Advanced Evolution of Chinese Zoos

speaking at CAZG 2017

speaking at CAZG 2017

I’m writing this piece in the fifth hour of the fourteen hour flight to the U.S. from Beijing. I’ve already watched two movies, had a couple glasses of wine, and did some work. I’m reflecting on my whirlwind trip in Ordos, Inner Mongolia for the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens’ (CAZG) 2nd annual conference, where although I was only there for 24 hours, I presented twice for a total of 5 hours. While these stats are quite impressive, the most impressive thing about this trip was the evolution that I am seeing in Chinese zoos and aquariums.

I’ve been coming to China for 8 years, for projects and for exploration of the potential market for zoo designers here. Although PGAV has been fairly consistently engaged in project work in this massive country over the last decade, most of that has been related to theme parks. The sudden and intense growth of the middle class has created a thirst for leisure activities, and while museums, water parks, historic cities, natural areas, and theme parks have been highly targeted for updates and new projects, the desire for modern, innovative zoos has lagged behind. In my opinion, this is directly related to the state of Chinese society’s relationship to animals and nature: the persistent desire for tiger and rhino parts for traditional medicines; exploitation of baby animals, especially tiger cubs, for photos at zoos; the market for ivory as status symbols; the levels of pollution in the water and air.


But recently, the Chinese government has dedicated itself to reversing these trends: last year’s historic ivory ban, the continued dedication to the Paris climate accord, and the highly visible campaigns to educate Chinese citizens against the use of animal parts in medicine (as partnerships with organizations like WWF). I’ve even seen a difference over the years in small things that we take for granted in the U.S.: recycling in airports; signs asking people not to waste paper to save the trees; marketing campaigns for cities like Ordos that highlight how green the city is; encouraging the use of reusable water bottles with clean water stations at airports.


Even though I was only able to spend a day with the Chinese zoo association, I was elated to see the level of advancement in only the two to three years that I’ve been working with them. As I spoke to the crowd about creating spaces that respond to the nature of animals, not to coerce them, to allow them to make decisions on their own even if that decision means your visitors don’t get to see them easily or on each and every visit, I saw heads nodding. A delegate coming to my aid when another challenged my assertion that extra spaces like flexible yards and enrichment rooms are worth the effort and cost. The zoo that proudly shared their designs with me for three new projects--the incredible difference between the designs that had been completed only two years ago, and the ones completed within the month. The level of investment in aspects dedicated exclusively to welfare. The new center for conservation and education.


The CAZG itself is advancing. The conference attendance nearly doubled in one year—only its second year. The Association has created a department dedicated exclusively to design, hiring two full-time designers to aid government-run zoos in improvements. They spent over five years creating a set of design regulations, released this year, that blow our APHIS regs out of the water.They are hungry for knowledge, and thirsty for implementation.


All of this means that the evolution of Chinese zoos will continue to advance at a break-neck speed. And that’s a wonderful thing. The typical city zoos that are pervasive throughout the country are as deplorable as you can imagine. Undersized and rusted cages. Limited education focus, if any at all. Lack of enrichment or even natural substrates. Private facilities have and will continue to be at the forefront of innovation due to bigger budgets, but there are a few shining examples of upcoming change at public institutions such as Nanjing Hongshan Forest Zoo and Beijing Zoo.As long as the government continues to infuse capital into these organizations—and hopefully continue to increase that level, Chinese zoos will soon be as modern as those in the West. And, perhaps even more importantly (and as has been true throughout history), the improvements in zoos will be a reflection of the changing relationship of the Chinese people with the natural world.


The Polar Bear Controversy

If you google "polar bear" + death + zoo, you'll find a slew of polar bear deaths over the past few years.  Most, if not all, were not due to neglect on the zoo's part, but were accidents or medical issues.  However, because of public and animal activism outcry, zoos have had to take a long, hard look at whether or not they should continue to display polar bears.  Recently, our firm has had the opportunity to work with several zoos on their new polar bear exhibits.  The impetus to create new habitats for these bears has stemmed both from public outcry and also from the recognition of the poor design of the bears' enclosures.  

Bear Pit in BerneHistorically, around the turn of the 20th century, bears of all kinds were held in a "bear pit."  Originally, these pits are exactly as they are named; rock enclosures with a depressed center where people can look down onto the bears.  Slowly, through the 1940s, the pit design evolved into more of an eye-to-eye enclosure, rather than a depression, where the bears' habitat is on similar grade to the visitor.  

Inspired by Carl Hagenbeck, moats were incorporated across the fronts Modern Bear Pit of these "modern pits" and allowed a more unobstructed view to the bears.  Exhibits are small, with little to no natural substrate, and generally include a small, five or six foot deep pool, ensuring the bears will be in view at all points along the open viewing rail.  Access to back-of-house dens directly connect to the back of the exhibit, tucked inside rocks, leaving a nice little den for the bear to sleep in away from the visitor.  

Until recently, these were the standard bear exhibits seen throughout zoos worldwide.  Luckily, whether out of concern for perception of care or well-being of the animals, zoos have started an exhibit design evolution of these exhibits.  

Along with increasing sizes of exhibits, zoos are incorporating underwater viewing, deep pools, shallow pools, natural streams, natural substrate for digging and denning, places to hide, cool rocks, fish shooters and more.  A lot of these recommendations are coming directly from the knowledgeable folks at the AZA Bear TAG.  

Detroit Zoo's Polar BearsPart of the controversy with the new exhibits, however, in terms of design, is the barriers. Until recently, USDA APHIS guidelines were the only standards available for any aspects of the polar bear exhibit design.  Horribly small minimums for dry area and pool surface area and depth were the only standards outlined in these regulations.  Barrier height was left to the zoo's discretion, averaging around 12' in height for walls and width and depth of moats.  

In response to the need for better guidelines, the AZA announced they'd be creating Standardized Guidelines for polar bears, outlining the zoo community's collective opinion on habitat design, including barriers.  At the same time, the province of Manitoba released an official document (which later became law, as I understand it), mandating exhibit minimums for any zoo hoping to receive a "polar bear donation" from the province (which is a major sector of polar bear habitat).  

From the Manitoba Conservation webpageThe policy specifies that only orphaned cubs will be donated to zoos, that cubs will not be captured specifically for donation to zoos, and that animals will only be donated to zoos that meet or exceed the specified standards.  

Procedures further require that the receiving zoo must enter into a contractual obligation to maintain the required facilities for the life of the bear... and to ensure that if the bear or offspring are transferred, the new facility also meets or exceeds the specified standards.  

The facility standards require, among other things, that barriers are 20' tall in the case of walls and depth of moats, and 20' wide for moats. 

The AZA guidelines released soon after did not follow these regulations and are recommending only 16' in height (and width of moats), with 20'distance from visitor viewing to bear area (16' moat plus 4' landscape buffer to handrail). 

The question for zoos now is:  Which do we follow? 

San Diego's Polar BearsMost bears in zoos are born in captivity, but a few still come from Canada as a "donation" due to the orphaned bear problem.  Zoos must now use their magic eight ball to determine if they will, in the future, take Canadian bears to fill their collection needs as older bears die, or if they should invest in better facilities for breeding.  Some zoos are deciding the costs of the extra 4' in barrier height do not fit their capital budget. 

Other zoos are choosing to delete polar bears from their collections completely, knowing the costs of updating exhibits are just too high for the benefit they would gain by keeping the animals.  

Either way, polar bears across the globe are getting new digs.  Hopefully, the public will applaud these changes, instead of taking aim at zoos lagging behind.  Only the magic eight ball can know for sure.

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