4 Key Take-Aways from the Recent Zoo Design Conference

zoo-design-conference-2017-jpg-1-413x420I was lucky to attend (and present at) The International Zoo Design Conference held in Poland in 2017. Many speakers from around the world talked about their experiences designing habitats or theorizing on the future of zoos and aquariums. While the majority of attendees were from Europe, folks from South America, Africa, and many countries in Asia presented their unique points of view. Although the theme was “Designing for Enrichment,” four much deeper lessons held with me for continued thought and on-going discussion for the continued evolution of zoos and aquariums around the world.

In this article originally posted to Blooloop.com, I explain those four take-aways:

  1. Euro & American Zoos are Cousins, branching from the same ancestor like an evolutionary tree.
  2. Dynamism as a new goal and design inspiration in everything habitat related.
  3. Rethink the measure and definition of success for species in captivity.
  4. Guests require that zoos care for the their animals as priority one, but often do not understand what good animal care is.

Take a look, and let me know your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “4 Key Take-Aways from the Recent Zoo Design Conference

  1. Hello Stacey,

    Thank you for sharing your takeaways from the Zoo Design Conference. A whole thesis could probably be written for each point, but I will keep my responses somewhat abridged.

    1. European and American Zoo Design

    If there are differences between European and American zoo design, it has arisen more from different skills and experiences of the designers than a response to cultural differences of zoo guests. Europe is very culturally diverse, and you could argue that the UK and US are more similar than the UK and Spain.

    The constraints and opportunities of designing a zoo in Europe or America are more similar than those of designing a zoo and an office building in the same country. Zoos everywhere must balance the needs of animals, guests, operations, and the environment. The country of residence of a gorilla doesn’t change its socialization needs. There is a universal human desire to connect with animals and nature. People around the world also visit zoos as a light recreational activity, to socialize, and to learn. Animal husbandry practices are shared worldwide. The local environment is the biggest cause of differences between zoos, but some zoos in the American Northeast have a more similar climate to UK zoos than to zoos in the American Southwest. European and American zoos face very similar challenges.

    With all these similarities, it doesn’t surprise me that landscape immersion exhibits in Europe have been successful. Landscape immersion is basically creating a landscape inspired by natural environments that’s shared by guests and animals. Good landscape immersion: creates more enriching natural environments for animals; creates a more dramatic experience for visitors; is designed with an understanding of operations like cleaning and maintenance; and responds to local environmental conditions. I’ve seen successful and popular landscape immersion exhibits at zoos in Canada, the US, Singapore, and Australia. Landscape immersion that addresses the core needs of zoos will be successful in Europe too.

    Big architecture in American and European zoos isn’t responding to the fundamental needs of zoos. Many European zoos have a rich history and beautiful old buildings, and I suspect many visitors appreciate that. Big architectural statements can clash with historic architecture and landscapes. I don’t think European zoo visitors have a bigger appetite than Americans for bold contemporary buildings. Big architectural statements are more a product of the skills and ambitions of the designers.

    I like how naturalistic and well-furnished some European zoo exhibits appear to be. A basic rectangular exhibit with good plantings and thoughtfully arranged elements can look natural and interesting. Many immersive exhibits could be improved by being better furnished. Well furnished exhibits provide a more complex space for animals.

    American immersive exhibits would also benefit from increasing interactions and proximity between animals and guests. Landscape immersion is about breaking the barriers between guests, animals, and the landscape. I love the Land of Lemurs walkthrough exhibit at the Calgary Zoo, which was inspired by Jake Veasey’s work with lemur walkthroughs in the UK. A year after opening, there are still lineups to enter the exhibit. I like to visit later in the day when it’s less busy, so I can linger and feel surrounded by the lemurs. Last year one lemur even stepped on me!

    2. Dynamic Habitats

    I agree that dynamic habitats are a great design goal. Changing environments are more interesting for both animals and visitors.

    An easy way to create more dynamic exhibits is to continually modify and add to them.

