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Omaha's Desert Dome Showcases the 'Dry' Life - 2002-04-09

Where there is water, there is life. And when it comes to protecting life, much attention is paid to shrinking rain forests and contaminated rivers. Now, in the center of the United States, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska is shining the spotlight on the world's deserts and the life that thrives in these seemingly bone-dry regions with its "Desert Dome."

In what zoo officials claim is the world's largest glazed geodesic dome, thousands of visitors wind their way through the world's largest indoor desert.

"It's phenomenal. It's just incredible," says Georgia Nevadi as her eyes travel down the length of what looks like a 9-meter high Namibian sand dune. The red sand seems to have a life of its own.

The "Desert Dome" is the brainchild of Zoo Director, Lee Simmons, no stranger to mammoth projects. Since he was named director of the Henry Doorly Zoo in 1970, Mr. Simmons has created North America's largest "big cat" complex and the world's largest indoor rain forest.

Omaha area residents watched for nearly two years as the 13-story Dome reached into the skyline and began to gleam in the sunlight. They watched a 15-meter central mountain appear inside. Later, zoo visitors peeked through the Dome's acrylic panels as workers finished the rockwork - and brought in plants and animals to create a "total immersion" exhibit.

The effect was not lost on Carol Pirsch, one of the first people through the exhibit. "And just the awesome grandeur of the scenery, that narrow passageway. So natural," she says.

The Henry Doorly Zoo is involved in cutting edge research in nuclear genetics and animal reproduction. But Director Lee Simmons says its most important job is to educate the more than one million people who come through its gates every year.

"When we bring somebody into the Desert Dome and expose them to three different desert biomes and show them, you know, let them touch, taste, feel, smell, and become a part of that, and then you give them a message that says these places are endangered - these places need protection. It's real and they believe you," he says.

Creating those three distinct desert biomes was no small task.

That Namibian sand dune needed sand. Up a conveyor belt and into the Dome it came - raining down on a concrete mound, the "star" of the first stop in the Dome. "We brought 300 tons, three 100-ton railcars of sand in, red sand," Mr. Simmons says.

Still other work wrapped up in the rest of the African display - a re-creation of Namibia's Kuiseb Canyon Oasis. A sand-colored concrete pathway was added to guide visitors through Omaha's version of Australia's Ayers Rock and North America's Sonoran Cactus Forest.

Through a wide hose that snaked through the Dome came more of the makings of the soils in the Dome's habitat: crushed rock, granite and ground coconut husks.

Of the 175 species of plants now growing in that soil, many stand in living testimony to the loss of desert habitat. Terry Gouveia, the zoo's curator of horticulture, says most of the cactus plantings, from the giant saguaro to the tiny Mammillaria, were rescued from the encroaching sprawl of urban and industrial areas in the southwestern United States.

"Both Tucson and Phoenix are growing so rapidly," she says. "It does my heart good to know that these have been saved - they've been salvaged. Even the larger palo verde and the larger mesquite trees."

And the more than 70,000 people who came to visit the Dome during its opening week seem to appreciate the desert plant life - and lots of venomous snakes, including the "Colette," the only one on display in a zoo outside its native Australia.

In all, 75 species of animals are now at home up on the rocks or in the crannies of the indoor desert - roadrunners and rock hyrax, hummingbirds and Harris hawks, pumas and peccaries, lizards and leopards.

The new $31 million exhibit will help Omaha's zoo attract a 1.5 million visitors this year, putting it at, or near the top of the list of U.S. zoos in attendance. That's a chance to reach more people in a few weeks time than will get a chance to visit the real trio of desert biomes in a year, says Zoo Director Lee Simmons. That's why he's packed the desert Dome with authentic surprises around every corner.

"You get a surprise or a thrill or you see something that is really new and exciting, then whatever message you're given, you know, right after you receive that surprise - you remember," he says. "You remember the message forever."

And young Zach Kesek got one of the exhibit's most important messages.

"I didn't know there was this much water on the desert," he says.

Waterfalls, ponds and bubbling potholes - water may hard to come by in the desert, but it's there and so are some amazing life forms that only evolve and exist in those special desert spaces and at the Henry Doorly Zoo's "Desert Dome."