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Denver Zoo's Asian Tropics exhibit: No elephants yet, just backhoes

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Apparently, one of the most tricky parts of building a new zoo exhibit is making the fake rocks look real. You know, so they don't distract visitors from the animals and stuff.

"You don't want people thinking about that," says George Pond, the Denver Zoo's vice president for planning and capital projects. "You want them to think they're immersed, like they're in the Asian floodplain and 'wow, there's lots of cool elephants here.'"

Yesterday, we got a sneak peek at the Denver Zoo's new Asian Tropics exhibit -- which was the subject of a Westword feature. Six months after breaking ground on the $50 million exhibit, it still mostly looks like a construction site, with backhoes where the elephants might one day be.

But workers have already carved out the deep moats that will separate the different "yards" within the exhibit -- and serve as barriers so the elephants can't cross from one yard to another unsupervised. Asian Tropics will also be home to rhinos and tapirs (among other animals), and the three species will rotate from yard to yard to keep things interesting with help of a sophisticated animal-moving system of walkways.

From a wooden observation deck overlooking the construction site, it's possible to see the concrete posts that will one day support the "gibbon islands" -- platforms on which Asian Tropics' gibbons can jump and play. The future site of the elephant building is still just a mound of dirt, but the frame of the rhino and tapir building is already being built.

As are a few of the exhibit's many rock formations. One formation is still just a frame that looks like a mound of pick-up sticks glued together in the shape of a rock. Another has been nearly completed -- although Pond admits the color isn't quite right. "Is this our final palette of colors?" he asks, pointing at the streaky rock.

Making a rock is a multi-step process. First, there's the gluing of the pick-up sticks. (Not really, but close enough.) The sticks are then covered in mesh and concrete and finally carved and painted to look more Asian-rock-like. Sometimes, Pond says, it takes several revisions to get there.

For more on the process, check out the video below.

But realistic-looking fake rocks aren't free, people, and the zoo needs help raising the remaining $8 million needed to build Asian Tropics, which is scheduled to open sometime in 2012. Half of the project's $50 million price tag is covered by public money set aside for the zoo in 1999. The zoo is responsible for raising the rest, which hasn't been easy.

Maybe these photos of effing adorable baby zoo animals will move donors to open their wallets. Even mean old Daddy Warbucks couldn't possibly resist the cuteness.

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