In one of my first blog posts, I noted that zoos and aquariums sometimes suffer from a certain... lack of creativity. This can best be demonstrated by the sometimes repetitive nature of exhibits at many facilities. The same geographic areas tend to be represented in the same manner, often with the same species. Then, one facility will come up with a bold new idea... and then it is copied by everyone else.
Among those exhibits which has become a bit of a cliche is the indoor rainforest. And like many ideas that have been repeated over and over again, the results are a mixed bag.
It's difficult to say where the first zoo indoor rainforest was created. People have been maintaining greenhouses for millennia, since Roman times, at least, partially for food production, but just as often for recreation and aesthetics. It doesn't take too much imagination to add some small animals - birds, especially - to the concept. In the zoo profession, there are very few ideas applicable to birds which don't eventually find themselves applied to small mammals - small primates, squirrels, bats. Gradually, the concept just... grew.
Two of the first American zoo rainforests originated in Kansas, first at the Topeka Zoo, followed a few years later with the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita. Both of these exhibits consisted on walk-through aviaries filled with a variety of tropical birds, living alongside monkeys, bats, squirrels, sloths, and other small mammals. Pools housed rainforest (often Amazonian) fish, along with crocodilians.
The exhibits were critical successes and were replicated over and over again from the 70's until the present - Jungleworld at the Bronx Zoo, Lied Jungle at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, and Amazonia at the Smithsonian National Zoo being famous examples. The trend has continued - Buffalo Zoo (a place where everyone probably could use an escape to the tropics at this time of year) recently opened its Rainforest Falls. The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, is currently undergoing a massive renovation of its rainforest building.
The best zoo exhibits try to recreate the experience of encountering animals in the wild. The problem is that, truth be told, you never see animals in the rainforest in the wild. Almost never - I spent a week of hiking through an East African rainforest. I hiked by myself and with a group, by day and night, on game trails and going off the beaten path. I saw a wild animal larger than my hand once - when I happened to look up and see some colobus monkeys, by chance. There are countless species in the rainforest - but they are almost all cryptic. When you look around, you see a wall of green. Not the best zoo exhibit.
As a result, many zoo rainforest exhibits have a tendency to look... well, not very much like a rainforest. A lot of them have gotten the idea that if you pour enough concrete and make it look like reddish mud, you can get away with a lot. The end result is some boring exhibits, separated by pretty planters, all in a hot, foggy dome. You see this most often when zoos try having too many large animals in their rainforests. Indoor exhibits almost always tend to be smaller than outdoor ones, so this strategy can also have implications for animal welfare. It's not necessarily my viewpoint, but I've definitely worked with some keepers (and to a degree, I still do) who view keeping an animal indoors to be an ungodly sin... but that's a whole different issue.
It was probably experiences with exhibits like the aforementioned - poured concrete, fake trees, cheesy waterfall, a series of neat little paddocks, all in an indoor row - which led me to be prepared to dislike Jungleworld and Lied Jungle so much before I saw them... only, to be fair, to be blown away when I actually saw them with my own eyes. That being said, not everyone has the budget of WCS to make a rainforest dream a reality.
On the other hand, the best examples of the exhibit that I've seen have been the most understated - the birds, a few monkeys and sloths, turtles and fish in pools, all having full access almost everywhere. That recreates the one aspect of the real rainforest that I enjoyed the most - the unpredictability, never knowing what was going to pop up where.