When it opened to the public, Tropic World – Brookfield Zoo’s indoor recreation of the tropical rainforest featuring the animals inhabiting it – was a marvel. 

“The $9 million re-creation of a rain forest is the largest indoor zoo exhibit in the world and is already being hailed as a prototype of the zoo of the future,” a Chicago Tribune reporter who visited prior to the grand opening remarked.

That was in May 1982, a full 40 years ago. Tropic World was an enormous undertaking and had been under construction since 1975. The following year, 1983, an Asian rainforest habitat would come online. Tropic World’s stars were the gorillas and visitors from around the world came to see them.

Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, in Chicago for a fundraiser on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund in November 1982 made it a point to visit Tropic World and observe its star primate, Samson, 23, who arrived two years earlier as the gorilla troupe’s new silverback.

Officials at the Chicago Zoological Society hope to break ground on a major expansion of Brookfield Zoo’s Tropic World exhibit in 2023, building new indoor and outdoor habitats for its primates, particularly its lowland gorillas. Smaller animal exhibits will also be built in and around the Hamill Family Nature Plaza, filling in underused spaces.

Next year, Brookfield Zoo officials plan to break ground on a $50 to $60 million expansion of Tropic World – the centerpiece of the first phase of major improvements planned for Brookfield Zoo in the run up to the centennial of its opening in 2034.

“We’re running really fast on a design schedule right now, but our intent is to be through construction drawings by the end of March to April of [2023] and try to break ground next year with an anticipated opening in 2025,” said Dr. Michael Adkesson, president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, during an interview with the Landmark last week.

When it is complete, the zoo’s great ape collection, which includes gorillas and orangutans, will have its own exclusive indoor/outdoor habitat, which will wrap around the north and west sides of Tropic World, an area comprising about 2.15 acres.

The gorilla habitat inside Tropic World (above) was a marvel when it opened in 1982. When the gorillas vacate the space in 2025 for their new indoor/outdoor digs, the habitat will be used to house African monkey species, which can then rotate in and out of the two habitat areas. | Brookfield zoo/Chicago Zoological Society

A new two-story building west of Tropic World will house an indoor habitat on the   ground floor with space above for a primate conservation center housing the King Conservation Leadership Academy, the Chicago Zoological Society’s high school, college and career-readiness program.

Running along the north side of Tropic World and extending about halfway into the zoo’s West Mall will be the new outdoor primate habitat. The wide-open, mesh-netted outdoor exhibits will have no moats. 

Sloping, natural landscaping with lots of greenery will feature large panes of glass  allowing zoo visitors to be nose-to-nose with the great apes.

“We’re really trying to foster close and personal connections,” Adkesson said. “The whole design has been taken in mind that you’re always kind of looking away from Tropic World, not at it, so that you’ve got kind of a natural greenspace behind you rather than seeing the giant Tropic World right there in front of you.”

According to Adkesson, the outdoor habitat will include two gorilla spaces, one for orangutans and one for monkeys. The new setup will also allow Brookfield Zoo to expand its gorilla group.

Dr. Michael Adkesson, president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society and director of Brookfield Zoo | Provided

“Right now we have a family troupe with a silverback, some females and young animals,” Adkesson said. “Then we’ll also have a second troupe that will just be an all-male troupe.”

A challenge zoos face, said Adkesson, is that it is often difficult to find space to house male gorillas, who in the wild would be off on their own looking to establish their own troupes.

Where there is space available, zoos have had success maintaining all-male troupes of between three and five gorillas, said Adkesson. The expanded outdoor habitat will allow that at Brookfield Zoo.

“These are huge silverbacks,” said Adkesson. “They’re impressive animals that visitors love to see and tell really powerful stories and let us expand what we’re doing.”

When the gorilla troupe leaves Tropic World proper, their habitat will likely house African monkey species, which could also rotate in and out of the outdoor habitat.

“A constantly changing landscape keeps them busy, keeps them active,” Adkesson said.

Building the new primate habitats, which will impact the cruciform formal garden design of the zoological park, is an example of a more animal habitat-centric approach Brookfield Zoo officials are expected to take over the next decade.

Adkesson said that while the large-scale improvements, like the new primate habitat, will generate a lot of talk, they’re already moving to populate “dead” spaces in the park by converting them into smaller permanent or temporary animal habitats.

Just south of Tropic World, tucked into a space behind the new Hamill Family Nature Plaza, plans call for the construction of a new aviary that will showcase North American wild birds, such as sandhill cranes, prairie chickens and kestrels.

Within the nature plaza the zoo is converting raised planting beds into habitats for Blanding’s and box turtles, species the zoo has been working with Cook and DuPage counties to conserve in the wild.

There’s also a plan to erect a pair of artificial trees, one at the southwest corner outside The Swamp and one at the southwest corner outside the Conservation Leadership Center (the old Reptile House) where more than a dozen Macaws will be on display when the weather allows.

Introducing animals into those spaces, which are all close to one another, fills a void.

“You can come in the South Gate and you can walk all the way down to the Living Coast and not see anything other than a peacock or a goose,” Adkesson said. “One of things we’re trying to change is to bring some animals back into this space.”

Another huge project on the drawing board, one that’ll be addressed after the Tropic World project, is reimagining the northwest corner of the zoo, which is now a disjointed collection of areas that include the Pachyderm House, the Habitat Africa yards, The Australia House and the hoofed stock yards along 31st Street.

Adkesson said he sees the area as a huge, integrated African safari habitat that will emphasize habitat over the traditional, geometric layout of the park, with its long vistas and open lawns.

“It’s [an idea] that we have a lot of thought still to put in to,” Adkesson said. “We know that whatever we do it’s going to cost a lot.”

That vision for the future will take shape next year as the Chicago Zoological Society dives into its master planning effort. Last week, zoo officials interviewed planning firms, one of which it will choose by the end of the month to lead that process.

“That will be about a six-month journey for us that will be utilizing staff, volunteers, board trustees but also the community,” Adkesson said. “We’ll have some community listening sessions as part of this to really have people share what they want to see.

“That process over the next six months will really set our course for the next decade.