National Zoo's New "American Trail"


Appropriately opening on the all-American holiday, Labor Day 2012, National Zoo's newest exhibit, American Trail, features sea lions in completely new digs along with a host other familiar faces in revamped homes.  The $42 million project replaced the existing and quite tired North America region, where sea lions swam in an unnatural-looking bright blue pool.  The exhibit focuses on species with successful conservation stories, such as the Bald Eagle and the Grey Wolf.

The undeniable stars of the new exhibit are the pinnipeds--a mixed group of seals and sea lions sharing their habitat with brown pelicans.  Their exhibit mimics the California coast, and inspired the architecture and materials choices throughout American Trails.  The exhibit features two separate pools, 300,000 and 150,000 gallons respectively, feature a wave machine, and are designed to eventually be switched from fresh water to salt.  Built into the exhibit are three viewing areas--under-water, over-water and split--as well as a small amphitheater for keeper demonstrations on exhibit.  The exhibit currently houses four sea lions and one grey seal, but the Zoo expects to receive another 3 seals soon.

Additionally, the beavers improved exhibit includes a new den that they built themselves--replacing a fully artificial one in their previous enclosure.  The old wolf enclosure has been spruced up with new plantings and dead fall, and viewing has been improved.

American Trail also includes an interactive tide pool for splashing about, and a thematically appropriate dining facility featuring locally sourced and renewable seafood and vegetarian options (managed by Sodexo).

Finally, the National Zoo is a leader in instituting green practices into their new exhibits, and American Trail is no exception.  Great care was especially given to the landscape of the exhibit.  All flora is native, and the design was sensitive to the preservation of the naturally occurring forested areas of the Zoo.

From the Zoo website:

"Green practices incorporated into American Trail include:

  • American Trail reused an existing site (formerly Beaver Valley) with lower-impact construction methods, including retaining walls that reduced the disturbance of soils, vegetation, and tree roots and minimize the impact on upslope trees. Next to the retaining walls are small rain-gardens that help manage storm water drainage
  • All of the water in the seal and sea lion exhibit is recycled originating from the District of Columbia’s water system. Tap water, however, does not meet the stringent standards for aquatic animal care. A new state-of-the-art filtration system scrubs the water and removes any chemical treatments. The pH balance is adjusted for the animals and filtered a final time using ozone filtration.
  • Aquatic life support systems and equipment have been replaced to provide better control of water chemistry and quality.
  • Thanks to careful design of the pools and expanded backwash systems, this exhibit uses less than half the amount of water similar pools (designed with standard techniques) would use.
  • An ozone disinfectant system will reduce our dependence on chlorine for disinfecting the pool water.
  • Low emitting materials, certified wood, materials with recycled content, and regional materials were used to align with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
  • Full cut-off light fixtures will limit light pollution.
  • Shading of the pools will keep the water form absorbing so much heat from the sun.
  • Heating, ventilation, and cooling of people and animal spaces is controlled individually in each space, to reduce energy use when those spaces are not being used."

This exhibit was designed by Portico Group from Seattle, WA and architects Quinn Evans from Washington, DC,  and constructed by Forrester Construction, from Rockville, MD.  Congratulations to all involved!

The Smithsonian National Zoo has a great Flickr stream of the new exhibit here.

New River Otter Exhibit at Central FL Zoo! (UPDATED)


Over the Labor Day weekend, I made the trek up to Sanford, FL--a suburb of Orlando, approximately 2.5 hours from my home base in Bradenton--just to check out their new North American River Otter exhibit on opening day.     The Central Florida Zoo is a small, quaint park, tucked into what appears to be native Florida swamp lands.  The zoo features winding boardwalks, a gravel parking lot, and a ropes course weaving between old live oaks dripping in Spanish moss.   A fairly simple zoo--most exhibits feature welded wire mesh supported by thick, rustic timbers.  Basic, but not offensive providing an easy, carefree family day out. The new otter exhibit is markedly different.  Adorned with high-quality rockwork as mudbanks (complete with roots and branches), the exhibit features three glass viewing areas, each from a well-conceived and unique vantage.  The main view, along the longest dimension of the exhibit, allows for partial underwater viewing.  The water that day was crystal clear.  Unfortunately, the otter wasn't swimming while I was there.

