Caldwell Zoo: A Timeless Ballad

Caldwell Zoo: A Timeless Ballad

The Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas is a large ‘small’ zoo located in a small town. Drawing 250,000 in annual attendance from a drive time of about 1.5 hours, the family zoo is a great example of the best of small zoos—lovingly and thoughtfully designed using a blend of modern, innovative zoo design techniques with clean, timeless designs and light touches of theming set in a lush landscape with water features. A timeless, beautiful zoo borne from love—and a desire to be a community asset.

Chasing Big Cats: Snow Leopards and Perseverance


I’ve always been nervous about meeting new people. Socializing is not my natural state. I hated Santa--coming into our grandparents’ house, demanding me to sit on his lap. I’d run and hide under the dining room table when I heard that jolly ho-ho-ho. My stomach does flops thinking, not about the presentation to 300 people, but of the awkward mingling with conference attendees and fellow speakers before and after. I avoid parties where I don’t know at least three people closely (I gladly host them, happy in the knowledge I can always escape into hosting duties such as serving food or MCing a game). Spending three weeks on a frigid Indian mountainside in December with a handful of strangers who mostly speak languages other than my own was quite possibly the scariest thing I’ve ever attempted.

This post is about leaving your comfort zone. A critical element of personal development—and more importantly, of becoming the best designer you can possibly be.


That morning arriving to Leh, after thirty hours of travel and four flights, I was not ready to sit and drink tea with five strangers—in a country I’ve never been. We made small talk about how the flights were and where we are from. We weren’t sure what kind of tea to drink. What is Masala? Is it with goat’s milk like my friend warned me of? How much caffeine does it have? Do I need sugar??? I didn’t know who actually spoke English and therefore could handle me asking them a question, and who would look at me panicked not understanding what the tall blonde American lady is demanding! I was tired, cranky, but also excited to finally be here. To finally be on the hunt for the elusive snow leopard.

20161226_115711 (Medium)

Several days later, after “adjusting” to the elevation of Leh (around 11,000’) and after spending a day together birding around the Himalayan foothills surrounding the town, we loaded up the SUV with our gear to hit the mountains. We headed to our camp in Hozing Valley. Situated among mountain ridges between 12,000 and 13,000’, our base camp consisted of three small sleeping tents (one for each of us), and two larger mess-style canvas tents—one serving as kitchen, one as the dining room. The dining tent had a propane heater; the kitchen had a cook and a cook’s assistant. We had a simple pit-toilet outhouse—a hole in the floor. We had no running water, no heat in our sleeping tents. It was December, and it was cold. Very cold. The coldest night was about -35 F.

20161227_112226 (Medium)

The days were filled with hiking nearly vertical slopes among boulders and on gravelly sheep-made paths, to sit in the sun on ridges overlooking the valley. We’d sit for hours, scanning the rocky cliffs with binoculars and spotting scopes. We’d layer up for the frigid morning walks starting at sun up—before the sun passed over the ridges, when accidental water spills turned instantly into icicles. Some mornings--the coldest mornings, I’d be wrapped up so thick, my shadow looked like an astronaut: two wool base layers, two pairs of snow pants on my legs; a wicking shirt, two wool base layers, a fleece vest, a fleece jacket, a down jacket, and a ski jacket on top; a scarf; two hats (one a beanie, and one a thick, (faux) fur-lined Nordic thing); three pairs of socks; a pair of wool gloves beneath a thick set of mittens. At 10:30am, the sun came up over the ridge--its warmth allowed us to remove layers, and caused our feet to sweat as we trekked up several hundred feet of steep slope in astronaut gear. Then, when the sun found its way behind the ridges again at 3:30pm, our toes began to numb as our sweat-soaked socks and boots literally froze.

It was fun. I definitely lost 5 pounds.

