Almost six years after the exhibit was taken offline, Brookfield Zoo’s Monkey Island is coming down to make way for the Hamill Family Science and Nature Plaza.

Demolition of the faux-rock outcropping where dozens of Guinea baboons roamed, chased one another and groomed themselves and their families and hunted for morsels of food that would make their way to the bottom of the island’s dry “moat” since the 1930s, began earlier this year.

The concrete “island” located just west of the zoo’s South Gate has been demolished and the 1.5-acre site will be filled in and graded to serve as a canvas for a series of gardens, paths, a three-seasons pavilion and picnic-type seating for visitors seeking a spot to rest or enjoy a treat from the adjacent Scoops Ice Cream vendor.

Dr. Stuart Strahl, president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, said the plaza will have areas for science exploration, including examples of native prairie, a sensory garden and pollinator gardens.

“We hope this gives kids opportunities who are not going into the [Hamill Family] Play Zoo, because of cost or because they’re not members, an opportunity to view a semi-restored prairie … and have a learning experience in a variety of different places,” Strahl told members of the Brookfield Village Board during a presentation at their Feb. 11 meeting.

“The landscape features going to be pleasing to the eye year-round and most of them will be native plants,” Strahl said. 

The plaza was made possible, Strahl said, via a “large donation” by the Hamill Family Foundation, which has been a frequent and generous benefactor of the Chicago Zoological Society.

The family name not only adorns the entrance to the Play Zoo but also the popular Wild Encounters exhibit, which replaced the old Children’s Zoo in 2015.

In addition to the gardens that will frame the plaza, the pavilion can be used for events. The Scoops Ice Cream area is already undergoing renovation and is being downsized somewhat to accommodate a new outdoor grill.

“It’ll be a much different experience from other dining experiences [at the zoo],” Strahl said.

Renovation of Scoops will continue through the spring and the zoo is targeting August 2019 cut the ribbon on the completed plaza.

“This is not going to grow our attendance much, but it is a use of space that was beforehand a very old design,” Strahl said.

The former Monkey Island opened in 1936 and has been home to various species, from Rhesus monkeys to antelope and monitor lizards. The moat was once filled with water.

But the island’s most famous residents were at one time up to 70 Guinea baboons that patrolled the concrete crags. Strahl called them “the oldest and most inbred population of Guinea baboons in the galaxy.”

Brookfield Zoo stopped breeding the baboons in 1992 and their numbers slowly dwindled. The Chicago Zoological Society decided to phase out the exhibit in 2013.