The other two views occur on the short dimensions and are located in such a way as to eliminate cross-viewing of guests.  The exhibit is filled with turf as well as medium and large plantings, enough to allow the otter to explore, play, and, to my dismay, disappear.

The exhibit is spacious, but sized for at least two otters.  Since the Zoo did not previously have them in the collection, the otters are slowly being introduced to their exhibit--and to each other.  Hopefully soon, they'll both be on exhibit together, increasing the odds of seeing at least one while visiting.

My only criticism is the shade, or lack of shade, at each viewing window.  At the underwater viewing glass, the design of the shade structure is visually appealing, but the slatted design of the pergola creates shadow that, while minimizing glare, is incredibly distracting and almost disorienting.  At one of the dry viewing panels--where no shade was provided at all--the glare was so bad, the window was almost unusable.  I did visit during the afternoon (2pm), so wonder if this problem persists all day, or if I was perhaps just unlucky with my timing. want the details of the exhibit?  Ask and you shall receive, my friends!

Designer: Borrelli + Partners, Inc. (Orlando, FL)

Total Area (sf): 1540

Total Volume (gal): 11,000

Holding: 424 sf CMU building with (2) 4' x 5' stalls, plus an off-exhibit outdoor yard

Project timeline: Design began in Nov. 2010; Construction began in July 2011; Exhibit opened Sept. 2012

Total Cost: $80,000

Yes, that last number is correct.  $80,000!!  This exhibit feels like $1 million, so kudos to the Zoo and staff for getting creative and finding cost cutting ways to achieve the project.  "The Zoo typically builds or updates exhibits for less than what the average zoo can do since our staff helps with building and design efforts,” said Shonna Green, Director, Communications & Community Resources for the Zoo.  Among these efforts was the rockwork, constructed by a zoo staffer.

Additionally, the Zoo confirmed the opening date to not be strategic, but in fact simply dictated by completion of construction.  "We normally prefer to open an exhibit over spring break or during the fall, however we were finished with construction in August.  The Zoo couldn’t hide an exhibit of this size from our guests; therefore we determined to open it over a long holiday weekend for our community,” said Green.

Again, congratulations on a great exhibit, and thank you for sharing the exhibit details.

Giraffe Feeding Beneficial to Animals


Recently, I was engaged in a friendly debate about the merits (or faults) of a giraffe feeding experience.  One of the issues that came up was whether or not the experience negatively affected the animals.  As it turns out, a student at my alma mater, Michigan State University, was wondering the very same thing. His research, documented via poster for the AZA Conference Poster Session, indicates giraffe feeding programs act as a form of enrichment for the animals, and are therefore beneficial.  His preliminary results follow:




Inspiring Kids to Become Activists (AZA 2012, Day 3)


After a wonderful Icebreaker on Monday night (Sept. 10) at the Arizona Science Center (where Dave and I survived a hurricane and a volcano eruption), the Tuesday morning general session officially kicked-off the conference.  During this session, we were treated to a rousing presentation by Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, an international human rights organization based in Canada. Free the Children is an inspiring organization in its own right--empowering children to help other children across the globe.  The organization was originally created by Marc's younger brother after he traveled to South Asia to investigate child labor--when he was 12!  But, that's only part of why Marc was at AZA 2012.

Free the Children and sister organization, Me to We, have figured out how to motivate children, especially teenagers, to not only become interested in world issues, but to become activists for their favorite causes.  A challenge we in the zoo and aquarium industry are constantly facing (with kids, sure, but also with adults!).

Marc described their philosophy with 5 key bullet points.

