Wild animals from Africa are roaming McKee Botanical Garden for the It’s a Jungle Out There exhibit, which opened earlier this month at the historic garden on south U.S. 1.
The wild bunch includes replicas of animals rumored to have spent some time at the original 80-acre hammock known as McKee Jungle Gardens. People recall seeing monkeys, an elephant, chimpanzees, a baby lion and even a bear among the tropical flora during the early 1900s and into the 1950s.
Since reopening in 2001, the garden, now concentrated on 18 acres in south Vero, has been visited by life-size, fiberglass dinosaurs; big bugs made from trees, branches and saplings; and even fauna made from LEGOs. Now, metal sculptures of wild animals that typically call the jungles of Africa home will graze among the 10,000 native and tropical plants.
The weld art, using reclaimed materials discarded from the automotive industry, was created by otherwise unemployed artisans from impoverished villages in Africa. The exhibit includes 24 metal sculptures handcrafted by Wildlife Garden Creations, an artist co-op developed by head artist Moses Ochieng in Nairobi, Kenya.
Ochieng started the collective to train artisans from local villages and empower them to be self-sustaining. The paid apprentices are taught design, metal cutting, welding, painting and molding, providing the skills needed to better their quality of life. With commissions in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United States, their work has begun to garner international recognition.
“This is only the third exhibit of these sculptures in the United States. Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Orlando has one of the giraffes and the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., has several sculptures,” says Christine Hobart, McKee’s executive director. “We are very excited about this one-of-a-kind exhibit which was designed exclusively for McKee.”
The life-sized metal figures have settled into 17 locations around the garden, coming into visitors’ view at each new turn of the path.
The giraffes are hard to miss. Standing 14 to 16 feet tall, they tower among the treetops looking lifelike enough nibble on the leaves.
Among the heavy hitters in the group is a family of elephants. While the male elephant is off foraging, the matriarch watches over two young elephants.
A full-size hippopotamus has found a spot near the pond to bask in the sun, and the rhinoceros stands watch in the Royal Palm Grove, ready to charge.
Elsewhere, a lioness stalks a zebra as it takes a drink from the pond. Tread carefully, because her mate isn’t far away looking for his own meal in the brush near the Bamboo Pavilion. Given the typically unyielding medium of metal, the attention to detail is impressive: the lion’s mane is a mass of curled metal and his whiskers, a bushy grouping of nails.
Two of the installations include a sound feature, adding to the life-like experience. As guests wander through the garden, they may startle at the trumpet of an elephant or the guttural grunt of the gorillas, two of which guard the Main Jungle Trail. One ape ponders a potential snack of ants from a log while the other watches for unsuspecting guests with a mischievous grin.
It’s not unusual to see reptiles scurry among the foliage in the garden but it does come as quite a shock to find four crocodiles on patrol, their leathery skin and sharp, pointed teeth adding to the ominous look peering out from dark eyes.
To add a bit of color to the exhibit, a zebra and one of the giraffes are painted, rendering them virtually indistinguishable from their live counterparts. The rest of the animals in the collection boast only a clear sealant allowing the original metal patina to lend a weathered character to the sculptures.
The animals were selected because they were either a part of McKee’s past, or the staff felt they would blend into the Garden’s jungle-like environment. Cranes, owls and an eagle were included in the exhibit, giving a nod to the types of creatures that call McKee home today, according to Hobart.
“The first thing that attracted us to these sculptures was that several of them reminded us of McKee’s history when it was McKee Jungle Gardens and elephants, monkeys and alligators roamed the Garden and greeted the visitors,” says Hobart.
“This is the first exhibit the Garden has purchased,” she continues. “We felt this was special as the sculptures were chosen by us directly and made especially for McKee. Also, because the sculptures were coming all the way from Africa, it was more cost-effective for us to purchase and ship them rather than rent and return them. We can keep them on display as long as we like, then choose to sell a few or all of them.”
Hobart points out that the animals blend beautifully among McKee’s jungle-like landscape. “In addition, each of the sculptures was made from recycled metal and oil barrels, which also supports McKee’s philosophy of preservation of our natural environment.”
Setting up the exhibit was no small feat. The Horticulture Department staff placed all 24 sculptures in 17 locations on the grounds. The smaller sculptures were moved via utility carts and trailers, but the staff had to use a tractor for the more substantial sculptures.
Two McKee volunteers researched the animals to create interpretive signage including educational information, scientific names and a fun fact that will accompany each of the installations.
Miniature versions of some of the animals are available for purchase in the gift shop. The Garden is open Tuesday. through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The exhibit runs through mid-April.