Hudson Polar Bear swims by the underwater viewing area at the new Great Bear Wilderness exhibit
Great Bear Wilderness is presented by
Largest Exhibit Ever Undertaken at Brookfield Zoo
As guests begin their adventure through the National Park-like experience, the largest exhibit ever undertaken at Brookfield Zoo, they will learn about the animals’ past, present, and future status, their deep cultural significance to people, and the survival challenges they face. Approximately 31,500 new plantings, including trees, shrubs, prairie grasses, and groundcover, were used to replicate the exhibit’s prairie, temperate forest, and tundra landscapes.
The first animal zoogoers encounter will be bison exhibited in a vast prairie setting. A pathway leads to a tunnel, with one wall featuring colorful interpretive graphics illustrating the history of bison on the Great Plains, bison conservation efforts, and the relationship between this species and Native Americans. On the opposite wall is a 60-foot-long handpainted mural of a bison herd, and guests will hear the sound of a bison stampede that will add to the ambience.
Multiple viewing areas will offer unique perspectives on bison, which are one of the first North American conservation success stories and the symbol of the Chicago Zoological Society for that very reason. The bison population is rebounding thanks in part to the efforts of one of CZS’s conservation partners, the American Prairie Foundation (APF). The nonprofit organization is assembling the American Prairie Reserve, a multimillion-acre wildlife reserve to protect the species-rich grassland of northeastern Montana, where bison can thrive.
Moving along the pathway, guests will encounter the United States’ national symbol—bald eagles—which will share exhibit space with ravens, a cultural symbol of a divine creator to some and a cunning trickster to others. The 1,200-square-foot, 24-foot-high meshed aviary will offer a virtually invisible barrier between guests and the birds.
Like bison, bald eagles are a conservation success story. In the 1960s, they were dangerously close to extinction due to habitat destruction, hunting, and widespread use of deadly pesticides like DDT. The species is recovering thanks to the creation of pesticide laws and an increase in public awareness and federal protection.
Regenstein Wolf Woods, the pre-existing 2.1-acre Mexican gray wolf exhibit, follows the birds’ outdoor aviary. Zoogoers will continue to have unforgettable viewing opportunities of the wolves from outdoors or inside the viewing building through a 40-foot-long by 8-foot-high one-way window. The exhibit features hands-on experiences that foster a better understanding of wolves, their behaviors, and why an ecosystem is much healthier with them.
Great Bear Windows
Continuing along the paved trail, forest and tundra landscapes come into view, and guests will come upon three separate habitats for polar bears and grizzly bears. (The areas are each approximately 9,000 square feet, making them three times the space of the zoo’s original Bear Grottos.) Animal keepers can rotate the two bear species among the habitats, providing the animals with a variety of environments to explore on different days. Each space has its own pool containing between 78,000 and 80,000 gallons of water. Guests will be able to see into two of the pools through 21-foot-wide by 8- and 10-foot-high acrylic windows located in an underwater viewing area (available to rent for private evening functions). The third habitat has a 15-foot-high waterfall that spills into three connected pools.
Additionally, the bears’ habitats contain vegetation and fallen trees, natural substrate and topography, a sand dig area, and hidden pockets built into the rockwork in which keepers can put food items to encourage the bears to forage. All are equipped with wireless PA systems for Zoo Chats, as well as multiple cameras to enhance observation of the animals.
Two of the bear exhibits contain large windows that allow keepers to present informal bear training sessions that demonstrate how the animals help in their own health care.
After passing the first bear habitat, the pathway leads zoogoers to the 3,600-square-foot underwater viewing area, where they will be immersed in an Arctic setting with views of the pools on opposite sides and a portion of the floor painted to resemble crystal blue water with ice floes. In addition, a monitor will feature video about efforts by CZS’s conservation colleagues—Polar Bears International (PBI), The Vital Ground Foundation, and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y)—to protect the bears and their habitats.
Saving the Symbol of Climate Change
PBI is dedicated to saving the symbol of climate change through environmental research and public education. The Vital Ground Foundation protects and restores North America’s grizzly bear population through habitat conservation. And Y2Y is a joint Canada-United States not-for-profit organization that works with partners to preserve and maintain the wildlife, native plants, wilderness, and natural processes of the mountainous region from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon Territory. Just before exiting the underwater area, zoogoers may see a bear sleeping in the underground den.
Throughout the bears’ section of Great Bear Wilderness will be graphics illustrating the importance of having healthy grizzly bear and polar bear populations in the wild, how climate change is affecting polar bears, actions people can take to help save the bears, and the Chicago Zoological Society’s role in advancing polar bear care and husbandry.
Conservation Fund: You Can Help
Guests will also notice “You Can Help” messages that communicate a call to action. “We want people to understand that success is possible in conservation and that each of us can make a difference for wildlife through daily actions,” said Strahl. “For instance, simple everyday tasks such as buying green, turning off lights, reducing your carbon footprint, and recycling can help in the effort to save these charismatic species and their habitats. In Great Bear Wilderness, we want our guests to go away inspired and knowing they play a role in conserving the Earth and all of its creatures.” Guests can also make tax-deductible contributions to the Chicago Zoological Society’s Conservation Fund,
the proceeds of which go toward efforts at Brookfield Zoo and around the world to help species.
Through CZS’s programmatic Center for the Science of Animal Welfare, staff are always striving to provide the animals at Brookfield Zoo with the best care possible, and the off-exhibit facilities at Great Bear Wilderness are no exception. Behind the scenes, there are six bear dens with skylights to allow in natural light, a built-in floor scale to monitor the bears’ weights, a polar bear maternity den designed in the shape and dimensions of actual dens in the wild, a shallow pool to allow a polar bear mom to teach her cub(s) to swim, and a 1,050-square-foot outdoor grassy dig area.
Other off-exhibit space includes a keeper office, a food preparation area, a storage facility, and a 2,000-square-foot filtration room in which the exhibit’s approximately 300,000 gallons of pool water for the bears are continually recycled as it is purified and filtered.
Additional amenities at Great Bear Wilderness include an Education Center for classroom or meeting needs. The building has two 8-foot by 8-foot windows that look out into the bison exhibit and one of the bear habitats. At Bison Prairie Grill, guests will be able to order menu items that include bison burgers, mahi mahi or salmon sliders, Texas-style pulled pork sandwiches, oven-roasted turkey sandwiches, Angus burgers, barbecued brisket sandwiches, home-style macaroni and cheese, sweet potato fries, fried green beans, and hand-cut potato chips. Finally, Bear Crossing Gift Shop, a 1,500-square-foot retail space, will have the look and feel of a National Park lodge. Merchandise available includes plush animals, kids’ camping gear, frontier and rustic-themed toys, Grizzly Blend Coffee by Montana Coffee Traders, polar bear freeze-dried ice cream bars, hiking sticks, water bottles, throws, bear- and nature-themed jewelry, and a variety of bear-, wolf-, bison-, and eagle-themed home gift items.
The $27.3 million Great Bear Wilderness was funded by many generous individual donors. The addition of this exhibit to Brookfield Zoo resulted in an economic impact of $46 million, created 350 full-time equivalent jobs, provided total wages of $21 million, and generated $6 million in local, state, and federal tax revenues. Once it opens on May 8, Great Bear Wilderness is projected to increase the zoo’s attendance and revenues by 5 to 10 percent. It is free with regular zoo admission of $13.50 for adults and $9.50 for children 11 and under and seniors 65 and older. Children 2 and under are free. Parking is $9.