1.  Make it Cool to Care

Although Marc prefaced this by pointing out that children today are much different than those even 10 years ago--when apathy was the IN thing (Did you see the 21 Jump Street movie this summer? Yeah, that's what he's talking about.)--kids still want to feel like they are part of the in-crowd.  Like they sit at the cool table in the cafeteria.  And they feel this way when all their friends are doing something, and even more so, when that something is endorsed by all the It celebrities.  Yes, we're talking Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Magic Johnson, Jennifer Hudson, and--always popular with the kiddies--Mikhail Gorbachev, among many, many others.  Marc's organizations make it cool by putting on exuberant, over-the-top, arena-sized kid-travaganzas, called 'We Days', featuring inspiring talks and rocking musical performances that can only be attended by children who meet the activism and volunteer eligibility requirements.  These events are experiences that kids look forward to and work hard for.  Things kids brag about attending.  Things the cool kids do-- in other words, 'incentives.'

2.  Gift + Issue = Change 

Everyone has something they are good at, whether its baking cupcakes, drawing unicorns, or selling tires.  Identifying your strength is the first step to becoming an activist.  Getting kids involved means helping them identify their own gift.  It also means helping them understand how they can apply their gift to support an issue that is dear to them.  Once that connection is realized, anyone, including children, can confidently take action to initiate change.  And according to Kielburger, activism can be as small as a bake sale.

3. Call a Minga

Kielburger explained a ‘minga’ as a coming together of many to the benefit of all.  It is a Chilean word with, ironically, no direct equivalent in the English language.  He described the scene when he first experienced a minga—after the village elder woman yelled the word across a canyon in the Andes and a congregation of strangers from the surrounding hills showed up to help out—without explanation, without question.  This feeling of support, of community is something that most of us long for—including our kids.  This generation, more so than any in recent memory, are aching to be a part of something larger than themselves.  To do for others in need, even as many themselves are struggling.

4. Changing Perspectives

Remember the saying, “If you could walk a mile in their shoes”?  First-hand experience is the absolute best way to understand an issue.  In order to inspire, to motivate, kids need to participate, to experience, to see with their own eyes.  Me to We provides these experiences for young people, bringing them to remote villages in need of help--taking children to Africa to build schoolhouses, or carry jugs of water two miles each way so mothers can spend a day with their children.  Authentic, in-the-field experiences that really enforce what they've learned at home.  Kielburger believes these are life-altering, formative experiences that create fundamental and lifelong activists.

5. Keep it Social

This one’s simple: keep the activism where the kids are…online.  Kielburger stressed that kids don’t read email anymore.  They live on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr.  If you want to communicate with them, utilize their favorite forms, and reach them in their own language.

So the question is now…how do we translate these bullet points into campaigns that zoos and aquariums can use?  Can we link these to the physical design of a place, or are we moving more into a place where educational outreach and programming is the only means to create activists?  Personally, I think the physical zoo experience is the foundation for creating activists.  The first step, the platform from which we jump off—not only with kids but with adults too.  Get their attention, provide the base info, then provide a means to take action.  The zoo itself is the means to bring issues to the table.  To make people aware.  Encouraging them to take action will require more than a physical exhibit.  It will require partnerships and programming.  It also requires taking chances and getting creative.

What do you think?

"Safari Africa!" Revealed at Columbus Zoo


Today, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium officially broke ground on the 40+ acre, $30 million Safari Africa! project.  Director Emeritus, Jack Hanna, acting Director, Tom Stalf, and a host of other stakeholders dug into the open fields once used for soybean farming located just north of the current zoo property. "We had a beautiful sunny morning, the photos outlining the project...were outstanding and were placed around the tent.   We had three huge metal giraffes from our gift shop which welcomed our guests.  Our friends from the promotions department joined us with Trout the Penguin , Lucky the Leopard Turtle, a Wild Boar and a Porcepine.   Jack, Tom and other dignitaries, armed with their “gold” shovels autographed by Jack, took the first shovels of dirt from the site," stated Daryl Halvacs from the Zoo's Planning and Design department.

