Brookfield Zoo goes buggy with new exhibit
By Annie Alleman For Sun-Times Media May 24, 2012 9:20AM
The orchid mantis is one of more than 20 animatronic bugs featured in Brookfield Zoo’s summer-long exhibit "Xtreme Bugs" | PHOTO BY JIM SCHULZ
♦ May 19-Sept. 7
♦ Brookfield Zoo, 8400 31st St., Brookfield
♦ Tickets, $3-$5 plus zoo admission
♦ (708) 688-8000
Updated: June 25, 2012 4:20PM
What do dream catchers, bubble gum and Spider-Man have in common? In a word, bugs.
Bugs are scattered throughout our popular culture, said Andre Copeland, interpretive programs manager for the Chicago Zoological Society, from expressions like “butterfly kisses” to “the bee’s knees.”
Then there’s the comic book world — the Green Hornet, Spider-Man and the Tick are all superheroes with buggy origins. American Indian lore has a Lakota chief transforming into a spider and spinning a web between a rounded willow branch with the purpose of catching good dreams and letting bad ones go.
“We get that from a spider. You may see them hanging from rear view mirrors, in someone’s office — I see them in the dollar store all the time,” he said. “The little dream catchers all trace back to lore from a spider.”
In the 1970s, Bubble Yum gum came under fire when an urban legend spread that spider legs were a key ingredient in the gum. (Not true, but rival gums profited from the rumor.)
“The list goes on and on,” he said. “We hope people will view these animals slightly different than, ‘Ew, gross.’”
A new summertime exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo is dedicated to those creepy crawly critters. “Xtreme Bugs” will be at the zoo through Sept. 7, and features everything from giant animatronic bugs to live larvae. You’ll know the bugs have landed at the zoo when you see the 16-foot-high by 33-foot-long Japanese hornet perched over the Roosevelt Fountain.
“We wanted to talk about bugs because that perfectly aligned with our mission,” he said. “Our mission is to inspire conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature, and we felt these were some of the most important animals to remind people of their connections with.”
Bugs have played an intricate role in the lives of human beings, he said, from medicine and science to religious stories and historical accounts.
“But one of the things I love to focus on is our pop culture. I’m a huge believer that our history is nothing but pop culture,” he said. “A lot of the things we have in our pop culture now can be derived back to bugs. We felt that if we picked out some of the most extreme animals in the bug world — and when we say extreme, we’re looking for extreme stories about them, extreme connections to either the economy or culture, or extreme ways they interact in their environment — we felt that this would be a perfect way for people to view these animals in a different light.”
For example, bees are crucial to the production of foodstuffs like blueberries and almonds, Copeland said.
“A lot of people don’t remember that we are that tightly tied to the little insect sometimes people run away from, or these little spiders that people say, ‘Agh, it’s going to get me,’” he said. “When we step back and think, what do we get from that? We get almonds, we get Maine blueberries, and we get Spider-Man, the Green Hornet, dream catchers — all this cool stuff just by the animals running around doing what they do.”
Harry’s Big Adventure
The cornerstone of the exhibit is “Harry’s Big Adventure: My Bug World” presented by Terminix. Held in a big top tent, “Harry’s Big Adventure” was created as an educational campaign for kids and their families, said Katie Wassmer with Terminix.
Harry, by the way, is a Chinese praying mantis that Terminix hand-delivered at the 2008 opening of the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans. He is the star of the show, so to speak, and is on display in the tent.
“There are several habitats throughout the exhibit that show where these insects would live in the wild and we talk about how they impact our world; from an environmental standpoint, from how they interact with us day to day, and how they interact with each other,” she said.
“It’s all educational in nature and the main goal of the exhibit is to take the creepy out of bugs and show the educational side, and to show how they can be beautiful and beneficial.”
Chicago is the sixth city to get “Harry’s Big Adventure.”
“It’s a lot to move around, but we love it,” she said. “We’re so excited to be a part of the Xtreme Bugs at Brookfield Zoo.”
If you’re wondering how a company like Terminix got involved in a bug exhibit, you’re not alone.
“We get that question a lot,” Wassmer said. “Terminix is an expert on all things insect, and we have entomologists employed at all of our branches across the country. Our big goal is to educate people about insects. Really, insects in the wild are fascinating. They give a lot to us. It’s when they come into our homes and our businesses that they become pests.”
Visitors will learn a lot from this exhibit, she said.
“They can learn just how beautiful some of these insects are,” she said. “You’ll see how they interact with each other, how they build their homes as communities and how they help us. Bugs are natural recyclers. The millipedes and beetles are decomposing our trash for us. They really do interact with us every day.”
The habitats Wassmer spoke of are six zones where visitors can observe or interact with insects in their natural surroundings. Some of these zones are home to insects not native to Illinois, said John Lee Fitchett, traveling entomologist for the show.
“Every time we come to a new time, it’s nice to see people get a better appreciation of what bug actually do and how they’re very important,” he said. “They do a lot of stuff for us. They take care of other pests.”
The common misconception people have about bugs is that they all want to bite or harm humans, he said, when actually the opposite is true.
“Most bugs are scared of humans and would rather go the opposite direction,” he said.
Children will love the Meadow Habitat, where virtual butterflies land on shoulders as they dance in front of a projection screen. They can explore their creativity in the Bug Art area, making chalk drawings and building their own bugs with magnets.
They’ll also love the House Habitat — until they look under the sink and get a glimpse of what can lurk in their own homes. Yes, that’s where the live roaches of all shapes and sizes live.
Jerrod Coates, a Chicago native, is the tour manager for the exhibit and emcee for the roach races, which run every day and star Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
The scariest critter he oversees might surprise you. It’s not the Chilean Rose Hair tarantula or the Emperor Scorpion that glows in the dark under a black light, or even the giant cockroaches. It’s the centipede.
“The centipede has a pretty nasty bite and it’s hard to tell which side is his head,” he said. “They’re very aggressive and fast.”
During the duration of the exhibit, the curious can even eat bugs. Bug chefs from the Audubon will be on hand every weekend cooking up insect delicacies, said Zack Lemann with the Audubon.
“We’re cooking crickets, wax worms and meal worms most of the time,” he said. “Those three insects are commercially reared at insect farms around the country.”
He oven roasts the crickets before putting them in a pan with some butter and Cajun seasoning.
The hornet above the fountain is just the beginning of the giant bugs. The exhibit features figures created exclusively for Brookfield Zoo by Dinosaurs on Earth, the same company that made the Dinosaurs Alive in 2010, Copeland said.
“Our idea was to premier the largest animatronic bug exhibit that we knew of,” he said. “We said, let’s try to pick out 22 animals that extreme in the own right, blow them up larger than life — some that over 200 times their normal size — and tell some extreme stories about them.”
In addition to the 22 animatronic animals, there are also about 130 stationary ones of all sizes set up along a trail; including bees, spiders, ants and cicadas. All along the path you’ll find interactive signs and graphics that provide little-known facts and cool “did you know” moments.
Copeland thinks people will be surprised by the exhibit, based on his staff’s reaction.
“When people came out, they said, ‘I really didn’t expect this. This was beyond my wildest dreams.’ I think everything we’ve seen so far has been surprising. I think the public will be excited as well.”
Partnering with Harry’s Big Adventure will create an experience, he said.
“It helps reinforce how important these animals are,” he said. “As you see how they affect the cropland, as you see how they affect your homes, as you see how they affect meadows … this is a way to reinforce the experience, deepen it, and help give multi-layers to it. We think there is something for everyone here.”