DZ visits Zoo Miami!


Admittedly, I hadn't heard much about Zoo Miami previous to my visit last week.  And because of that, my expectations were quite low.  Boy was I surprised!

The Zoo is thoughtfully laid out in a bow-tie or figure 8, with the entry and exit occurring from a central 'tail' at the intersection of the 8.  I like this basic configuration as it benefits both the guests, in terms of easy wayfinding, and the zoo, in possible revenue generation.  By placing the Zoo's main dining location at the central intersection, guests pass by at least twice daily, and possibly up to 4x.

The main dining area is surrounded by a large play area with water play, as well as lovely views to a natural lake.  Both water play and water views are an essential part of the Zoo's identity--and set it apart from many I've visited.  Many opportunities for sprays and mists are found throughout the Zoo, which I am imagine are essential in the tropical locale.

Although the history of the Zoo spans to the mid-1950s, the physical zoo we now know opened in the early 1980s.  One of the largest zoos in the country, Zoo Miami boasts over 320 developed acres with an additional 400 acres untouched.  Its a large zoo, and in 2.5 sweaty hours, I only saw the northern loop.

Because the zoo is relatively young, its original design has remained basically intact.  Following the trends in exhibitry of the late 1970s to the early 80s, the zoo is experienced, by and large, via a wide main path (the figure 8 mentioned previously).  Along this path, exhibits are stacked providing prototypical long unobstructed viewing associated with that time.  However, since then the exhibits have mostly been updated (EDIT: Exhibits were in fact designed this way originally!) to remove the back fences providing beautiful long, uninterrupted views, sometimes into adjacent exhibits.  This is especially effective in the rhino exhibit, where elephants can be seen roaming in the distance.

Zoo Miami recently underwent a master plan with the resultant Amazon & Beyond  exhibit opening in December, 2008.  This exhibit, designed by Jones & Jones and EDSA, encompasses several habitat types and features a multitude of species including jaguars, giant river otters, monkeys, birds, and reptiles.  The exhibit is over 27 acres, cost $50 million, and includes both indoor and outdoor exhibit experiences.  The exhibit is overall well done, but did leave the impression that, as with most projects, the initial design was over-ambitious and over budget--causing some unfortunate, and questionable, cuts.

For example, the small animal exhibits were abundant.  In fact, each habitat type must have been supported by at least 6 small, or jewel, exhibits as well as several bird exhibits.  However, these exhibits felt almost aquarium-like--flat walls with signage above a square viewing window.  These exhibits, shamefully, did not draw me in, and after about the 8th jewel case, I started walking by them completely, eyes glazed over.  I would've suggested a cut to the species list in favor of a more thematic guest experience, drawing in the guests to a few featured exhibits rather than the repetitive cases.

I would like to point out a cool little design at the jaguar exhibit, where between two outdoor yards, the cats are able to transfer over head.  The jaguars also had a nice pool with a semi-underwater viewing window.  Unfortunately for me, they weren't on exhibit while I was there.

The giant river otter exhibit was also nicely designed with both overwater and semi-underwater viewing.  Of course, it didn't hurt that they'd just been fed when I arrived, so were characteristically energetic and entertaining.

The zoo has a lot of space for growth.  So much so that the long walks between exhibits became cumbersome and tiring, despite the beautiful tropical landscape and non-exhibit hidden gems, like thematically inspired sculpture.  However, I commend Zoo Miami for taking advantage of this possible detriment by providing various forms of transport for a small fee.  My favorite was the Safari Cycles--vehicles reminiscent of Model T cars requiring the riders to power by pedal.  The zoo also has a Monorail--which I didn't see in use, and tram tours.

Overall, a very nice experience and one that apparently many Miami tourists miss.  With annual attendance slowly nearing the 1 million mark, Zoo Miami certainly has the opportunity for growth within its market with targeted strategies directed at the South Beach set.  Perhaps the upcoming Florida: Mission Everglades exhibit will increase awareness of the zoo, allowing them to break free of their stigma as a local attraction--as I do believe they could double their attendance with the experience they currently offer.

