CASE STUDY: 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!
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!