    In the United States and Canada, exhibit investments and designs are too front-loaded. A lot more money is spent on creating new exhibits than on modifying and improving existing exhibits. That’s partially because it’s much easier to fundraise for new developments than it is to fundraise for habitat improvements or additions. These front-loaded exhibits are built to be impressive from their opening and last for a long time.

    Many American zoo exhibits emphasize what I call the skeleton of the exhibit (the framework). The skeleton of the exhibit includes: barriers; architectural features; topography; and artificial rockwork/trees. Exhibit skeletons need to be well designed and require a considerable amount of design energy. A poorly designed skeleton will produce a poor exhibit. An exhibit with just a skeleton though has no life. It needs plants and furnishings. It’s much more difficult to make the exhibit skeleton dynamic than the softer landscape features and furnishings.

    Plants are a great dynamic habitat element. I used to garden and it was captivating to watch the plants grow and change through the seasons.

    Plants can have very specific needs, so it might be better to design around them, rather than adding them later. That isn’t a new approach to zoo landscape immersion design. The pioneering landscape immersion work by Jones and Jones identified existing plants and micro-climates at the Woodland Park Zoo and then designed bioclimatic exhibit zones around those areas.

    3. Rethink the Measure of and Definition of Success for a Species

    To evaluate the success of a design for animals it’s important to use a comprehensive set of measures of well-being. As you noted, reproductive success on its own isn’t always indicative of enriched, healthy animals. We wouldn’t judge the success of human homes solely by how often the residents procreated. Why do that for non-human animals? Well-being has several aspects that interact with each other, so evaluating any one aspect in isolation does not give you a complete picture of well-being. For exhibits to fully meet the needs of animals they must address all aspects of well-being.

    4. Guest’s Understanding of Animal Welfare and Care

    Guest’s understanding and expectations of animal care should not be underestimated.

    I think that most guests have good intuition about animal care and know when animals are suffering. Over two thirds of American households own a pet. Even people who don’t have a pet regularly encounter and sometimes interact with animals.

    People are well educated about wild animals. They learn about them formally in school. Informally, people learn about animals through nature programs, books, seeing animals in the wild, and zoos and museums. Through these various learning opportunities many people have a basic understanding of animal’s needs. For example, most people know that giraffes are from tropical Africa and are poorly adapted to cold weather.

    The case about guest’s reactions to monkeys being moved from an island to an aviary says a lot about the power of ideals. Guests developed an ideal that the monkeys on the island had more freedom and reacted negatively to them being moved to the aviary where they were confronted with the reality that the monkey’s space and freedom was limited.

    If the monkeys had drowned on the island though, guests would have reacted much more negatively to that than aviary netting. Guests would also respond negatively if monkeys were bored because it was difficult to service and add enrichment to their enclosure. The realities of animal care are also important for guests.

    A significant challenge for zoos is reconciling guest’s animal care ideals with the realities of captive animal care. It’s the responsibility of zoos to limit the suffering of the animals in their care as much as possible, but suffering can’t be eliminated. Even wild animals suffer at times. People do too. Suffering is a part of life-that’s a tough sell for zoos to communicate.

    Millennials and Generation Z are often characterized as more idealistic than preceding generations. Millennials and generation Z now make up the bulk of zoo visitors. The contemporary zoo guest has high expectations. Zoos will have to continue to improve animal care and communications.

    Devin Legisa

    • Thank you, Devin, for your thoughtful responses! I agree with 99% of your comments…I just want to push back on the commentary that we should presume zoo guests know more about animal care than what we may perceive. While SOME zoo goers are very well educated about animals, I believe, and I think there is some data to support it, that the majority are there as a fun family day and have very little knowledge of true animal care needs. They may well THINK they know what an animal needs–primarily through transference of their own emotions onto animals, and that is the problem. The same problem for all of us as designers, I might add! What’s more, assuming our guests know more than they might is a dangerous game–we need to be spreading the news about animal care…and by assuming our guests know less than they might, we are more motivated to educate more fully. Which helps guests that are coming already, and also helps educate those who may have a love-hate relationship with zoos based in incorrect or lack of knowledge. I think this subject is an awesome topic for some audience research. I hope someone dips into this soon!

      Take care!

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