DZ's First Zoo Review: The Mote Aquarium

Yes, folks, I know.  An aquarium is NOT a zoo, but unfortunately, 'Zoo and Aquarium Review' just doesn't sound quite as snappy.  So, kind reader, we begin our new segment "Zoo Review" with a water zoo, the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. 

Welcome to the Mote!  We're glad you found us!

The Mote Aquarium is associated with the Mote Marine Research Laboratory, and as such has a few opportunities to view "behind the scenes".  The Laboratory also allows for exhibits based on its rescue and rehab functions, showcasing rehabbed animals.  Despite these unique aspects, the Aquarium is, however,  simply a small, out-of-date institution. 

'Behind the Scenes at the Lab' Exhibit

'Behind the Scenes at the Lab' Exhibit

Overall, the Mote Aquarium feels incredibly sterile, with very little immersion and an amazing amount of concrete.  Despite the fact that it seems reasonably clean and well maintained (exception being water quality), the Aquarium feels extremely out-of-date and generally dismal.  Additionally, the Aquarium is supposedly divided into thematic or conceptual galleries, however, it is completely unclear where one area starts and another stops (except when you are lost down an endless hallway or parking lot--more on this to come). 

Information, on the other hand, is overly abundant through larger than life graphic panels showing off lots of words.  These panels are apparently serving as the Aquarium's theming.




Another puzzling aspect is its division into three distinct buildings spread over a small campus.  Not only is it unclear which buildings are actually associated with the Aquarium (since the parking that sits central to the campus also serves a marina and bird sanctuary), it is unclear where to even purchase tickets and begin the experience. 


Sharks underwater viewing


The species that should be the stand-out, hands-down star of the Aquarium, the Sharks, have two separate underwhelming tanks.  I'd give the Aquarium the benefit of the doubt with the water quality in the main tank, hoping perhaps they were having an off-day, but one look into the underwater viewing shows disgusting algae and debris floating around the bottom and growing on the walls.  The single underwater viewing area at this tank is horribly undersized for the amount of guests wanting to have a look and for the size of the tank. The above water viewing feels like a back-of-house area that you've accidentally stumbled upon.  This covered outdoor exhibit could be very interesting with only a few changes, but as it stands currently, it is simply a sad, dirty cage. 

Overwater viewing

Another overwater viewing

High tech bridge

The second, much smaller shark tank has much higher water quality, and an attempt at rockwork and coral.  This is completely undermined by the sad state of the coral, however, as it appears to have been rubber stamped across the tank; only one kind of artificial coral was used, and the attachment points are painfully obvious.  Additionally, the lovely sandy bottom seems to have been over taken by invasive plastic marine plants. 

Smaller Shark Tank
Smaller Shark Tank
Plastic coral and plants
Plastic coral and plants

Walk from sharks to restaurant

After finding our way through building one, housing the sharks and several smaller tanks, the gift shop and the kitschy 50s restaurant, we found ourselves back in the parking lot, wondering how to find the sea turtles, manatee, and dolphins.  After wandering around the parking lot for a while, we finally notice sea turtles and manatees painted onto the pavement, subtly guiding us across a busy street and into another building. 

Deep Sea Diner

Thank goodness-- they serve alcohol!

We found the sign!

Follow the manatees!

We made it!  After we cross this fairly busy road...

Here, we find a confusing mess of hallways and outdoor breezeways, and somehow manage to stumble upon the last few minutes of the dolphin show.  This show is an informal educational demonstration, but attracts hundreds of people, crammed around the metal railing of the rectangular pool. 

Dolphin Pool

Dolphin Pool

From what we saw, the dolphins demonstrate simple behaviors as an illustration of the training techniques used by the Aquarium.  After the show, we walked aimlessly around trying find an actual exhibit for the dolphins, or at least an underwater viewing panel.  Unfortunately,  none was to be found. 

Dolphin Show

Dolphin Show

Dolphin enjoying enrichment!