IMG_7570 (Medium)

But the reward was delivered on the third day: a snow leopard! The build-up to the sighting was screenplay perfection. Our trackers spotted a blue sheep (the snow leopard’s favorite prey), dead on the ridge above our camp. They inspected the frozen carcass and found no obvious signs of trauma, just a dribble of blood at the corner of his mouth. Certainly within the realm of possibility of a snow leopard kill. Later, a local reported snow leopard tracks on the road leading to our camp. Trackers dispersed across the valley, scanning the rocky ledges and cliffs with spotting scopes. We sat quietly scanning, until one of the trackers came running down a steep hillside, and delivered the news: a snow leopard.

20161230_115316 (Medium)

His (we assumed he was a male, although no one could confirm) kill was located just 150 yards from our camp—a very, very lucky chance occurrence. We watched him for four days, as he stayed to feed on the frozen carcass, fully within view. During that time, we watched patiently as he slept in the sun. And slept in the sun. And slept in the shade! And slept in the sun. Someone always had their eye on the lens, watching. And when he shifted position, we’d yell, “Head up!” and everyone ran to the scopes. He stretched like a housecat, and curled his long tail around him, using it as a pillow. We’d squeal and coo, like children. We’d celebrate every evening with a toast of cheap brandy, before heading to bed at 8pm. We became compatriots in battle, bound by one, big, fluffy kitty cat.


The trip was 12 days in the Himalayas, split between two locales. We stayed at our tented camp for eight, adjusting the itinerary due to seeing the leopard. We also stayed at a homestay for the balance, where the accommodations were slightly more luxurious, but still with limited heat, and no indoor plumbing. At the end of the trip, we said good-bye to the local guides and staff (five of them), and the couple from Spain (who were the only paying tourists other than me) departed. My tour guide, Marta, and I headed onto Talla and Bandhavgarh to search for tigers. The accommodations there were absolutely luxurious with toilets and showers, a real bed, and a space heater. And the climate was balmy at 55-65 F. We had an amazing day and a half exploring Bandhavgarh Tiger Preserve, where 65 tigers reside in 172 square miles. Chances of seeing tigers is slightly better than seeing snow leopards in Leh, yet we saw only one, and only for five minutes.

IMG_7971 (Medium)

Even so, my trip was blessed with wildlife. Everyone we talked to spoke of how lucky we were. Most people see a snow leopard on our itinerary, but they are usually much, much further away, and for only a few minutes. We saw two (the second was just a brief interlude—a more typical tourist experience), and we saw a tiger.

I like to think this luck was a reward for my bravery. For not cancelling the trip when I couldn’t find a travel partner. For not chickening out--knowing that I get cold very easily and don’t like curry (especially now!). And it reminds me that good things generally come from sticking your neck out.

20161229_162446 (Medium).jpg

For many years, my annual reviews at PGAV consistently pointed to one major downfall of my performance: not being assertive enough. I realized in India—as I pondered if I really knew how to identify frostbite—that I had become quite assertive. I ‘stopped asking for permission, and started asking for forgiveness.’ And many times I failed, but many more times, I didn’t. It was more than not failing. It was succeeding. Taking chances and not waiting for the “perfect time” has changed my trajectory in my professional life. I always think about design from the options that we haven’t yet tried. I explore the crazy ideas that seem, on first glance, unrealistic. I don’t back away just because there is a potential negative—because there might also be a bigger positive you don’t yet see. However, it doesn’t mean we waste time going in never-ending circles. I’ve become strong enough and brave enough to make decisions based on logic, reasoning, and a little gut—and run with them.

And you should too. Step out into the cold, or into a room full of strangers, every once in a while. Speak up. Take action. Take a chance… and maybe you, too, will be blessed with big cats.

IMG_8037 (Medium)

Dakota Zoo's New Tiger Exhibit

Apparently, its Tiger Week here at DesigningZoos.com!  To continue the trend, I'm bringing you the exclusive details on the Dakota Zoo's new Tiger exhibit.  This week, the Zoo, located in Bismarck, ND, opened Phase I of its new two-part big cat exhibit. Phase I is a super-sized tiger exhibit, currently housing three adolescent Siberian Tigers, and Phase II, slated to open September this year, will be the new home to two Snow Leopards.  Here is a local news reporter's tour through the exhibit. The Zoo successfully managed to stretch its limited budget of $1.2 million to the max, by primarily focusing on animal well-being and visitor proximity above theming and story-delivery. The guest features of the tiger habitat include pop-up viewing stations inside the exhibit, as well as nose-to-nose glass viewing from the perimeter.

