Rotation Exhibits: How To Guide

The idea of rotating animals through several exhibits as a means of enrichment and variability is a relatively new one.  The popularity of the idea is widespread, despite the requirements of large spaces, intensive staff involvement, and complex (or flexible) holding facilities.  Generally, we've been incorporating some sort of rotation capability in all of our exhibits for the past several years.  If the staff is willing, the advantage is great:  providing several smaller exhibits in which to rotate through the animals during the day provides active animals, which in turn, provides engaged guests. 

The upcoming Louisville Zoo Glacier Run exhibit takes full advantage of this type of exhibitry.  Despite the main exhibit area being on the small size, the bears here will have several play areas away from the main exhibit, thereby increasing the overall territory of the animals.  The downside to this is casual visitors may not understand the complexity of the bears' lifestyle, and may judge the exhibit as inadequate. 

However, understanding how to incorporate this important concept will enhance most zoo exhibitry, and many times, is a creative solution to a tricky problem.  Read more about rotation from da man, Jon Coe, here.

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The Next Zoo Design Revolution?

Landscape immersion, which is a type of design intended to "immerse" the visitor in the same natural habitat as the animal, effectively began with the Woodland Park Zoo's gorilla exhibit.  Created by zoo design godfathers Grant Jones and Jon Coe as a collaboration with Woodland Park then-director David Hancocks and biologist Dennis Paulson, they coined the term landscape immersion, and thus began the philosophical shift from a homocentric view of zoos to a biocentric view.  We now spend massive amounts of resources re-creating "natural" places and cultural phenomena, in an effort to connect people to the earth; to inspire respect of natural places.  Back in 1978, this style of design was fresh, new, innovative, revolutionary; nearly thirty years later, the style has become so a part of zoo culture that any exhibit not designed in this manner is questioned for its validity and chances of success.  However, should landscape immersion continue to be our design standard?  How do we push to the next step beyond landscape immersion?

True and successful landscape immersion requires designers to experience a habitat first-hand before beginning to design a re-creation of it.  They research the essence of the habitat, the ecosystem structure within the habitat, and the natural ebbs and flows the habitat would undergo.  The animal is an integral part of the ecosystem, not just the centerpiece of a painted scene.  The visitor is whisked away to another world, drastically different from the asphalt sidewalks and ice cream shops of the zoo midway.  Today's landscape immersion is, too often, not this.  Today's landscape immersion usually means planting the visitor space with the same plants as seen in the animal exhibit, and using props from a culture as shade structures, means to hide back-of-house buildings, and educational interpretives.  Moreover, today's visitor to a modern zoo no longer has their breath taken away by a landscape immersion exhibit; they simply expect to be immersed in an animal's habitat. The magic of landscape immersion is gone.  Along with that, the opportunity to educate and inspire is waning, because, as Coe has said himself, "Only the emotional side, in the end, has the power to generate changes in behavior" (Powell, 1997).  If the "oh my" moment is gone, does education stand a chance?  

Landscape immersion does not generate longer experiences, as commonly believed.  This can easily be shown true by simply observing visitor behavior at exhibits.  After studying visitor length-of-stay time at viewing areas, little to no difference can be observed between the old, concrete moated tiger exhibit at Philadelphia Zoo and the landscape and cultural immersion tiger exhibit at Disney's Animal Kingdom.  The average maximum stay time of 90 seconds has been consistently shown through observations at other exhibits as well, including the gorilla exhibit and bongo exhibit at Cincinnati Zoo, and the polar bear exhibits at Detroit Zoo and Louisville Zoo.  Despite renovations and millions of dollars spent on landscape, rockwork, and interpretives, the most we can expect of our visitors is a minute and a half.  Is this time shorter now than at immersion exhibits in the early 1980's?  What can we do now to increase this time?  Or, what can we do to get the most impact for our minute and a half?

One of the biggest complaints against landscape immersion is the difficulty, generally, in spotting and clearly seeing the animals.  Therefore, proximity to animals should be a chief concern in exhibit design.  Visitors want to experience something special.   They want to do something no one else gets to do; something they have never done.  Most importantly, in doing these things, visitors feel connected to the animals.  Creating the connection should be of the utmost concern for designers and zoos. 

Another component lacking in modern zoo design (not just landscape immersion specifically) is the integration of behavioral enrichment into the basic design process.  Too often behavioral enrichment is an aspect of the exhibit that is not addressed by zoos to the architectural designer, even if the behavioral enrichment program is being developed concurrently.  Most zoos still see the enrichment program as a separate aspect of the new exhibit to be implemented by the keepers after the exhibit is opened.  Most architectural designers are ignorant to the importance of behavioral enrichment as a means not only to increase the health and welfare of the animal, but also in creating an active exhibit with active animals, which translates into longer stay times.  Thus, enrichment generally is not addressed as an aspect of design, and ultimately we see beautiful new landscape immersion exhibits with large orange boomer balls and blue plastic barrels.  Can these be considered cultural props?  Recently, behavioral enrichment has been integrated beautifully into primate exhibits, but what about ungulates and big cats? 

Connection creation and enrichment are the two most important issues that we must address in order to move beyond landscape immersion. The complexity of stepping beyond landscape immersion may seem a daunting task.  However, the essence of the next successful step will be in creating "novelty"-something new or unexpected.  Novelty to visitors, both within every new exhibit they encounter, as well as within the same exhibit upon repeat visits.  We must create novelty to animals, both in new enrichment devices and methods, as well as within their own habitats.  We need to make adaptable habitats that can be changed on a daily, weekly, monthly or seasonal basis.  We need to make experiences for the visitor and animal that they can share, becoming intuitively novel, since every person or animal will react slightly different in new situations.  Thus, our new exhibits will stay new, increasing visitor repeat attendance, and discouraging cookie cutter exhibit design. 

But how do we begin to do this?  In addressing the issues of connection creation and incorporation of enrichment into design, the first and most critical step will be to develop stronger relationships between architectural designers and zoo staff.  Designers need to be educated by the keepers on animals' behaviors, both in the wild and in captivity, as well as on methods of behavioral enrichment.  Designers should spend a day or two working side-by-side with the keepers as "keepers for a day." This will help designers to not only understand the needs of the keepers in their daily work routines, but also to help create bonds between designers and the animals whose homes they are creating.  The zoo staff has a passion for animals that most architectural designers are lacking.  This passion needs to be shared and experienced by the designers. 

In "novelty-based" design, zoos and designers need to work together to develop new methods of enrichment and test them before integrating them into design.  Design schedules and budgets should include a phase for enrichment development and testing, wherein the designers work with the keepers to create prototypes to be tested with the animals.  If the zoo is designing exhibits for animals they currently do not have in collection, partnerships should be developed to test enrichment devices at other zoos with those animals.  These findings should be recorded scientifically and published for the entire zoo community to share.  If the zoo uses training as enrichment, the designers need to experience training sessions and clearly understand the need and utility of the training.  Keepers and designers should be discussing how all of these methods can be displayed on exhibit.

Specific enrichment goals need to be addressed at design kick-off meetings, making numerical goals for incorporating enrichment devices and creating new methods.    Enrichment must be seen as a philosophical aspect of design, incorporated into the master planning process, because if animals are active and happy, visitors will become more engaged.  Enrichment must be planned not only for the opening day of the exhibit, but for the future of the exhibit as well.  Animals become acclimated to enrichment devices and stop using them.  We must plan for this, developing phasing plans for enrichment, and flexibility of the exhibit design for novelty of the environment.  Most importantly, after the construction is complete, studies must be conducted to determine the successes and failures of enrichment techniques.  These results should be shared with the zoo community, and especially, the designers. 

Secondly, the "novelty-based" design process must become "connection-centered," not visitor-centered or animal-centered.  Connections are created both by proximity and by experience.   Landscape immersion began to explore this idea by attempting to have visitors and animals in the same habitat, thus experiencing the same things.  However, in landscape immersion, we don't experience the same things at all.  As visitors, we have a choice to move into a different area, to eat ice cream or hot dogs, to sit and watch the gorillas or to go see the penguins.  We don't swim in the same water as the polar bears and we don't get to swing around on ropes like orangutans.  What if we started creating these shared experiences?  Can we make environments for animals and visitors that are truly similar?  What if the actions of a visitor change the environment for the animal?  What if the actions of an animal change the environment for the visitor?  No longer would we be bound by the idea that the habitat must look like the animals' wild habitat.  We could make it look like any thing, any place, any time, as long as the visitor and animal are engaged and ultimately, connected.  

