It’s a jungle out there: Inside Dublin Zoo

On Wednesday Dublin Zoo will open a brand new orang-tan enclosure, a new €3m forest home that will replicate their natural habitat in Borneo. Still a construction site, Rowena Walsh wears her hard hat and goes behind the scenes to take a look.

It’s a jungle out there: Inside Dublin Zoo

DUBLIN Zoo’s orang-utans are moving house.

Their new home is five times the size of their current, 1970s-style dwelling, and it boasts all manner of mod cons, designed to suit even the most discerning primate.

The €3m project is the zoo’s most ambitious one to date, and it aims to replicate the orang-utans’ natural habitat in the rainforest of Borneo.

As orang-utans — their name means ‘person from the forest’ — are very smart, the team behind their new home had to be highly creative in their thinking.

They’ve succeeded.

Leo Oosterweghel, the zoo’s director, isn’t exaggerating when he describes the new orang-utan forest, which opens on Wednesday, as magical.

But, then, there has always been something magical about Dublin Zoo.

It opened in 1831 — only London, Paris and Vienna have older enclosures — and, since then, generations of children and adults have passed through its gates.

And its popularity is growing.

Zookeeper Ciaran McMahon looks after the orang-utans at Dublin Zoo.

Zookeeper Ciaran McMahon looks after the orang-utans at Dublin Zoo.

Last year, a record-breaking 1.1m people visited its Phoenix Park home, making the zoo Ireland’s most popular family attraction.

It is likely that number will be surpassed this year.

Even the recession didn’t dent its popularity.

To maintain visitor interest, Leo says that it’s important to do something new every year.

The current focus is on the orang-utans and their new island forest, but developments of the past few years have included Sea Lion Cove, the gorilla rainforest, the elephants’ Kaziranga Forest Trail and the African savanna.

“Every year, we do something to improve the zoo that’s very much animal-driven,” says Leo.

“The ‘wellness’ of the animals — that’s the word we use, it’s more holistic than well-being or welfare — is always central.”

Leo, described as a visionary by one of his equally passionate staff, says that the projects taken on by the zoo are big, ambitious.

“It’s good fun to be ambitious, instead of sitting on your hands and being conservative. We’re changing the zoo.

“We wanted to do for orang-utans what we did for gorillas. They’re very happy. Gorilla wellness is fantastic,” says Leo.

And it is quantifiable. It can be measured by lack of conflict, roaming, and their behaviours.

There are just 54,000 Borneo orang-utans in the world, and Dublin Zoo is home to four members of this endangered species.

Sibu, a strapping, yet chilled-out, 140kg 37-year-old male; Leonie, his long-standing partner, who was born in 1981; their daughter, Riona; and Mujur, the orphan who is now mothered by Leonie.

It’s impossible not to be wowed by Sibu and his friends.

They are eating their greens as I enter their house. I am with zookeeper, Ciaran McMahon.

Sibu shows who is in charge by making the others leave the room.

But he’s a charmer, coming right up to the glass wall to make faces at us.

The orang-utans are hugely popular within the zoo, and Ciaran says this is because humans are naturally drawn to primates.

They share 98% of our DNA, and they remind us of ourselves.

“There’s not a lot separating us.”

Ciaran’s affection for Sibu, who has lived in the zoo, on and off, for the last 22 years, is palpable.

He says that Sibu is extremely clever — orang-utans have the IQ of a three- to four-year-old child — frequently mimics zoo workers, and is very quick to understand instructions.

Sibu will even notice if his keeper, Julie, isn’t wearing nail polish.

The keeper characterises the young Mujur as a naughty teenager.

She is being mothered by Leonie, her aunt, after her mother died from an unexpected respiratory problem.

“We’d love Mujur to breed with Sibu, although he’s not overly interested in her, just yet, and we’re hoping that Leonie will breed again with Sibu.”

Orang-utans breed every seven years and begin reproducing when they’re around 13 years of age, so building up a diminishing population takes time.

Unlike gorillas and chimpanzees, orang-utans are tree-dwelling.

They are losing their home, as the Borneo rainforest is disappearing fast, and they could be extinct within 25 years.

Over the past 30 years, 80% of their habitat has been destroyed through forest-clearing for oil-palm plantations.

Palm oil is used in margarine, shampoo, chocolate and soap, and in many other products.

Attempting to replicate, thousands of miles away, the natural environment of creatures who spend so much of their time in treetops is a real challenge.

“When we design, we say ‘that’s an orang-utan, now how does it live, what does it need, how does it spend its time, what does it need to do to reproduce’?” says Leo.

“There’s an architect and an animal person and a finance person and an interpretation person, because you need signage and story-telling, and an education person and a director and a designer.

"You design something that ticks all these boxes, and try not to spend too much money.”

Dublin Zoo brings in between €12 and €13m a year, from ticket sales, an on-site restaurant and a shop.

As it’s a charity, all the money is reinvested back into the facility.

“Every year, there is a surplus,” says Leo.

“We have a few sponsors to help us, but there’s no government money, but each year we manage.

"We manage, because of the way we run the zoo, to have a surplus of anything from two to four million, and everything goes straight back into the zoo.”

The secret is to do a big project, but one that’s not too big, implemented by a tightly focussed, small team of people who know each other well.

The zoo has collaborated with Jones & Jones, a Seattle-based, specialised architectural company, for all its projects over the last 15 years.

“With an initiative like this, that has a big impact on the overall visitor experience. You do get complaints, [people saying] ‘we came to the zoo and it was a building site’,” says Leo.

“They feel like they’re missing something. You have to plan that in; you can only do so much without upsetting people.”

Another challenge is to keep the animals stimulated.

If elephants, for example, don’t have a good reason to climb or to walk distances, they simply won’t.

“Elephants will be very comfortable to just stand there in a corner and feed.

"So you create this space, and there’s a little bit of food there and a little bit here and then they have to search, they have to work. That is the enrichment and the psychological need of animals.”

This issue has been addressed in the Orang-utan Forest, which is located on a long island, opposite the main entrance to the zoo, and planted with artificial trees painstakingly designed to look as though they’ve been growing for centuries.

“Orang-utans climb in the trees and feed there,” says Leo.

“They look for fruit and leaves and twigs, and they will congregate in trees where there is this availability.”

The trees, which are about 12 metres high, are strategically laid-out.

A mechanism allows the keeper to open a little door at the bottom of the tree trunk and place food there.

A button is pushed and the food goes to the top of the tree, where the orang-utans can find it.

Different trees will be used at different times of the day, which encourages the primates to forage and climb for food and to spend time on the treetops.

The forest’s design includes cables criss-crossing above the public thoroughfare, which will enable orang-utans to climb from one tree to another, acting as they would if they were in Borneo.

As the island is narrow, it doesn’t matter where you stand, as there will be plenty of opportunities to spot these beautiful animals.

In inclement weather, visitors and animals alike can retire to the new orang-utan house.

There’s also a themed play-area for younger visitors, along with a coffee dock for their parents.

Next year, Leo’s plan is to restore the beautiful, red-brick Roberts House, which dates from 1902.

It will be a home for reptiles, both past and present. Models and fossils of extinct species will mingle with the living.

“You might find that you go there and you might run into a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I can’t promise it, though.”

One thing is certain, however, the experience is bound to be magical.

Dublin Zoo is donating, to the Orang-utan Foundation, €2.50 from every ticket purchased between June 11 and 19.


  • Dublin Zoo is about 28 hectares in size
  • It has approximately 100 staff, although this changes seasonally
  • It is home to over 400 animals from 60 endangered species
  • Its food bill is more than its staff wages

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