing African rainforests and the extraordinary animals that live there.

"Gorillas are some of the most intelligent creatures on earth next to people. They share 98 percent of our genes," says wildlife biologist Amy Vedder.

For 20 years, wildlife researcher Vedder has lived and worked among some of the most fascinating animals on the planet, the gorillas of the Congo. But these days, Vedder is in the urban jungle of New York; specifically at the world-renowned Bronx Zoo, where she is helping complete the $43 million dollar Congo Gorilla Forest.

It is billed as the largest and most faithful re-creation of a rainforest anywhere outside the tropics.

"Once you start on the trail, you're far far away from New York City. We want to get people looking and thinking about how wonderful a forest is," says Project Designer John Gwinn.

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Conceived a decade ago, it took crews almost four years to transform six acres of zoo property into a little corner of the Congo, complete with soaring trees and sparkling waterfalls.

Seventy-five species of African animals live in this habitat, from the giraffe-like okapi to the dramatically striped colobus monkey, 300 animals in all.

Mist machines control the humidity for exotic flora and vegetation carefully transplanted from their native lands. The sounds of the jungle are faithfully recorded on digital tape machines.

But the real highlight comes near the end of the trail, where visitors get an amazing up close and personal encounter with the zoo's 22 gorillas. All that separates the two species of primates is an 8-foot high wall of glass. Since gorillas are usually as curious as people, it makes you wonder which group of primates is really on display.

"Cousins looking at cousins," says Vedder. "I think sometimes the gorillas stimulate people to do things like clap or knock on the windows."


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Black and White Colobus Monkey
Next week's opening is the centerpiece of the Bronx Zoo's Centennia celebration, and it shows just how far zoos have come in a century's time.

Once, zoos were built like Noah's Ark, two of everything locked in cages with few creature comforts. Even at the venerable Bronx Zoo, the cold tile floors did little for the health of the animals, who were too often a source of amusement but not of education.

The Congo Gorilla Forest is a glimpse of the zoo of the future. "The visitor who comes here is not just an observer but a participant," says William Conway, retiring director of the Wildlife Conservative Society, which runs the zoo. "They look, they see, they read, they observe. It makes a complete connection."

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the exhibit is the unabashed campaigning to stir the public into action to save one of the last great wild places on Earth.

"I would prefer to see gorillas totally in their own world, and keep that world sacred. But these animals are ambassadors for their species and for African forests. I've been able to pluck those heartstrings and get people to act and become involved in conservation. That's what we are aiming for," says Vedder.

At the exhibit's end, visitors get to vote on how their $3 admission fee will be used, picking from among various African conservation, anti-poaching and scientific research projects. This is expected to be a hit with the public, and a real support for rainforest projects.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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