CASE STUDY: ABILENE ZOO
Located on the shore of a large park lake, the 20-acre AZA accredited City-run Abilene Zoo is a lot like a much larger zoo. It has both innovative, immersive habitats and old, outdated exhibits.
Unfortunately, from the parking lot, the entry is boring. In fact, I thought maybe I’d found my way to the Parks & Recreation Department’s headquarters. The entrance is buried under a breezeway of a limestone, 1960’s style park building. The long, linear parking lot is not conducive to a visually enticing or anticipatory entrance.
The good news is once inside, it’s immediately apparent that this zoo has been investing in design. A small flamingo habitat welcomes guests with a clean, modern shade structure. Immediately beyond that exhibit, the first immersive experience, a Florida wetlands habitat, welcomes guests. The low-cost series of exhibits (chainlink fencing, natural ponds) utilizes thematic touches like string lights, metal signage, buoys, and other aquatic props to transport the guest to Florida. The holding building for the alligator is cleverly disguised as a metal bait stand. While the guest experience is interesting, twisting and turning on an elevated boardwalk, the habitats themselves are rather boring. One alligator and a variety of birds is the extent of the animals. I’d love to see a python exhibit to discuss the issues facing the Everglades with this invasive species. Another miss is the adjacency of the lake, and not taking advantage of the views here. A beautiful layered view could easily be achieved, with some interpretation about freshwater lakes, streams, and wetlands in Texas versus Florida. This area also has great potential for the native collection held elsewhere in dated enclosures. Mountain lions could represent the Florida panther, and the ever popular North American river otters could use a fresh habitat complete with underwater viewing. Both of these would benefit from a lake view!
Another win for the zoo is the beautiful giraffe experience including giraffe feeding. The zoo took advantage of the in-between spaces as the boardwalk winds its way up to the giraffe deck with smaller exhibits like red river hogs and colobus monkeys.
While the newer exhibits bring the zoo to a higher class of small zoo, the zoo does still suffer from a lack of identity. Overall, it feels like a typical parks department facility that happens to have a few modern takes on exhibit design. Throughout, the zoo’s older buildings have a consistent look with their limestone facades and pitched metal roofs, but they are by and large just bland. What does it mean to be a zoo in Abilene?
The zoo is very successful today getting about 150% attendance penetration, and drawing easily from the adjacent communities. This is the Abilene area’s zoo, so what does that mean for its identity? The zoo seems to be presenting species that relate to the area’s ecosystem—natives, yes, but also other grasslands habitats like the African savanna and the South American pampas. The clear connection to Texas is missing, though. This zoo could potentially brand itself as Texas’ Zoo, presenting a look at today’s habitats and challenges, and the parallels seen in similar ecosystems around the world. The clarity of brand and message is what’s missing right now through interpretives, yes, but also with brand and, of course, the interpretation of that brand in experience—especially at the entrance.
Some small zoos have the need and the desire to remain small, but others have the potential and vision to become a large zoo. The zoo has an adjacent large plot of land, and the park in which the zoo resides is adding multiple attractions, meaning the zoo has only growth in its future. The potential for growth to a major zoo is just around the corner; the question is if the zoo has the vision for that growth. I’m looking forward to find out!