“Who-o-a!” they yelled in awe.
Jelani, the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo's 16-foot-tall male giraffe, had walked over to the giraffe-feeding platform, and his head reached just about even with the handrail around the platform.
“He's big!” said an amazed Dak Tung Darbyshire, 8.
The giraffe-feeding platform is one of many new features in the zoo's African Journey area, which opens to the public Saturday.
Many hours have gone into the planning and construction of the $9 million exhibit, which the zoo paid for with donations from foundations, corporations, school groups and individuals. It replaces the former African Veldt area, which had occupied the same space since 1976.
But what really counts is what young zoo-goers think. So, with help from the zoo, we walked through the exhibit Tuesday with three students from Keystone Schools: Dak Tung; his sister, To Anh Darbyshire, 10; and Ashlee Yackley, 9. He's a second-grader at Keystone, and the girls are in fourth grade.
They were accompanied by parents Anh Darbyshire, Barb Yackley, and Darbyshire's mother, Gai Nguyen, who was visiting from Orlando, Fla.
The African Journey invites you to walk through the exhibit by following a wheelchair-accessible path.
“This is beautiful,” Anh Darbyshire said as they walked along the path winding past flowers, shrubs and a small waterfall.
“A-w-w, too cute,” Ashlee and To Anh said together as they watched Anderson, the 6-month-old Allen's swamp monkey, who was hopping playfully onto other members of his family and onto the fence of their exhibit.
A short trek then brought them to man-made rock formations designed to look like the large kopje rock outcroppings on the Serengeti Plain in Africa.
New animals awaited around every bend in the path. The highlights, however, were the hyena and lion exhibits.
The youngsters were startled to find one of the hyenas lying on its back right next to the 2-inch-thick secure glass that separates visitors from these animals.
“Usually, you don't see hyenas up close, and that one was right in front of the glass,” Ashlee said afterward.
“Oh, look at that,” Barb Yackley exclaimed as they came around a turn to find themselves staring through the secure glass at lions Bill and Ina, who were lounging in their exhibit.
“Whoa! That's cool,” Anh Darbyshire said.
The youngsters, however, spent about as much time looking at hands-on components of the exhibit — examples of a lion's tooth and paw print, and the “Wheel of Survival” about lions' lives in the wild — as they did looking at the lions.
Moving on, they paused to study zebras and wildebeests grazing on African Journey's savannah area. The Savannah Trail brings visitors closer to the animals than in the old African Veldt.
Then it was on to the African Village area, which looks much as it did in the African Veldt days. The leopard, De Brazza's monkeys and colobus monkeys occupy the same exhibits they have in past years.
But visitors now can stop to play one of several African drums. Ashlee and To Anh teamed up on one drum, while Dak Tung banged out a beat on his own drum.
After visiting with the colobus monkeys, they hiked on to the giraffe feeding platform, which stands 14 feet above ground and extends out into the giraffe exhibit.
When the platform is in operation, visitors will be able to buy a leaf of romaine lettuce for one zoo token (tokens are $1 each) and let the giraffes eat it from their hands. . The station wasn't in operation during the walk-through, but two giraffes came over just in case anyone had lettuce snacks to share.
“Oh, my God!”Ashlee shouted as Mystic, one of the zoo's young female giraffes, walked up to the platform, her head reaching to about floor height. A railing and fencing keep the giraffes from poking their heads freely into the visitor area.
Our young adventurers also spent several minutes playing with the Savannah Cam in the Zebra Research Station. A console lets visitors control four live remote video cameras set up around the African Journey's savannah. The youngsters zoomed in on an ostrich looking for food along the shore of the pond. They also took close-up looks at a zoo worker and other people on the opposite side of the savannah.
“Awesome!” Ashlee and To Anh said in unison.
Afterward, our safari-goers found it difficult to narrow down what they liked best.
“It was cool when we got to see the giraffes up close,” Ashlee said. “It also was cool when we got to see the ostriches up close.”
She also liked the swamp monkeys — “They're really cute” — and the Savannah Cam.
To Anh liked the white-and-black colobos monkeys. “They were jumping around everywhere, and I liked their white fur,” she said.
She also liked the lions and hyenas.
Dak Tung marveled at seeing the wildebeests.
“It's really weird to see a wildebeest,” he said. “It's not like seeing a buffalo or a yak.”
But they all agreed they liked African Journey better than the old African Veldt exhibit.
“There are a lot more animals there,” said To Anh, who gave African Journey “two thumbs up.”
Their parents seemed equally impressed, especially with the landscaping and the array of animals on exhibit.
“The last two years, there was not much to see because they were working,” Anh Darbyshire said. “It was worth the waiting.”