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New Zoo Review

They're putting up fences and cutting down trees, and the elephants are on their way to Texas. But do Lincoln Park activists have a real beef?

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By Ben Joravsky

On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the Lincoln Park Zoo the only sound coming from the elephant pen was the heavy hum of a bulldozer leveling the land for future development. The elephants that once roamed there were on their way to a zoo in Texas, where they'll be housed until their corner of the zoo is made "bigger and better."

That's what zoo officials say, though some zoo volunteers and environmental activists disagree. "The zoo's becoming an endless construction project--it's like the Kennedy Expressway," says Charlotte Newfeld, a north-side activist and longtime zoo member. "As soon as they finish one project, they start another. And the things they build are so much about marketing. They're turning it into Disneyland."

Zoo officials dismiss such criticism as unwarranted. They acknowledge that the construction will cause "minor inconveniences" for at least three years, though they also have plans to renovate the Farm in the Zoo, the children's zoo, and the great-ape house, projects that could extend the construction well into the next decade. Still, as one promotional flyer puts it, "Construction fencing is a sign of great things to come."

There are three current projects: rebuilding the east entrance, adding an "endangered-species carousel," and building a new large-mammals habitat. Mary Ann Schultz, the zoo's director of public affairs, says the new east entrance is needed because "right now there's no real entrance to the zoo there. Our goal is to create an entranceway so there's a clear arrival gate to the zoo. The new entrance will have a beautiful wrought-iron archway with sculpted animals and metal vines. It will provide a great opportunity if people want to take a picture."

The carousel, she says, will be "adorned with 48 animals and two chariots depicting endangered animals from around the world" and will be a money-raising educational tool, enabling officials to offset operating expenses and keep the zoo's admission free. "We did a survey five years ago and found out that people were having shorter visits here. They weren't eating here. So we are doing things to make the visits better."

The new large-mammal house, according to the flyer, will be "the most extensive and dramatic project" the zoo has ever undertaken. It will correct bad sight lines in the old mammal house, which is now closed, and provide an "unparalleled immersion experience...[that] will make visitors feel as if they, too, are part of the remarkable African landscape."

Most of these projects have already been approved by park and city officials, as well as local Lincoln Park residents, Schultz says. None of them has yet been approved by the Plan Commission, but it usually rubber-stamps whatever Mayor Daley wants. He wants the projects, so the bulldozers are working.

One north-side resident with doubts about all three projects is Karen Haring, who's been a volunteer at the zoo for the last three years. As she sees it, the zoo hasn't quite recovered from the last big construction project, in which 37 trees were ripped down so that the old small-mammal and reptile house could be demolished and a store with a restaurant built in its place. "I have no problem with the zoo wanting to be a better zoo," says Haring. "If they're going to make the habitats better and more humane, I think that's a fine idea. But why does it have to take three years? And why do they have to tear down so many trees? It all sounds so gimmicky to me. I remember the last project, when they built the store. One day they put up these high fences with canvas all around, and 37 huge and mature trees came down. And worse, they had the chutzpah to put up a sign that said something like, sorry, we had to take down some trees, but this is only temporary. Temporary! When you take down a 100-year-old tree that's not temporary. That's forever."

The more Haring talked about all the construction with zoo friends and fellow volunteers, including Newfeld, the more outrageous it seemed. They began to think the zoo had lost all sense of its educational mission. Why, they wondered, was a new eastern entrance needed, given that most of the people entering from that side are coming from the zoo's parking lot and presumably can figure out where the entrance is? And what's with the carousel? Even if more children would rather ride on a fake tiger than see or read about the real thing, so what? "It's a zoo, not an amusement park," says Newfeld. "You would think a zoo would be entertaining enough without the carousel. This won't be about educating children about wildlife in its natural habitat. It's absurd. They'll be riding on gorillas and tigers? Hey, gorillas aren't cuddly and tigers aren't pussycats. They're endangered species."

Newfeld and Haring also thought the zoo was being far too cavalier about the trees that shade the walkways. "They plant a tree, and then they cut one down," says Newfeld. "Then they say, 'Don't worry--we're only cutting down immature trees.' Well, no wonder they're not mature--you cut them down before they had time to grow."