The tigers are lavishly provided for, as well, with an enormous 45,000 sf of exhibit space. For comparison, the Bronx Zoo's large six tiger habitat, opened in 2003, is approximately 65,000 sf (that's 10,800 sf / tiger) while Dallas Zoo's six tiger habitat, opened in 1999, is a more typical 28,000 sf (4600 sf / tiger). The Dakota Zoo has planned for a maximum of four total tigers, which would mean each tiger could have a possible 11,250 sf territory to roam, when the facility is maxed out.

The exhibit also features pools for swimming and play, rocks for lounging and climbing, natural vegetation for shade, and grass underfoot.

The Dakota Zoo's back of house support area is also impressive, providing four somewhat standard-sized stalls of 120 sf each (10' x 12'), with an additional 1200 sf off-exhibit yard.

Terry Lincoln, Director of the Dakota Zoo, kindly took a few minutes to share some thoughts on the exhibit with me. Via e-mail, I asked him if the recent press coverage of the San Francisco Zoo's attack had affected any of the planning for this exhibit.

"We did review the San Francisco tiger incident and didn't end up changing our plans, although we were interested to learn that our den height of 12' was roughly the same height as their exhibit wall. Our den {ed. note: holding building which serves as one barrier of tiger enclosure} has 4.5' of mesh and solid invert above the 12' level to prohibit jumping or climbing {from within the exhibit}. We {also} made provisions to install a video DVR system to monitor and record the guardrail areas in the event that an incident were to occur."

He also mentioned the exhibit walls are 16.5' tall, and made from 3" mesh. The full height includes a four foot kickback at the top. Additionally, the tigers are discouraged from approaching the mesh walls with a single strand of hotwire at the two foot level. Click here to watch a video of Terry and the stars of the show being interviewed at the off-exhibit yard.

This exhibit took over eight years of planning and fundraising. The Zoo designed the exhibit in-house, hiring a local architect to draw it up for them.  It is clear by the amount of local press coverage of the exhibit that the city is very proud of the exhibit and the zoo. Congratulations to all involved in Phase I, and best of luck in Phase II.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Erie Zoo's New Tiger Exhibit

Nikki Thinking About It The AP story about Erie Zoo's shy tiger is showing up in most of the nation's local papers and is plastered all over the internet...just try googling Erie Zoo and tiger!  The brief article tells us the tiger, a male named Nikki, who is a recent addition to the zoo, is taking his sweet time to explore the exhibit.  Two months, so far, and he's only poked his head out.  The article does not go into detail about the exhibit.

After some searching, I've found some additional information related to zoo design.  The $500,000 exhibit renovation included adding a yard (essentially doubling the space for the tigers), adding grass versus the traditional rockwork underfoot, and upgrading the visitor experience to include glass viewing for nose-to-nose interaction, mesh training panels, and shade to encourage lingering (and in Erie, I suspect, to protect from snow).  Here's a video on the new exhibit.

Nikki came from the Brookfield Zoo, whose tiger exhibit leaves much to be desired.  The Brookfield exhibit is a remnant of the historic bear pits, and is mostly rockwork.  The Zoo has upgraded as much as possible by adding some natural substrate and encouraging vegetative growth, but the exhibit is highly dated.  Visitors can view 180 degrees along the moated pathway.  Nikki's hesitation to explore might be exacerbated by the extreme difference in habitats, not to mention his change of city and additional new neighbors.  Or, he could, as the AP puts it, just be shy. 

Brookfield Tiger Sleeping

If anyone has more data on the new Erie renovation, please pass it along.  I'm curious especially about size and barriers.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

MI Zoo's Reaction to San Fran's Tiger

This article is definitely a little late in the game, but its an interesting read in relation to how zoos nationwide are affected by local tragedies. 

