Who's New At The Zoo

Visitors to the Philadelphia Zoo are getting to know a whole new cast of characters. It's a fresh start after so much sadness. Philadelphia's old friends John and Samantha and Snickers and 20 other primates died in a tragic fire on Christmas Eve 1995. No American zoo had ever seen a disaster on this scale. As CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman reports, it would be difficult to overstate the sense of loss.

After the fire, Philadelphia went into a state of mourning, especially the zoo keepers. Maria Schwalbe was home visiting family for the holidays when she got the call from her boss.

"I couldn't believe it," says Schwalbe. "And then my mom walked in the room and I just started cryingÂ…It never goes away."

Gorillas are at home in The Bronx, too. Click here to see them.
There was never any question that Philadelphia would rebuild its building as well as its diverse collection of animals. The new $24 million Primate Reserve that officially opens this week is bigger, brighter, and as fire-safe as any building can be.

Replacing a building is a relatively straightforward matter of dollars, design, and determination. But replacing an entire habitat of endangered animals isn't quite so simple. It's been 30 years since the last gorilla was brought to this country from Africa. These days, when you need a new gorilla or a group of gorillas, you turn to something called the Gorilla Studbook, part of what's called the Species Survival Program. There are similar programs and similar studbooks for every endangered animal. This is science's way of ensuring that even as breeds become rare in the wild, they flourish in captivity.

That is how 35 primates handpicked from zoos across America arrived in Philadelphia by special animal airlift this spring. Among them, Chaka, a 14-year-old, 400-pound silverback gorilla from the Cincinnati Zoo, where he's known as quite the ladies man. In five years there, he has sired eight offspring.

"There was a time when a zoo owned an animal and you bought an animal, you traded animals in the market like a commodity," says Andy Baker, the zoo's curator for primates. "Whether you own an animal or not really becomes less meaningful."

"How animals move around the country now has less and less to do with ownership, and more and more to do with managing the population for genetic and demographic stability. You don't want inbreeding. Notoo many, not too few," says Baker.

The young gorillas are the only ones on public display so far. As they get settled upstairs, real stars like Chaka are in romantic seclusion downstairs, getting acquainted. Before the fire there were three orangutans at the Philadelphia Zoo. Now there are two, and the staff is hoping they'll reproduce.

Designing a zoo building is a question of balancing the often competing interests of the animals, the keepers, and the public.

"You'll really see no bars in this project," says architect John Rogers. "The idea is really we attempted to turn the building inside out."

Rogers has designed dozens of zoos, and although he's from Philadelphia, this is his first project in the city.

"The concept is that it's almost a play on words. It's 'who's watching who?' And there are all kinds of corners and angles and ins and outs. There are huge expanses of glass, 14, 15-foot high glass. What we're trying to do is make it an exciting place," says Rogers.

The fashion in zoos these days is the all-natural look: Enclosures that look something like the jungles where these animals come from. But now they're trying something different.

"There's a message involved, and the message is conservation. What we've done is we've taken the idea of an old timber company, the Equator Timber Company, which has been abandoned by the timber logging company and then taken over by a conservation group as a primate conservation center. You've got the lumber that is left over from the logging mill. You've got the monorail track, that might have been what the lumber moved along when it was operating as a mill. You've got a crateÂ…You've got cargo nets," Rogers explains.

If activity and productivity are gauges, the animals seem content in their new homes. Since the collection was moved in, there have been three births. Meanwhile, Philadelphians are eagerly introducing themselves to their new neighbors. And Philadelphia has moved on too. It is not the way anyone would wish change to happen, but it's clear that something exciting has risen from the ashes of tragedy.