Last month Haring decided to vent her objections in a letter to zoo director Kevin Bell. She lambasted the "megalomaniac building policies," particularly the "environmental carnage" about to take place with the construction of a new mammal house. "Specifically, I am stunned that a self-proclaimed conservation organization can feel that it is entirely appropriate to destroy approximately FIFTY mature trees in its zeal to build buildings. In your mission statement you say that your goal is to sensitize the public on the need to preserve our environment. How can bulldozing down mature trees further that mission?" The construction projects, she concluded, will "amount to unspeakable environmental destruction at the behest of what appears to be some unmitigated egos masquerading as conservationists."

Lorna Mitchell, the zoo's vice president of marketing and communications, wrote back saying, "Your recent letter is filled with accusations and characterizations that unfortunately have little basis in fact." For one thing, she noted, the last construction project didn't destroy as many trees as Haring said, and it "created a shady promenade while providing retail and dining facilities that help support operation of our free zoo." For another thing, renovation of the large-mammal habitat will "turn a barren, concrete block building into a virtual African Journey replete with landscaping and realistic animal habitats inside and out."

Mitchell admitted that 29 trees would be removed for the new projects. "But 22 of them are crab apples that are diseased and have not done well. None have trunk diameters over four inches and none are more than 12 feet tall. At the same time, 21 new shade trees will be planted, along with six evergreens, 400 shrubs, and 7,400 perennials and ground cover plants." She concluded, "A Board of Directors sponsored Gardens Committee, which includes tree experts from the Morton Arboretum, examines all landscape plans for the zoo. Our current plans have been reviewed and approved by both the Lincoln Park Advisory Council and the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Gardens in the city."

Nonetheless, Haring and Newfeld are looking for allies in the larger environmental community. And so it was that one recent Tuesday afternoon they led Jim DeHorn of the Openlands Project's Treekeepers Program on a tour of the zoo.

The three met outside the western entrance beneath the big oak tree--DeHorn figures it's about 162 years old--that the zoo preserves in a little garden as a remnant of a long-lost time. They proceeded to the central mall, the "shady promenade," which consists of 12 skinny trees planted about ten feet apart in a sea of concrete. As they walked, DeHorn talked about the complexities of preserving trees in an urban environment. "I understand we need sidewalks in a zoo--we can't let people walk on bare ground," he said. "But we also have to look out for the roots of the trees. People don't realize this. They think that trees that are 50 feet tall have roots that go down 50 feet. No, they go down maybe 18 to 36 inches. They don't go down, so much as they spread out. If the tree is 40 feet tall, then the radius of its roots is at least 40 feet. You have to provide those roots enough room to take in oxygen and take up water. I don't know if they have that under this concrete."

He gestured toward the skinny trees. "These trees are what an arborist would consider replaceable. They're not terribly large because they haven't been given time to develop. They're taking the engineering approach to the development of their site. They don't care about the trees. They put them in and take them out like they were moving a bench in or out. The only problem is that benches are manufactured in a factory in a matter of days. A tree takes years and years to grow."

They stopped at the store and looked at a window display of four penguins standing next to an igloo, wearing hats and scarves, and holding blueprints and trowels. A sign said they were on the north pole. "Welcome to Disneyland in the zoo," said Newfeld.

"First of all, there are not penguins at the north pole," said Haring.

"There are not igloos at the north pole for that matter," said Newfeld.

"And penguins don't wear hats or hold blueprints," said DeHorn.

"Or trowels," said Haring.

"We're fostering misinformation," said Newfeld. "If this were the display windows of Field's, OK, I'd understand. But this is the zoo. Why must we put all of these animals in human form? Why must we reduce it all to a Disney movie?"

As they moved on to the east entrance and the site of the carousel, DeHorn pointed out several smaller trees that, just as the zoo officials contend, are insignificant or diseased and not worth saving. "To do this right they should use structural soil beneath the concrete," he said. "That would allow space for air and water for the roots. I don't know what they're putting beneath the concrete. I haven't seen the plans."

They wound up outside the large-mammal house on the northwest end of the zoo. A sign said that the animals--giraffes and elephants and wolves--would return once the project is over. "I have no problem with them improving the zoo, but this is getting absurd," said Newfeld, raising her voice to be heard above the bulldozer. "Where are the animals? This is not supposed to be a construction project or an amusement park--it's supposed to be a zoo."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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