When you first walk into the new Faces of the Rainforest exhibit at Roger Williams Park Zoo, you are hit by the slightly soggy warmth. Glasses and cameras fog up. But as it clears, and you get used to the heat, you find yourself in the middle of the sights and sounds of the South American rainforest.
And what sounds they are! It is a cacophony of birds calling, mammals scurrying, often on ropes above your head, and swimming South American giant river otters – an endangered pair named Fernando and Roma. Roger Williams is the first zoo in the U.S. to offer these otters.
Above your head to the right, a two-toed sloth lazily hangs against the wall on a wire, slowly twisting and turning to view the people below. To your left, a Helmeted Curassow sits in its food bowl filled with salad, pulling branches off a tree and solemnly daring you to attempt to steal its lunch.
Up close and personal
What makes this exhibit so wonderful is that you are close enough to steal the animal’s lunch. Not that you dare! And smaller children are protected behind half walls (rope or glass) that help parents keep an eye on what they are doing while still giving kids a close-up view.
There are 6,100 different species of plants and trees in the exhibit. You walk through a path with them towering over you or sitting down below you. You could spend hours searching out each type – and there is help with that. Grab a laminated sheet at the entrance which shows you plants and animals by picture and name.
A large laminated sheet helps kids identify animals and plants (on the other side.)
Faces of the Rainforest is lush and green even when it’s grey outside.
At one point, I was standing very still, taking a photo of a Sunbittern bird balancing on a rope about five feet from me when suddenly a Pied Tamarian was sitting on the wooden pole directly in front of me, about six inches from my face. “I thought he was going to jump on your shoulder,” someone behind me said.
It was an amazing experience with the bold Pied Tamarian, a small animal with a distinctive black face that slightly reminds of Dracula and a tannish-white body. He looked left and right and then up and down at me. He leaned forward and stared into my eyes, seeming as curious about me as I was of him. (See below for several photos I snapped of the Pied Tamarian.)
Largest project in Zoo history
Faces of the Rainforest is the first step in the Zoo’s 20-year plan and is the largest single project in its history. The Zoo received initial funding for this project as part of the Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities Bond passed by voters in 2014.
It took more than two years to build the tall glass-fronted building and bring in all the animals – 35 species in all – from 25 different zoos and facilities. It includes indigenous monkeys, birds, amphibians, and reptiles of the Amazon Rainforest.
Animals such as a beautiful Yellow-rumped Cacique bird who flies freely around the exhibit, Golden Lion Tamarins who climb on ropes high above, colorful Keel-billed Toucans, Titi monkeys who mate for life, howler monkeys with their loud cries; and blue Hyacinth MaCaw birds whose wide eyes seem to be looking at you all the time. (Pictures below.)
Every animal saw the Zoo’s vets and went through a quarantine. “Animal welfare is always our top priority here and we overwhelmed the Vet staff but they kept going. We went to Florida to hand-pick every tree,” said Dr. Jeremy Goodman, Zoo executive director “We worked 24/7 to build this. It’s not your standard building. It’s a very complicated structure.”
About 80% of the structure was completed by Rhode Island companies. The other 20% came from companies so specialized they aren’t available in RI. The Zoo is the number one paid outdoor attraction in the Ocean State and this exhibit should increase the number of out-of-state visitors by 10-to-20%, or 20,000-to-40,000 more people, Goodman said. This will have a cascading effect, helping area hotels and restaurants.
A learning experience and conservation effort
The rainforest exhibit is great for kids as it doesn’t overwhelm with written information and has a ton to look at, keeping kids entranced. There are periodic signs that parents can read quickly even if their children are small or share with slightly older children. On opening day, kids seemed to enjoy searching out animals with the laminated sheet provided.
For children with sensory issues, this exhibit may be a bit loud and busy so decide based on your child’s needs whether to go or whether to consider using tools such as noise reduction headphones.
Ultimately, Faces of the Rainforest is meant to be a conservation effort. According to the exhibit, rainforest land equal to 20 times the size of Rhode Island is disappearing from around the world every year, making food, shelter, clean water, and other resources scarcer for the humans and animals that live there.
With 80% of the world’s species living in rainforests, the exhibit aims to make all of us more aware of our affect on it. “The rainforest impacts so many more things than we realize,” Goodman told a crowd gathered for opening day. “You all are the faces of the rainforest. You have an opportunity to make a difference every day.”
There are easy ways you can help. Check out this green tips page on the Zoo’s website for many ideas about how you can protect the rainforest and animals.
According to the Zoo, 80% of rainforest deforestation is caused by agriculture so purchasing sustainably-grown products can make a large difference. Look for the “Rainforest Alliance Certified” seal, which indicates that a product or company has met strict environmental, social, and economic sustainability standards.
Visiting Faces of the Rainforest is included in the Zoo’s admission fee: Adults/$17.95; Children 2-12/$12.95; Seniors/$15.95. Toddlers under 2 are complimentary. See here to purchase tickets.
You can also buy a one-year membership: Individual/$55; Family/$109 (Two adults and up to 4 children under age 18). See here for more membership options.
The Zoo is located at 1000 Elmwood Avenue, Providence, within Roger Williams Park, which offers several other fun places to visit such as Carousel Village, with a fully accessible Hasbro Boundless Playground, and the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium.
In the summer, the park’s acres of grass and trails is the perfect place for a walk and a picnic and there are a number of boating opportunities. The Zoo also offers birthday parties and educational programs, including vacation and summer camps.