The Los Angeles Zoo's new Rainforest of the Americas exhibit doesn't open until Tuesday, but it is already filled with commotion.
Dwarf caimans and a giant bird-eating spider were exploring the creature comforts of their enclosures this week. Construction workers were inspecting thermostats and water pumps.
The $19-million exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is the last in a series of major projects built under Phase 1 of the 47-year-old facility's master plan. Over the last 15 years, the zoo has opened exhibits for some of its biggest draws: pachyderms, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and Komodo dragons.
The rain-forest exhibit, spread across two acres, is designed to create the sensation of walking through luxuriant foliage teeming with exotic wildlife — and boost visitor numbers, revenue and international cooperation on behalf of endangered species pushed to the edges of their once broad native ranges.
"Some of these species are unique in the animal kingdom, as well as in zoological facilities," said zoo Director John Lewis. "We can't wait to get visitors as excited as we are about them and in preserving their habitat in Mexico, Central and South America."
The exhibit has built-in appeal for the 58% of the zoo's annual visitors with cultural ties to Mexico and Central and South America, all places where rain forests are common, and zoo officials hope it will draw enough interest to help ease the facility's financial woes. Funding for zoo operations, including marketing, comes largely from a city subsidy that has dwindled from $10 million six years ago to $263,000.
The largest display in the exhibit features a forest glen overlooking a stream emptying into a lagoon. The expanse is shared by river otters 6 feet in length; red-bellied piranhas; freshwater stingrays; and a pair of critically endangered primates known as cotton-top tamarins.
Also roaming the grounds are two Central American tapirs, hefty mammals that reach a height of about 4 feet and use their dexterous snouts as snorkeling devices when submerged in water.
With the zoo's tight budget, its fundraising arm — the private, not-for-profit Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. — for the first time has taken responsibility for raising the facility's public profile, enhancing the visitor experience and pushing annual attendance, now about 1.6 million, toward 2 million.
Under a three-year plan, the association will provide $2 million of its own money to market the zoo. The L.A. City Council has until September to ratify a memorandum of understanding to make the plan official.
"Our offer has kick-started a more vibrant business plan for marketing all that the zoo has accomplished until now," said the association's president, Connie Morgan. "Now we can begin laying out a vision for the years ahead."
Projects the association is considering include creating roomier exhibits and more natural settings for species that are nearing extinction because of habitat loss, wildfires, hunting and a rare-animal trafficking trade that spans the globe.
Among those improvements is an addition to the rain-forest exhibit reserved for three jaguars, scheduled to open early next year.
At the exhibit last week, a pair of rough-scaled crocodilians known as dwarf caimans sprawled in a shallow pool that doubles as an Amazon river.
"We've got ringside seats for admiring some of the most unusual characters in nature," said Sybil MacDonald, a zoo spokeswoman.