This building also houses the sea turtle rehab tanks which are about as exciting as they sound.  Several elevated concrete tanks are squeezed into a small room, carefully watched over by several docents.  A friendly sign across the room indicated the sea turtles are getting a new home, however, as a new sea turtle exhibit is currently being built.  I'd like to get back to see that, as it seems it will be the only new exhibit built at this Aquarium in years.

Sea Turtle Room

More Turtles


New Exhibit Coming Soon!

Finally, the manatees.  In true Mote form, the manatee exhibit is a concrete box.  This does not offend me as much as the water quality in the box.  The water was so murky the manatee itself bumped into the window once or twice as we stood there.  Although it appeared an additional pool, perhaps a holding or med pool, was adjacent and available to the manatees, the exhibit pool was very small for two critters.  Three large windows allowed plenty of viewing, but the glare from the surrounding exterior windows, with some help from the  milky water, made it nearly impossible to enjoy.  Add the tiny pool, and the overall experience was rather depressing.

Manatee Exhibit
Manatee Exhibit
Manatee at window
Manatee at window
Cloudy water and natural light equals "Is that the manatee?"
Cloudy water and natural light equals "Is that the manatee?"

Overall, the Mote needs some help.  Understanding that replacing and rebuilding exhibits is an extremely expensive process, I've put together the following Top Tips for the Mote Aquarium to increase its appeal and guest experience:

1.  Clean up / Fix up!

This is the easiest and, surprisingly, sometimes, the most effective way to have immediate impact on the guest experience.  Throughout the Aquarium,  water quality was dank, acrylic was scratched, and signs were fading and falling apart.  Take a few months and several thousands of dollars, and truly dedicate all resources to fixing and cleaning those things that are failing, or generally dingy.  Fresh coats of paint in warm neutrals and soft earth tones, rather than the primaries, cool greys, and every-shade-of-blue-known-to-man currently used, would also quickly update the Aquarium into at least the year 2000. 

Moisture damage all along lower half of sign

Scratched up wall with laminated poster

Scratches on acrylic can be buffed out

Additionally, make an effort to hide items that should be out of sight to guests, ie skimming nets, hoses, food buckets, as they were seen sitting in plain sight in several places.  Buy a simple Rubbermaid closet and throw the junk in there!

Supplies on a wall near the sharks.  This is not Theming!

2.  Invest in CLEAR Directionals

Understanding that a small aquarium generally serves a repeat customer base can mean the Mote Aquarium may be under the impression that directionals are not as needed as at, say, SeaWorld, which caters predominantly to tourists.  However, without seeing their attendance demographics, I'd wager a bet that the Mote, being located where it is in Sarasota, Florida near a tourist shopping destination, is actually catering more to tourists than locals (or at least equally so).  This means a large portion of the guests have never been to the Aquarium, and will, as we did, get lost and frustrated trying to locate a) the entry and b) the dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees, among other things.  Mote, please, do yourself a favor...invest in signage, paving, and landscaping to help better direct your guests.  And, take advantage of the walk between buildings with educational interpretives, or even just a dolphin topiary or two!

3.  Invest in your possible Star Species

If you have little money, but want to increase attendance, profit or guest experience, always, always choose a star species to add / redesign / renovate.  The star is marketable, even if the project is simply giving the animals a new home.  Marketability means people will come, people will spend money on plush, people will tell their friends. 

This may seem greedy, but what it means is an increase in revenue and hopefully profit, which means an ability to spend money on less marketable species who are really needing new homes, too. 

Who am I suggesting for the Mote?  Sharks!  Sharks are the dangerous darlings of the sea.  People love sharks; adults and kids alike are drawn to the allure of the elusive grey ghosts and respond to the element of fear instilled by the animals.  Plus, renovating or adding to the dolphins doesn't make sense as they are already the Stars of the Aquarium, and guests are more than willing to make the trek to see them.  Why not reward the guests for exploring the first building by elevating the sharks to Star status, then a Star species would anchor both buildings.  Spend some money on this exhibit , Mote (How much you ask?  Between $5 and 10 million), and I promise, you will see immediate results.