Essentially, the attack in San Francisco has caused zoos to re-evaluate the safety of their own enclosures, and, in some instances, add additional safeguards to new and existing exhibits.  John Ball Zoo opened the Lions of Lake Manyara exhibit this summer, after having carefully considered the events in San Francisco. 

The zoo community is very close-knitted.  Issues that affect one zoo, also have effects elsewhere.  Keep this in mind when designing for multiple zoos.  We can always learn from each other.

Busch Gardens' Jungala Walk-thru

Recently, Busch Gardens' Africa's latest attraction, Junagala, opened to rave reviews.  Check out the video preview from Orlando Attraction Magazine. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dD_QTzSrVUk]

This new addition, conceptualized by Portico Group, includes a new large, lush habitat for the tigers and orangutans (not together!), and massive play structure for kids and adults, including several small sized rides. The purpose was to create interactivity between animals and people, and allow guests understand that all creatures play. In fact, the orangs play so well, that one has already found a way to escape, only to be lured back to her exhibit with ice cream!

The writers over at MiceAge, a site dedicated to the Disney parks, took time out to experience the attraction and write up a review.  According to them, the attraction is a real win, and touches on the idea of enrichment-based design for guests and animals alike.  Enjoy!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Unethical? Thailand's Tiger Temple

Thailand is touting a tiger temple where visitors can, once daily, walk amongst, pet, and be photographed with endangered animals, including tigers. The temple claims the tigers are tame, and are all the offspring from an orphaned group rescued years ago.

I won't deny the power of walking amongst these amazingly beautiful and powerful creatures, but where do we draw the line? Is petting a potentially dangerous animal truly beneficial to anyone beside the accountant at the temple?

And what of tameness via feeding the cats only cooked meat? Can this truly tame a big cat? I believe these cats can never truly be tamed, and I'm hesitant for anyone to work barrier free with the animals, not to mention letting uneducated visitors interact with them at will.

Plus, check out the photos. The cats look drugged, and definitely are chained up. Its a shame. And they call themselves a sanctuary.

What do you think?

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

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.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine


San Francisco Zoo's Tigers Back on Exhibit

Most of us are aware of the tiger escape and subsequent attack that occurred last Christmas at the San Francisco Zoo.  The attack has spurned much controversy from the public (look at the comments on the YouTube videos below), and also within the zoo community regarding the "guidelines" the AZA puts forth. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kh6finppjLI&hl=en]

The most recent published guidelines recommended 16' height on moats and with 25' width, and 20' height on walls.   San Francisco's exhibit had 15' height moat.  I'm unsure of the width.  However, they've subsequently gone back and built additional height to the public side of the exhibit. 

The topic demonstrates the fact that we can never be too safe when it comes to both animal safety and human safety (keeper and visitor).  However, at some point, we're overdesigning to the point that the experience of visiting the zoo becomes more prison-like with 20 foot walls everywhere. 

In this case, some evidence has been provided that the victims of the attack could have been taunting the tiger.  These instances are such that any animal could find a way to escape any enclosure.   Should we design for those instances?  Or should we design for day to day safety? 

This is a similar question to how many people should we be designing for?  Peak day, where the park is cram packed, or a more average day.  In this example, we generally design for the average day (aka design day), and accept a certain degree of discomfort on peak days.  Ironically, if we take this same tactic to enclosure safety, the level of discomfort in those extreme situations is much more "uncomfortable" (death isn't exactly a "let it slide" circumstance). 

For now, the AZA is redeveloping its recommendations for tiger barriers.  Bare in mind these are simply recommendations, and zoos have every right not to follow the minimums, making the walls and moats larger or smaller, if they so choose. 

Ultimately, we want to avoid design flaws that make guests able to directly access an animal or an animal to access the guest (unintentionally), while still allowing the guests to see the critters.  As you can see, the guests as San Francisco Zoo still love their tigers.  [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62DzFV_xLjQ&hl=en]

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine