Utica Zoo: Oktoberfest All Year-Round!


Wildlife Center at the heart of Utica Zoo

Wildlife Center at the heart of Utica Zoo

The iconic building at the heart of the 40 acre, AZA accredited Utica Zoo, the Wildlife Center, perfectly personifies the character and soul of the small zoo itself. Vaguely Bavarian, possibly Tudor (as suggested by Director of Administrative Operations, Nikki Sheehan), the massive and historic building inconveniently houses the majority of the back of house support spaces for the zoo, from education program animals, to an indoor amphitheater, to reptile exhibits, to administrative offices, and even maintenance. Being at the center of the zoo, visitors pass it multiple times (at least twice, probably thrice) and are exposed to all its facades. Thus, service access to the building is difficult (daytime deliveries of food and fish occur THROUGH the herpetarium’s main guest path) and camouflaging the mundane workings of a zoo, like the education vehicle or the outdoor workspace for maintenance repairs, is incredibly difficult.

But, ever the optimist, I believe this building should be considered an opportunity, not a challenge. As we know, in these times where all zoos and aquariums, even those gold-standard AZA accredited ones, are being attacked with non-sensical accusations causing public perceptions of zoos and aquariums to decline (slightly, but surely), transparency of the workings of the zoo is critical. With this in mind, Utica Zoo found a way to utilize part of their central building to do just that—providing windows into the newly renovated and expanded program animal holding areas. This gives the animals additional exterior habitats and enrichment through interaction with guests, if they so choose. It also shows off the back of house and care provided to these critters that often are, unfortunately, provided the least luxurious accommodations at zoos.

The Wildlife Center building’s presence is felt much more than in its size and placement alone. It was the first building at the historic zoo, whose original opening dates back to 1914. The Wildlife Center was opened in 1920, and with a little digging, I discovered that it was likely designed in a Bavarian style (not English Tudor) as a reflection of the dominant German population in Utica at the time. No wonder I was craving beer and a pretzel as I gazed at the vista of the town below us from a perch above an empty exhibit—a missed opportunity for creating the most impactful and likely most photographed exhibit in the zoo!

View over empty exhibit to Utica below

View over empty exhibit to Utica below

The Bavarian influence of the zoo is felt throughout, from the entry building and adjacent animal holding building, to the beautiful site perched on the side of a large wooded hillside overlooking Utica below, to the fact that the Zoo, despite being covered in two feet of snow, is open during the winter and offers snowshoeing tours to see the winter-hardy residents—which I was surprised to learn, are not as much a focus as I had hoped.

Bavaria conjures a bit of whimsy to me, along with some strong associations with agrarian living. Luckily, the zoo delivers on both of these fronts with the World’s Largest Watering Can (I’m not joking!) presented as a fountain in a lush garden complete with trellis tunnel entry lit with vintage string lights, and a historic Bavarian barn for domestics along with a smaller barn for chickens and barn owl (Finally! A Barn owl presented in a barn!).

The Zoo’s habitats are, by and large, what you’d expect from a zoo of this history, size, and operating budget (about $2 million). None are outstanding, but most appear large, naturalistic, and appropriate to the needs of the species living within. The Zoo is not organized zoogeographically, for the most part, with only a North America zone (a fantastic “let’s go for a hike” experience with unpaved trails through the woods) and an underwhelming (and inappropriate to the region and zoo, in my opinion) ‘African Alley.’ Otherwise, animals are mixed together, placed in habitats that work best for them behaviorally and as needed at the time (I visited during major construction outside the zoo gates which impacted the animals living nearby).

Bavaria also makes me thirsty for a giant beer, and alas, the Zoo is missing out on that piece. In fact, the Zoo only has one snack stand—a disappointing 1960s style building serving the standard zoo fare. I’d love to see the Wildlife Center revamped (moving the back of house support functions to the edge of the zoo somewhere, of course) to include a beautiful indoor bier hall-style restaurant with outdoor biergarten doubling as a rental space for much needed revenues. They could even keep a few exhibits nearby, like the gorgeous and huge bald eagle display, and support a really impressive Oktoberfest (and steal Saint Louis Zoo’s Ottertoberfest—and add otters, I guess!).

Overall, the Utica Zoo is an adorable regional gem as it is today, but there is definitely room for improvement with efficient service access, upgrades to older areas of the zoo, and deeper thinking related to the selection of animals. The biggest concern for me is the growth of revenues to achieve these improvements. A small zoo with annual attendance of 105,000 (excluding education programs) needs to optimize their revenues. Adding food & beverage in ideal locations (either adding another stand to the opposite side of the zoo OR moving to the center of the zoo where guests pass multiple times) and adding a multi-purpose indoor special events space with restrooms nearby (for nighttime rentals, winter zoo events, overnights and birthday parties) would provide much needed revenues to propel the zoo into a top-notch facility. Oh, and please start serving beer already!




Happy Anniversary! 10 Years of

Can you believe this summer marks ten years of my little corner of the internet talking about design and the future of zoos and aquariums? Although my posting has become more infrequent as my professional life has evolved, you--my supportive and sometimes thoughtfully critical reader--remain constant. I owe you a huge Thank You for reading my ramblings, and contributing your thoughts. For funsies, I thought we'd review a few of the highlights from the past 10 years and over 200 posts!


Top Ten All-Time-Most-Popular Posts (by visits)

10. "Visitors: An Overlooked Species at the Zoo" (2013) by guest blogger and colleague, Eileen (Ostermeier) Hill. Discusses the critical importance of visitor studies at zoos, some hurdles to studies, and the role of designers relative to visitor studies.

9. "The Future of Zoos: Blurring the Boundaries" (2014) a second entry by guest blogger and obviously brilliant colleague, Eileen Hill. Powerpoint presentation with script about trends in zoos today and how they may play out into zoos of the future. Eileen proposes zoos of the future will by hybrids of multiple science based institutions.

8. "St. Louis Zoo's SEA LION SOUND" (2012). Showcasing the then-new exhibit at the Zoo including fly-thru video, photos of new exhibit, and interview with one of the architects from PGAV Destinations who helped bring the design into reality.

7. "SAFARI AFRICA! Revealed at Columbus Zoo" (2012). Announcement of the ground-breaking of the eventual AZA Top Honors in Design award-winning Heart of Africa (renamed). Includes renderings and site plan.

6. "Underdogs: The Appeal of the Small Zoo" (2013). Exploration of what makes small zoos so appealing to visitors, and meaningful to work for as a designer. Features Binder Park Zoo, Central Florida Zoo, and Big Bear Alpine Zoo.

5. "In Marius' Honor" (2014) by guest blogger and now Project Manager at the esteemed Monterey Bay Aquarium, Trisha Crowe. Trisha explores her emotional reaction to the Copenhagen Zoo's disposal of Marius the giraffe, and implores readers to support zoos, no matter your stance on animal rights.

4. "Small and Sad: Dubai Zoo's Relocation on Hold Again" (2009). Occurred to me today, should have been title "Small and SAND", but the sad state of the old zoo is what made this post so popular. Includes design plans and renderings--which I am sure are woefully out of date. Anyone have any updates??

3. "How to Become a Zoo Designer" (2014). After about 25,000 emails from aspiring zoo designers asking similar questions, I just went ahead and wrote it up to shortcut a step... Still, feel free to email me--I always write back. Let's be pen pals!

2. "The Next Zoo Design Revolution" (2008). One of my very first posts, which explains the popularity. Some say naïve, some say gutsy look at incremental revolution in zoos. The future of zoos has been examined at least 300 times since this one, but in re-reading, I see some kernels of accuracy. Expect an update soon...

And in the #1 spot....

1. "A Quick Lesson in Zoo Design History" (2008). Perhaps my second post ever, which again explains it's number 1 spot. A not-as-advertised look at zoo design history which, I have a feeling, has been referenced by many of the 25,000 students (above) in their zoo projects. Holla at me if you cited me!

Top Ten Recommended Reads for Zoo Designers (aside from those above)

10. "To Safari or Night Safari" (2008). I'm a sucker for the title. But this post examines the very slow to catch on trend of after-hours programming or extended zoo hours as a feasible method to increase attendance. Post-posting amendment: in particular, this is a great strategy for targeting adults without kids.

9. "Does Winter Have to be a Dead Zone at the Zoo?" (2013). I cheated a little on this one. I didn't actually post to, but to my blog at where many of my more recent posts have been landing. This one discusses another strategy to increase attendance by targeting the most difficult time of year for temperate zoos: winter.

8. "Zoo Exhibits in Three Acts" (2011). Storytelling in zoo exhibits, told through, what else?: a story.


7. "8 Characteristics of Brand Experience" (2018). A new one! Understanding what makes strong brands so very strong is important and applicable to new attractions at zoos and aquariums. Examined through the lens of non-zoo brands, like my fav: OrangeTheory.

6. "Interactivity and Zoos" (2013). Examining the different modes of interactivity that are available in zoos, and how they can be applied to experience. A good primer.

5. "How Animal Behavior Drives Zoo Design" (2011). Starting with animals in design can be overwhelming. What information is pertinent to a designer, and what is just interesting to know. Another good primer for learning the basics of zoo design.

4. "Chasing Big Cats: Snow Leopards and Perseverance" (2017). Being a good designer is about so much more than just having cool ideas and being able to communicate them well. Learn the qualities intangible qualities that make good designers, GREAT. Don't be afraid...hint, hint.

3. "Making Responsible Tacos: Conservation Brand Perception at Zoos and Aquariums" (2015). Adapted from a talk I gave, I examine how aspirational brand should translate to experience in zoos and aquariums using the popular taco analogy. Yum. Tacos.

2. "Five Zoo Innovations that have been around for Decades"Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 (2014). Again, pulled from Blooloop. A series of 5 posts examining design elements and characteristics that American zoos have been implementing for decades. This series was an angry reaction to the 'revolutionary' design of metal pods floating through a zoo in Europe. A woman scorned...publishes 5 posts to prove how you don't know anything about innovation. Ha!

1. "Zoos in a Post Truth World" (2017). What every zoo and aquarium advocate needs to consider in this continued atmosphere of skepticism, critique, and distrust. As a zoo designer, you must be aware of changing perceptions and the power we have to shape them.

Top Ten Things I Learned in the Last Ten Years (Blogging or Otherwise...)

10. I'm not shy; I'm introverted

9. How to poop in a hole while wearing 3 three layers of snow pants

9a. Always pack enough Pepto tabs (at least 2 per day while away)

8. I'm not good at social media (see: 10 years of blogging and 600 Twitter followers, probably mostly for cat pics)

7. And speaking of cats, the rubbery buttons of a TV's remote control makes said remote an easy tool to remove cat hair from sofas and pants

6. I sleep better when flying in Business Class


5. Always pay the extra money to hire movers to load and unload that U-Haul

4. Writing isn't hard. Just start typing and...

3. Confidence

2. I lose all 'adultness' around ice cream and baby animals

1. Zoo and aquarium people are really the best people in the world.

Here's to many more decades of Zoo & Aquarium design!

With love and respect--

Your friend, Stacey

Guided Travel with Millennials: A New Revenue Stream?


With this blog post at I explored the idea of creating intentional and robust travel programs with zoos and aquariums that target their widest and core audience: Millennials. Many zoos and aquariums currently have limited travel programs that may occur infrequently, are largely under-marketed, and are mostly targeted at "big pockets" spenders for nurturing into major donors in the future. I examined why a less expensive and more robust offering could prove to be a lucrative investment in resources for the organization while also aligning perfectly with mission.  

The Future of Science Based Institutions

The question of co-evolution amongst zoos, aquaria, and science museums has been a lingering muse for decades now.  Back in 1986, Jon Coe cleverly equated the historical relationships to convergent evolution, and through his paper, which was more history lesson than predictor of the future, compared their similarities through time.  Ultimately, he suggests "an awareness of others and ourselves, together with a willingness to communicate, can lead us further into an exciting co-evolution of zoo, aquariums and natural history museums." I'd like to take it a step further.

I often wonder why we separate all of our science institutions, dividing the natural world into equal, but succinct pieces: land animal (zoos), plant (botanical gardens), aquatic animal (aquaria), and the sciences (natural history museums and science centers).  Of course, overlap occurs; zoos have fish and aquatic mammals, botanical gardens have butterfly houses, science museums have dioramas of the natural history of living creatures.  Additionally, the method of teaching the general sciences varies greatly from conservative natural history museum approaches to more "fun" and interactive science centers.

As Coe mentioned, the teaming up of these institutions would be a powerful force.  However, if, going beyond what Coe suggested, we created one institution that presented all of these disciplines, we'd be teaching holistically, presenting a unified view of the natural world that so many children and adults rarely get the chance to see.

The world has changed dramatically since the inception of these learning institutions.  Most zoos and natural history museums began at the turn of the 19th century, when for the good majority of people, we still lived in a mostly untouched rurality.  These people grew up with nature, lived in nature, or could easily visit nature, and learning about the natural world was most easily understood by the breaking down of components.

Today, however, most people live in cities or suburbs.  Any nature we experience regularly is man-made or man-influenced, and certainly does not contain a wide variety of species or habitats.  Learning about nature now becomes easier through an immersive, holistic approach.  Add in society's constant bombardment with story driven entertainment and eye-candy, and learning almost requires the same treatment.  Or so I postulate.

The Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina has already come to the same conclusion.  Currently, they house live animals, present botanical displays, a natural wetland trail, and incorporate hands-on science center activities throughout.  This is not enough for them, however.

We envision a one-of-a-kind place, a science park, offering extraordinary experiences indoors, outdoors, and virtual where children and adults learn through the pursuit of their own interests and curiosity. We will be recognized as the leader in public engagement with science in the Triangle region and as a model for science museums across the nation.

Will this be the future of science institutions?  A one-stop shop, so to speak, for education and entertainment about the natural world?  All things are intertwined; nature is a web of life.  Why not present it that way?

Read the follow-up to this post: 'MULTI-DISCIPLINARY INTEGRATION...A MOUTHFUL OF FUN.'

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