Mote Aquarium Overall Score:

2 out of 5 otters

Bristol Zoo's New Eco-Zoo

Its been touted as the "Eden Project" of wildlife. 

However, if you've been to the Eden Project, you'll know this project seems to fall short.  Very short, in my opinion.  

Eden Project from above.  Reclamation of Clay Mine.

eden-3The Eden Project was, and is, as innovative in approach, as it was in design, made all that more impressive by the fact that botanical gardens and arboretia tend to be, well, on the more dull side.  The Eden Project, built in a reclaimed clay mine, brought hip to gardens; it connects the reality of being green to the flashy, trendy movement.  It creates a place to enjoy nature as an art, and art in nature, sometimes quite literally.  It's also beautiful, fun, exciting, and a gorgeous piece of architecture and landscape architecture.

Walk at Eden Project

Bristol Zoo's "Eco-Zoo", which was conceived over 40 years ago and since shelved, claims to become "the first conservation-led animal visitor attraction of its kind in the UK."  The $140 million Park is planned at 136 acres, and aims to be open by 2012, a lofty goal considering it hasn't yet been approved.  The Park estimates attendance at 400,000 annually.  

Touting itself as the "next generation of zoological attractions", I'm especially curious at what it aims to do differently.  The single article I could find about it outlines a few key points:

1.  "Bristol's "eco zoo" could connect the inherent interest value of captive animals with the conservation methods needed to save their wild cousins."

2. "The whole idea of captivity will be reduced to a minimum....The often controversially cramped spaces of the Victorian era's most famous zoos are gone – replaced with open land, moats and ditches."

3. "...most importantly, the four themed areas of the park...have all been chosen to reflect specific areas of the world where conservation is desperately needed to save critically endangered species. "

The Eco-Zoo's Sumatra Exhibit

The Eco-Zoo's Sumatran Exhibit

 So far, this sounds very similar to most zoos creating new exhibits across the U.S. and world.  Victorian era design died in the Victorian era, and as illustrated in a previous post, the idea of landscape immersion has been around since the 1970s.  Creating themed areas based on conservation needs is what is done with virtually every new exhibit out there.  What of all of the recent and upcoming Arctic exhibits?  Bronx Zoo's Madagascar!? I'm duly unimpressed thus far...

The Eco-Zoo's British Woodland Exhibit
The Eco-Zoo's British Woodland Exhibit

The Eco-Zoo's Indian Ocean Exhibit


But then there's this:

"Food for the animals will be organic, while 80 per cent of the building material will be locally sourced and sustainable. "

And this:

"Every aspect of the park's design incorporates sustainability, from the buildings and the engineering infrastructure to the landscape."

Now that's new.  Seriously, folks.  Zoos tout themselves as conservation leaders, but are some of the most un-green institutions out there.  Tremendous amounts of water and electricity are wasted daily on washout of stalls and sustaining water life support systems in tanks and pools, amongst other things.  

Buildings themselves are most often behind the scenes and often suffer from the smallest budget.  For this reason, environmentally friendly alternative building practices rarely are integrated.   Recently, however, some zoos have been making an effort with their "non-animal" buildings, such as the LEED silver certified Nutrition Center at St. Louis Zoo.  

Silver Certified Nutrition Center at St. Louis Zoo

Speaking of the infamous LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accreditation, no standards exist for buildings housing animals.  So, zoos and aquariums looking to do right by the environment through LEED (and gain a little good press and grant money, too), are oftentimes without means.   In the non-profit sector (as in many others), if you can't gain revenue or attendance increases from something, it isn't done.  And there goes the green leadership...

However, if this project can put their money where their mouth is (almost literally!), they may be onto something special.  If not for innovation in zoological exhibit design, then definitely for innovation in zoological construction and green design. 

I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for more news about this potentially exciting project.

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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=]

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!

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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?

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