Walk in the door of an enormous warehouse in Tucson and you can't miss Marilyn Monroe's right leg lying on the floor. Of course the leg is a fake, but it looks damn good. Nearby, an artist is painting black dots on the nose of a harbor seal made of fiberglass and epoxy.
Continue through the warehouse and you might come across a steel-foam-and-plastic palm tree and hunks of ocean coral made of hard-cast urethane plastic. And in a yard behind the warehouse you'll find a model of Cambodia's magnificent Angkor Wat temple, its imitation-stone visage looking especially grim under Arizona's scorching sun.
This unusual enterprise, situated on 20 acres of desert, is The Larson Company, a big name in the manufacture of artificial environments for zoos, aquariums and theme parks around the world. And don't let a movie star's finely sculpted gam lead you to believe that Larson's work is just frivolous illusion. Some of the company's replicas serve serious environmental purposes.
In fact, what better way to teach people about endangered habitats, such as coral reefs, than to build lifelike copies for the education and enjoyment of millions? For one of the world's largest aquariums, in Osaka, Japan, Larson built a replica of Australia's Great Barrier Reef that includes more than 1,200 pieces of artificial coral, each shaped and colored like the genuine article. Throughout the world's oceans, reefs are dying from a variety of causes, including pollution, damage from ship and boat anchors, and theft by environmental pirates, who pick reefs clean of live coral to sell to gift shops and to the home-aquarium market.
Rain forests, which, according to estimates, are shrinking by 100 acres a minute, are another threatened environment re-created by Larson. The company just finished installing a two-story replica of a rain forest at the Cleveland Metro Parks Zoo, and last year created a 60,000-square-foot rain forest exhibit for Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, featuring trees 80 feet tall.
Dave Taplin, Larson's vice-president of construction, says of the company's role as an environmental educator: "A guy who's been living on a corn farm for 45 years can come to the rain forest exhibit in Omaha and sec what we're losing. Maybe that will get him to open his wallet." He adds that a beautiful exhibit is likely to draw the kind of people who are interested in helping to preserve endangered environments.
The Bronx Zoo's Jungle World exhibit, a Larson-built Asian rain forest that's nearly an acre in size, has attracted 3� million people since it opened in 1985. Says Jim Doherty, curator at the zoo, "We have smaller exhibits within the building that tell of all the medicines and foods and other items that come from tropical rain forests and how none of these will be available if there are no rain forests. By the time people leave here, the message has hit home."
The more lifelike the exhibit, the greater the impact on its viewers, and that is Larson's calling card—creating replicas that are as real as possible. But reproducing nature is an exacting process.
Building an artificial rock, for instance, may require a trip to a distant locale. Although Arizona is rich ground for many varieties and formations of rock, customers sometimes request rocks unavailable in the state. A few years ago, Larson's people traveled to Oregon to obtain molds of a variety of coastal granite that are now featured in an exhibit at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore.
"We'll travel from Alaska to Costa Rica to make a mold of a specific rock," says company president Harold A. Shifman. "It's like a safari. Our people show up with our equipment and camp out."