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Lincoln Park Zoo creates place for macaques to monkey around

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Updated: September 4, 2014 6:25PM



In the center of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s soon-to-open macaque monkey exhibit, a steady stream of sparks cascaded down the trunks of two trees Thursday.

High above the exhibit floor, welders — not monkeys — nestled in the branches, fusing limbs to the metal and synthetic tree trunks.

That should soon change, though. The zoo hopes four female and five male Japanese macaque monkeys will move into the yet-to-be-finished Regenstein Macaque Forest sometime this fall. They will be the first monkeys of their type at the zoo since 1989.

The exhibit is just one part of a $15.5-million facelift of the 2.2-acre central commons area just beyond the zoo’s front gates. On Thursday, the zoo lifted the curtain, giving the press a tour of the grounds, which will also feature a new dining area, new restrooms and a much-hyped Lionel train ride.

The train is scheduled to open Oct. 2, but the zoo stopped short of giving an opening date for the monkey exhibit.

That’s because the Japanese macaques, often called “snow monkeys,” must be transported to the U.S. and undergo mandatory disease quarantine. Then there may be some growing pains as the monkeys acclimate to their new habitat.

If all goes well, the zoo will host a grand opening next spring, though the monkeys will be viewable before then.

The exhibit features a number of amenities that will be at the macaques’ disposal, including a 850-gallon hot tub and touch-screen computers for playing primitive games.

“They are going to be having fun, I think, in the same way kids use video games,” said Steve Ross, a zoo scientist who studies primate behavior and cognition. “The monkeys can come out of their group … when they choose, and participate in a variety of touch screen activities so we can learn about how monkeys think and see the world and interact with each other.”

This winter, electrically heated rocks will offer a respite from the cold. In the summer, fans will be activated to cool the monkeys off.

“Barring another polar vortex, they should be visible 365 days (a year),” said Maureen Leahy, the zoo’s curator of primates.

In a staff-only area, there are a series of interconnected caged rooms. But one feature zoo scientists boasted about was a subterranean portal that allows them to access a monkey through a rock outcropping in the exhibit.

The portal, dubbed the “Hobbit Hole,” is hidden from the public and will allow caregivers to check in on the monkeys, should they become sick or injured, without removing them from their social groups, Leahy said.

The exhibit has room for 20 monkeys, so there’s room to expand.

“It would certainly be our goal to have a breeding community,” said zoo spokeswoman Sharon Dewar.

Email: bslodysko@suntimes.com

Twitter: @BrianSlodysko



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