A group of people stand within a zoo rainforest under a glass domePhotography by Don Richards

Journey into the Tropics: Topeka Zoo's Tropical Rainforest Adventure

Editor's Note: In 2024, the Topeka Zoo's Tropical Rainforest celebrated 50 years. To honor the moment, we dipped into our archives. This story originally ran in the summer of 1975, a year after the rainforest opened. It has been lightly updated.

ksm-summer-1975-coverA dream turned into a reality that's what the Topeka Zoo's new Tropical Rainforest means to Zoo director Gary K. Clarke. Hours and hours of planning and consultation to ensure its success, and a fascinating place to work unlike any other area of the Zoo - that's what the rainforest means to the Zoo staff. An environment unlike any other experience in temperate Kansas - that's what the rainforest means to our Zoo visitors.

Entering the exhibit is an adventure. Immediately you are caught up by the tropical atmosphere. Most visitors automatically pause and say, "Why it feels just like a jungle!" It truly is a breathtaking experience. On you’re right the brilliantly colored macaws are squawking, and in front of you is a stunning large waterfall in, with 450 gallons of water a minute cascading over the 17-foot high featherstone falls. An iguana may be slowly strolling along the footpath and the birds in free flight flash by so fast you may not even recognize the species. The vegetation is overwhelming and is constantly being cut back because of its amazingly rapid growth. But here you are - in an atmosphere totally different from the outside environment you just left. You are in another world. It envelopes you in a jungle-and it seems impossible that you're still in Topeka.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this exhibit is its changeability. It never looks the same twice. Different flowers are blooming at different times throughout the year, and even the animals change. Some of the mammals you may see are cotton-headed tamarin (a small monkey also called a marmoset), coypu, green acouchi, South American river otter, margay or sloth. The largest and most prominent birds include blue and gold macaw, scarlet macaw, Chilean flamingo, yellow-crowned night heron, blue-crowned pigeon and various types of Amazon parrots. There are many species of birds in free flight ranging from the small finches to the brilliantly colored red crested touraco, troupial red crested cardinal and Rothschild's mynah. The reptiles include caiman (a member of the crocodilian family), yellow anaconda and various turtles. Among the hidden creatures to watch for are iguanas, toads, frogs, anoles and other lizards.



Since the opening of the Tropical Rain Forest in May 1974 many humorous, and some not-so-funny, incidents have occurred. Some the staff had anticipated and others came as a shock. Gary summed it up well when he wrote, "One of the great joys of our new building is being able to 'show it off' to other professional Zoo people. I vividly recall hosting a dignitary from the San Francisco Zoo on a tour of the rainforest and, while standing in front of the cotton-headed tamarins, one of them leaped across the water moat and landed on a large overhanging leaf. My VIP asked: 'Do they do that often?' 'No,' I gasped: 'That's an escape - and it's the first time it's ever happened.' A merry chase was on."

One of the most unusual incidents happened late one night after the Zoo had closed. The general curator and one of the keepers were in the rainforest recording the water temperature in the Amazon River Bank exhibit, using a long bamboo pole with a thermometer attached. There are no overhead lights in the clear plastic dome, and inside all was quiet and still . . . and dark. Suddenly the entire building literally exploded with blinding light! The keeper dropped to the ground and shielded his eyes with his arm. The general curator looked around with a dumbfounded gaze. All of the sleeping tropical birds were startled into a waking state, with the macaws screeching and flying off their perch into the pool. The secretive nocturnal rainforest animals that were foraging for food immediately scurried for shelter in fright; the rainforest was in total havoc.

What in the world was going on? It was simply the police helicopter.

The next day Gary called the Topeka Police Department, asked for the helicopter unit, and explained the serious consequences that could result from the previous night's activity. The officer was most polite and extremely apologetic as he explained, "Oh, Mr. Clarke, we are so sorry; we didn't mean to cause any problems. But we have been watching the progress of your building since its inception. We saw the walls go up, the geodesic dome take shape, the interior exhibits developed, and the plants moved in. It is such a beautiful building, particularly from the air. And at night it is a sparkling jewel. We just love to look at it, but we'll try not to frighten the animals at night."



The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has established an Exhibit Achievement Award to recognize and honor the most significant new exhibit in a Zoo or Aquarium. The award is not for architectural recognition, but for outstanding achievement in the area of exotic animal display, exhibit technique and design innovation.

At the annual AAZPA Conference held in Philadelphia last fall, the first annual Exhibit Achievement Award was presented to the Topeka Zoological Park for the Tropical Rain Forest. Although it has been most heartwarming to see the response of the visiting public to the TRF, it is extremely gratifying to the Zoo staff to be honored and recognized in this way by their professional colleagues.

We are very proud.