We have already seen a movement starting to push beyond landscape immersion, and, in some instances, toward "novelty-based" design.  Several new exhibits, including the St. Louis Zoo ‘Penguin & Puffin Coast' exhibit and the San Francisco Zoo's ‘Lipman Family Lemur Forest', utilize natural habitat but also incorporate distinctly non-immersive elements, and are exceedingly successful.  These exhibits focus on getting the visitor close to the animals (connection-centered) and being surrounded by active animals (behavioral understanding and enrichment incorporation).  This experience, which will be different and therefore novel upon each visit, makes these exhibits extremely emotional and therefore memorable to visitors, and begins to create a connection.  These exhibits are a step in the right direction toward "novelty-based" design.  Using this type of design, we can move to the next incremental step in the evolution of landscape immersion, keeping the "oh my!" moment, and continuing to educate and inspire our zoo visitors.

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Louisville Opens Phase 2 of Glacier Run

As part of the concept team at PGAV that developed Glacier Run with Louisville Zoo, I am excitedly awaiting the opening of Phase 3 of Glacier Run--the Polar Bear, Sea Lion, Sea Otter, and Stellar's Sea Eagle exhibits.  However, since phase 3 is still not under construction yet due to lack of funding (get on their webpage and donate people!), we'll have to enjoy the opening of a refurbished Siberian Tiger exhibit nearby the site. 

Water play

Phase 1 of the exhibit area, a themed water play area, was opened last summer, and has since been packed with visitors daily.  Phase 2, the tiger renovations, included updating the mid-century enclosure to be more visitor and keeper friendly.  The old exhibit was uninviting, having 15' tall concrete walls all along the public walkway.  The viewing area looked like a bunker.  Now, the visitor area has been softened with pergolas and plantings.  Training panels have been added so the public can get a first-hand view of the extensive behavioral training and enrichment the zoo conducts with its tigers. 

In fact, Louisville Zoo is on the forefront of animal training and has a tradition of building enrichment and training opportunities into exhibits as a major component (see the Islands exhibit).  The Zoo's philosophy is to turn the zoo "inside out" so all visitors can clearly see the extraordinary care given to the animals by the staff.

In Phase 3, you'll see much of the same.  In concept development, the staff's first concern was to make the environment as complex and enriching as possible with the small amount of space available to the exhibit.  This created not only a complex exhibit, but also a complex holding and enrichment facility with tunnels, stairs, a foraging room, and a maze of transfer chutes.  In the final design, most of these elements made it, enriching not only the animals' lives but also the enhancing the experience for the visitors. 

Old Polar Bear ExhibitThe new Glacier Run exhibit area will replace the current mid-century polar bear exhibit, and take over the adjacent hillside.  The old exhibit was an excellent example of modernist design infiltrating zoos.  The exhibit was more of a sculputural piece than a proper animal enclosure, and the animals were clearly affected.  Stereotypy was seen, and animals rarely used their pool.  The exhibit was entirely concrete with no natural substrates whatsoever.  The new exhibit will be greatly appreciated by the bears. 

Check out the Louisville Zoo's Capital Campaign page for extensive information on the upcoming exhibit, and ways to contribute.

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Enrichment Based Design, Revisited

Over ten years ago, Jon Coe wrote a paper outlining the upcoming breakthroughs in exhibit design, using enrichment based (or as he says, activity-based) design. These exhibits have now been opened and are successful. However, ten years from the original date of the paper, designers still have not fully embraced the design concept. Incorporating enrichment devices into an exhibit is one thing; to fully base design on enrichment or activity, is an entirely different animal. As Coe points out, however, design is not fully the designers' decision. A new animal habitat has many stakeholders, and even if the designer supports the idea of basing design on enrichment, the entire team of administrators, keepers, curators, and Board of Directors, not to mention all members of the design team, must also agree.

In many cases, the resources (of time, money, and/or space) just aren't there. Many times, the decision comes down to making an immersive environment or making an enriching environment. Unfortunately, many folks in the industry still hold onto the idea that an immersive environment equals animal health and activity, or at least, equal visitor satisfaction. However, active animals are much more powerful than a pretty environment, and we must work on our clients to understand this.


Natural Enrichment Ideas for Exhibit Design

We've all been witness to, and some of us may be to blame for, the red boomer balls in tiger exhibits or the blue barrels in the polar bears habitat.  I've heard guests laugh about beer kegs in the bear exhibits, implying in some manner that the bear's an alcoholic.  Positively enjoyable for the guests and the bear, but still a problem as they bring a wholly artificial element into an otherwise "natural" setting.

polar bear video

Watch Video.

In an effort to curb these disruptions in our suspension of disbelief in an immersive zoo exhibit (in other words, in order for us to get rid of any sign that we are, in fact, in a zoo, and not in Borneo or Alaska), we need to start planning the enrichment as a part of the exhibit design process with the keepers.

