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Conservation Station

 

Inspiring a love of animals and concern for their welfare is the underlying theme, both subtle and obvious, throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom -- in its entertaining shows and adventures, in its artistic representations of animals and in its shops and restaurants.

But the active heart of this effort is in Rafiki’s Planet Watch on the north side of the theme park near the edge of Africa and its herds of exotic animals. From the time visitors board the puffing steam trains of Wildlife Express, they know this is no vicarious adventure. It is an exploration of challenges faced by animals and humans around the world -- fascinating, innovative and colorful -- but seriously concerned with efforts here and around the world to save the animals and their environment.

More important, it aims to inspire those who come here to take an active role in conservation within their home communities, according to Dr. Jackie Ogden, conservation director for Walt Disney World Animal Programs. Rafiki’s Planet Watch also includes The Affection Section where guests can touch and make friends with gentle domestic animals like goats, a miniature donkey and sheep, plus live demonstrations featuring unusual and exotic animals -- llama, Indian-crested porcupine, spectacled owls and lesser anteaters, among many others.

On the train trip, narrators explain how the facilities help protect the animals and give information on animal care. At Rafiki’s Planet Watch depot, guests begin a leisurely walk through a jungle of lush vegetation, interrupted occasionally by examples of backyard habitats -- models for how to make a home friendly to wildlife. Soon, guests are welcomed by a gigantic montage of brilliantly colored animal faces -- a heroic painting of animals, including a gorilla, lion, panda, wolf, crocodile and others -- that stare right at the human visitors from across the façade of the circular building.

Just inside -- in the Hall of Animals -- are hundreds of other animals in a colorful mural. Every face is looking forward. The message is clear, Dr. Ogden says. “The animals are looking at you and to you -- the human species -- for people represent both the greatest danger to the animals and their environment and the greatest hope.”

Passing through the winding passage of the Hall of Animals, guests arrive in a spacious circular room where daylight streams in from skylights. Ranged around the area are full-body cutout paintings of wild creatures in vivid colors -- a tiger, a rhinoceros, an elephant and a gorilla. On the back of the painting are fascinating stories and information facts abut each animal and its habits.

The central showplace in Rafiki’s Planet Watch is a nature-inspired stage where intimate presentations with rare or endangered animals take place each day. They could include everything from a smooth-skin boa constrictor to an opossum, a spectacled owl, a tarantula or a fennec fox. “Every demonstration is different,” Ogden adds

To the right of the stage is a giant screen on which a world map spotlights 11 areas of the world where animals are threatened by destruction of forests and grasslands and encroachment of human civilization. Next is Animal Cam, four sets of computer screens where guests, by touching selected spots on the screens, can call up exciting pictures and revealing information about scores of animals, including behind-the-scenes camera shots at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Other guests can watch the results on other touch-screen monitors above.

Wildlife and veterinary laboratories, interactive video, animal nurseries and other fascinating areas are arranged in alcoves around the central show room. Researchers working with conservation biologist Dr. Anne Savage provide an opportunity to watch scientists at work. Efforts are directed at three important study areas. One involves sonograms to create visual “images” of animal sounds in an attempt to discover just what each growl, call, rumble or screech means to other animals -- danger, satisfaction, love, anger. “We are interested in the function of each call and how the sounds influence the behavior of animals,” Savage explains

Feeding tape-recorded vocalizations into computers, the researchers expect to find how an elephant says, “Hello,” with his low stomachy grumble or “trumpets” of danger when he raises his trunk up high. Guests may even record their own voices to see what their words look like on the sound graphs.

Another area of investigation involves endocrine studies on hormone levels in animals (both in Disney’s Animal Kingdom and in the wild). “Analyzing hormones found in urine or feces will allow us to determine if an animal is pregnant, when puberty occurs and the overall reproductive health of the animal,” Savage explains.

The results can be used to help animal management in zoos and parks and also have important implications for animal conservation programs in the wild. A third program highlights various techniques used to follow animals in the wild. Hi-tech radio transmitters (like miniature beepers) placed on key animals allow scientists to track bird migration via satellite telemetry or determine the size of the home range for little endangered animals such as cotton-top tamarins which are only found in one area of Colombia

Next come a series of rooms with large picture windows -- baby-mammal nurseries; brooder-rooms for birds, reptiles and amphibians after hatching; veterinary laboratories and rooms where visitors can watch as animals receive physical examinations and immunization shots.

Guests will be able to see into the mammal nurseries where baby animals who need special attention will be cared for until they can be returned to their family or herd group. The nursery will serve only those young animals whose mothers were unable to care for them. This builds on the idea that the best animal nursery is an “empty” one, because the natural mothers are caring for their young whenever possible. Nursery walls are decorated with pictures of Bambi, Dumbo, Simba, chipmunks and other Disney animals. An adjacent brooder room is decorated with many kinds of colorful birds from Disney films

Animals in the nurseries will vary -- everything from emperor scorpions and Thomson gazelles to storks and ibis, from boa constrictors to African frogs. On the end of the circle of niches around the main show space is the food preparation area where all kinds of special diets are developed and prepared for both the animals here on display and for others undergoing special veterinary care who require extra special -- often rare -- foods.

In all of these areas, hosts and hostesses are on hand to answer questions. Through them, guests may direct inquiries to veterinarians or animal care specialists inside the laboratories. They will explain their work over the communications system. Guests also can obtain information at the Eco Web computer near the center of Rafiki’s Planet Watch to help them find out about conservation efforts in their own home towns, across the nation and around the world. They can receive printouts on the names of societies, zoos, conservation organizations and individuals who are conducting programs which appeal to each person’s individual interests

Nearby, Disney hosts provide information about many programs being supported through the Disney Wildlife Conservation fund with conservation partners in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The Affection Section is the final destination for those who want to meet animals face to face and hand to fur. Attendants will be on hand to explain each of these domestic animals who welcome this kind of attention. At the entrance to the outdoor area is a bronze statue of two baby elephants at play with all the charm that make baby animals irresistible to humans

This is not just a petting zoo, but a place where young and old can find out all about the animals they see and touch, where they’re from, how they live and what dangers they face in the world -- truly a new understanding of all the animals, both common and rare -- all part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

 
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