Welcome to the Jungle

A brand-new rainforest exhibit at Roger Williams Zoo showcases tropical wildlife – and kicks off a 20-year Master Plan


The first thing you feel is heat. Step through the great wooden doors, and your skin turns warm and clammy. Glasses fog up. Winter coats feel heavy. Here, the 80-degree air contrasts starkly with Rhode Island winter. As you strip away gloves and wool cap, the rainforest emerges – tree trunks and palm fronds rise upward, great curtains of green. Monkeys scamper over vines. Birds shriek their greetings from the canopy. Edenic, like the lost valleys of adventures tales, Faces of the Rainforest sprawls beneath a 40-foot glass ceiling.

After two years of construction and roughly $14 million, Faces of the Rainforest is now open to the public. The facility is less like a diorama than a slice of actual rainforest: Over 100 species of plants share newly laid soil. Creeks meander along the floor. A sloth lounges in the treetops. A toucan arches its head, and an aardvark scuttles. Some of these animals were already here – the Saki monkey, the elegant crested tinamou, the Chilean flamingos – yet 35 additional species were carefully selected from a national network of zoos, then quarantined for 30 days before being introduced to their new home.

The real stars are the giant otters. Native to the Amazon, they’re far bigger than their North American cousins, measuring five feet in length. A dedicated tank allows them to swim around in endless, mellifluous figure eights. They surface, their whiskers briefly visible above the water’s skin, and then they dive again. At any time of day, you’ll see children pressed against the glass, watching the otters shimmy through the murk.

“There he is!” they cry. “He’s coming this way! Look! Look!”

Why a rainforest? Why bring the jungle to a cold, coastal state like Rhode Island? The decision mostly came from the public, thanks to a series of surveys.

“Everybody, almost unanimously, said, ‘More primates, more monkeys,’” says Dr. Jeremy Goodman, the zoo’s director. “They wanted a warm spot for people to escape the weather. When you put all that together, it was kind of obvious we needed an indoor, South American area.”

But Faces of the Rainforest is groundbreaking on several levels. The Amazon, with its rapid deforestation and vanishing species, is a vivid reminder of humanity’s impact on nature; the lush color and texture of a rainforest speaks to Earth’s biodiversity, and what is at stake. Outside the building, plaques and interactive installations explain the value of this teeming biome. The zoo’s education team wanted to post simple tips – simple enough for children to follow at home – for lessening our environmental footprint: eating sustainably, reducing waste, using responsible palm oil products, and so on.

Meanwhile, the exhibit is the first step in a 20-year Master Plan, which will bring a brand-new education center, improved infrastructure, and New England’s first reptile house. As long as the nonprofit zoo can meet its fundraising goals, the team will build new enclosures for sea lions and Humboldt penguins, an enlarged primate exhibit, and an upgraded tiger habitat. Roger Williams is the third-oldest zoo in the country, and it already commands national respect among professional zoologists. But Goodman and his colleagues hope to radically enhance its facilities over the next two decades.

Any project that involves animals must be carefully mapped out. Creating a synthetic rainforest has unique challenges, starting with the exact animals to display. Many species – tapirs, the arapaima fish, and even jaguars – were briefly considered, then dismissed.

“We had some very lively discussions, dating back well over three years ago,” says Goodman. “We look at a number of factors. First and foremost, can we take proper care of them? We’re building brand-new facilities, so we were confident about that. Then there’s availability. Even if we wanted to exhibit a giant armadillo, there aren’t any available at all. There were a lot of things we decided not to go with, because, unfortunately, we can’t put everything we wanted in the building.”

This kind of indoor ecosystem also requires animals that will “get along.” One of the exhibit’s most memorable members is the howler monkey, a pensive-looking primate with a heavy fur coat. The zoo picked howlers over spider monkeys, which are far more territorial. “Spider monkeys are very cool and very dynamic,” says Goodman, “but we would have been limited to that one species.”

The building itself is also a feat of engineering, since it defies New England’s natural climate and must accommodate many different orders of animal. One waterway must be habitable for a nine-foot anaconda, while a separate tank houses the giant otters. Some birds are allowed to fly freely about the atrium; the toucan is gently contained under a net. Beneath the building, there is a complex labyrinth of pipes and electrical systems, which maintain proper temperatures, irrigate water, and protect against power outages.

Faces of the Rainforest celebrated its grand opening on November 30. In the minutes before its doors opened for the first time, hundreds of people gathered in front of the shining new structure. Families and school groups filled the lot, along with reporters lugging cameras. The weather was cool and overcast. There were several moving speeches, first by Maribeth Williamson, chair of the Rhode Island Zoological Association, then by Mayor Jorge Elorza.

“I can only think of all the young people who are going to step inside and look up in wonder at the amazing flora, and the animals and the birds they’re going to see here,” said Elorza. “And I would love to think that any of them are going to be inspired about leading a sustainable life.”

After their dedications, Elorza, Williamson, and Goodman stood before their audience. Goodman held a giant pair of scissors. But it wasn’t a ribbon they snipped; it was a leafy vine. The vine fell away; the crowd applauded. Moments later, everyone marched toward the open entrance, slipping into a warm new world.