Jon Coe wrote a nicely illustrated paper for the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria conference back in 2006.  Within this paper not only does he clearly outline several concepts for enrichment devices within exhibits, but also lays out some general guidelines.  Take a look!

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Enrichment as Basis of Design?

For those of you new to zoo design, enrichment (or behavioral enrichment or environmental enrichment) is a means for zoos to invigorate the lives of the captive animals by providing activities or environmental changes that encourage the natural instincts and behaviors of the animals.  As designers, we need to recognize the need for enrichment in the daily lives of animals for several reasons:  active animals make exhibits more engaging; active animals equal happy animals in the eyes of our guests.  Sunbear with Halloween Enrichment

Moreover, as designers, we need to make the lives of keepers as easy as possible.  A cramped or impossible to work in space, makes their daily routines more difficult which means less time to work with the animals and provide for their mental stimulation needs. 

So, providing spaces that recognize the need for enrichment is one step...make spaces flexible and workable for the keepers.  Make lots of storage for things like buckets, boomer balls and other toys, cardboard, and anything else a keeper might want to incorporate into the animal's life.  I've found talking to keepers about their routines and enrichment / training activities both encourages exchange of ideas and information (that, frankly, most of us designers are quite ignorant of), and also works to break the barrier of mistrust between the two groups (which is another topic entirely). 

By NevaBut what about creating an entire exhibit based not on story, or visitor experience, or site constraints, but on animal enrichment?  I've only heard of one exhibit that did this...the lemurs at San Francisco Zoo.  (If there are others out there, please let me know.)  I've never actually seen this exhibit, but heard a presentation about a couple of years ago at the AZA National Conference.  Not only did they build the exhibit based solely on the animals' needs and need for enrichment, but they worked in the visitors' need for connection by allowing the visitors to control some of the enrichment activities.  I'm curious to see if this worked. 

Another possible example, which I am unsure if was based primarily on the idea of enrichment, or if the idea came afterward, is the Islands exhibit at Louisville Zoo.  This exhibit links several smaller exhibits so that the animals, both predator and prey, can be rotated between the exhibits as often as possible.  This allows the critters to get residual scents of each other, theoretically enriching their lives.  I know in certain instances this leads to more stress than good, but I also know this exhibit is still functioning in this manner. 

Can we design a fully successful exhibit, from the visitor's point of view, from the animal's point of view, from the keeper's point of view, starting from the enrichment goals?  I think yes.  We can always find a way to wrap the visitors into a story.  And, well, unfortunately, but accurately, the keepers' behind the scenes spaces can always be worked out after the rest of the front of house stuff is designed.  I'd like to see everyone on a design team on board for this sort of thinking and see where it leads us. 

In the meantime, encouraging zoo clients to, at the very least, include a statement of enrichment design and hopefully an enrichment goal outline in every master plan is a place to start.  Even if the concept phase of the exhibit design doesn't focus on enrichment, make sure that at some point in this phase, its brought up.  At the very least, ask what possible enrichment activities could be done with the species in question, and think about how the keepers can incorporate those activities even in the simplest manner throughout.  Make their lives easier, if you can, by providing attachments for toys, easy methods for hiding snacks and scents, and giving them access to the highest points in the exhibits. 

If you get lucky, you'll get a client that wants to really explore how to connect design and enrichment.  For the most part now, though, keepers will continue to fight their way through the daily challenge of enriching their animals' lives without the support of an exhibit truly designed for maximum enrichment opportunities.

And if you'd like to really impress your keepers, check out some of the enrichment websites listed in the Blogroll and come prepared to meetings with ideas!

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Opening: Russia's Grizzly Coast

bearlogoCongratulations to Minnesota Zoo and Portico Group on the opening of their newest exhibit, Russia's Grizzly Coast.  Opened on June 7 to the public, the exhibit looks amazing, incorporating geysers, steam vents, mud pots, and lava tubes to recreate the desolate Russia habitat.  Not many zoos have tackled Russia, due to political sensitivities, but I'm glad to see someone has broken through the invisible wall. 

Stats on the exhibit:

Total Exhibit Size: 3.5 acres

Otter Exhibit: 1,368 sq. ft.

Pool: 34,000 gallons

Bear Exhibit: 13,603 sq. ft.

Stream: 1,800 gallons

Pool: 16,500 gallons

Trout Pond: 2,600 gallons

Boar Exhibit: 1,932 sq. ft.

Leopard Exhibit: 2,785 sq. ft.

Cost: $23.6 million

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