LINCOLN PARK — The Lincoln Park Zoo is about to begin construction on a major new exhibit that will be home to fur-covered, red-faced snow monkeys.
The exhibit for the monkeys, properly named Japanese macaques, is part of a 2.2 acre, $15 million improvement plan just inside the zoo's West Gate entrance.
The new draped-net exhibit will be built on the former site of the Kovler Penguin-Seabird House, which closed in late 2011.
Construction is set to begin in "a few weeks" and the grand opening of the exhibit is slated for the fall 2014, officials said.
The 7,300-square-foot Regenstein Macaque Forest will mimic the Japanese macaques' natural habitat of a rocky northern climate by including a hot tub (hot spring), a stream where the highly intelligent animals will wash their food, and a variety of trees for the creatures to traverse.
The centrally-located exhibit will be a focal point of the zoo, and because the macaques thrive in both warm and cold climates, the animals will be a draw for visitors year round, according to Steven Thompson, Lincoln Park Zoo's senior vice president of capital and programmatic planning.
Snow monkeys mostly move on all fours and are known as good swimmers, often bathing together in the wild in hot springs. Considered intelligent, they've been observed making and playing with snowballs.
In the winter months the snow monkeys' hot tub will be heated to 95 degrees, but in the summer months the zoo will drop that temperature and turn it into a cooling pond. The hot tub will be 6 feet from a viewing window.
Another water feature is a shallow stream that will flow down the center of the exhibit and include a few deeper ponds along the waterway.
"A number of groups have learned how to wash their food. A number of groups have learned how to separate sand from the rice that they get, so they are very very clever," Thompson said.
Because the zoo regularly pulls in large crowds, the new exhibit will feature two massive glass viewing windows, one 48 feet long and a second 36 feet long. "I don't know of another exhibit off hand that has been bold enough to have such large viewing areas," Thompson said.
"With that kind of social dynamic where you've got different age classes, different gender, especially with the younger animals, you are going to see a lot more activity," said Dave Bernier, general curator at Lincoln Park Zoo. "...This will be the largest housed group of animals that we are going to be able to keep here at the zoo."
The 145-year-old zoo will incorporate technology, including webcams, that will allow guests to observe primatologists interacting with the monkeys, with the primates using touchscreen computers.
Free wi-fi will allow guests to download and learn from an interactive app that is specific to the macaque exhibit.
The $15 million project will also include a revamp of the children's train. The new train will feature a red brick station and a longer trip through an evergreen forest.
The child-sized locomotive will seat 26 children and resemble a 19th century steam engine.
Built by Lionel, the electric-powered train will travel though a forest, over a bridge and through a canyon exhibiting fossils.
Other parts of the project include a new restroom facility, a larger dining plaza around the historic Eadie Levy Cafe and renovations to the West Gate entrance.
The vast majority of the funding for the $15 million project has come from private donors, but $750,000 will be paid for by a grant from the state of Illinois, according to Thompson.
After Labor Day the zoo's Eadie Levy Cafe and the current children's train will be closed until the end of construction. The West Gate entrance to the zoo will close in the winter and will also remain closed until the end of construction.
"This is one of the most exciting projects I have had the pleasure of helping bring, along with generous supporters, to the citizens of Chicago in my 37 years at Lincoln Park Zoo," Kevin Bell, president and CEO of the zoo, announced in a statement.