Along with the ceremony, the Zoo published a series of conceptual renderings prepared by project designer, PGAV.  As an insider, I'll share  a tiny secret:  these renderings are just a taste of the whole experience so prepare to be surprised when you visit after opening May 2014!

St. Louis Zoo's "Sea Lion Sound"


This summer was an exciting one for the sea lions at St. Louis Zoo!  On June 30, 2012, a new, state-of-the-art PGAV-designed exhibit and amphitheater was officially opened after years of design and construction--on the very spot of their old exhibit.  Located in what is referred to as the 'Historic Basin', Sea Lion Sound anchors the core of the zoo, right at the major crossroads for north-south circulation and the eastern spur.  The exhibit was the first to be completed from the most recent master plan also completed by PGAV. Below is a fly-through video of the Sea Lion Sound original design.


The $18 million project features a large exhibit with both underwater and overwater views, a large open-air, shaded amphitheater and show pool (complete with sea lion slide!), holding facilities and underground LSS yard.  Exhibit viewing is completely unique to sea lion exhibits in the United States, and features a 23 foot tall flat panel as well as the crown jewel, a 35 foot long acrylic tunnel.  The show pool is also fronted in acrylic to allow both underwater and overwater enjoyment.

Recently, I was able to interview a PGAV staffer who was instrumental in the creation of Sea Lion Sound, Rosey Masek-Block, about the specifics of the project.

DZ: What was your official role in the project, Rosey?

RMB: Construction Administrator.  I attended weekly meetings with the CM [Construction Manager] and GC [General Contractor] to address any questions or concerns that had come up.

DZ: What was the most challenging aspect of your job?

RMB: Providing answers quickly when unforeseen conditions arose.  A lot of times there would existing site conditions, weather conditions, or delayed deliveries that would affect what was going on.  Any long delay in an answer would delay the construction.

DZ: What was the most satisfying?  

RMB: Seeing the Sea Lions happily swimming and performing.  Also attending the shows incognito and having the public sit by you and express how excited they were that THEIR zoo has something this new, beautiful, and exciting.

DZ: That must be so amazing! Now, let's get into some specifics.  How big is the total project area?

RMB: The total construction site is about 1.5 ares.

DZ: How many animals will be living here, and what species are they? 

RMB: Right now there are 10 California Sea Lions and 1 Harbor Seal.  3 of the Sea Lions were born at the STL Zoo.  It was designed to accommodate 10-15 sea lions.  {Steve Bircher, curator, says the zoo may adopt or breed sea lions in the future, but has no plans to take in any additional seals.}

DZ: How many gallons are in the total system?  How many per pool?

RMB: The entire system is roughly 250,000 gallons.  All the pools are linked together, but roughly the main exhibit pool makes up about 190,000.

DZ: How big is the Exhibit, in area?

RMB: The Exhibit itself is about 11,000 square feet.

DZ: How many seats in theater?

RMB: There are approximately 830 seats, give or take a few, as it is bench style seating.

DZ: What were the design goals for the project?

RMB: I wasn’t on the design team for this [project] in the beginning, [but according to them] there were a few main things we were hoping to achieve: To provide the feel of the Pacific northwest in the rockwork, buildings, and surroundings (mimicking the natural habitat). To keep the profile of the exhibit as low as possible--we still wanted to preserve as much of the views looking up/down historic hill as possible. To provide an up-to-date filtering system to reduce water waste, and to provide an entertaining and playful environment for the animals and the people.  The tunnel needed to be low enough to provide enough space for animals to feel comfortable on both sides of the exhibit.  After all, they sometimes express just as much curiosity looking at the people as the people do looking at them.

DZ: That's absolutely true.  Sometimes we underestimate the power of the visitor as a form of animal enrichment!  Is there a conservation message?  How is it presented (show or exhibit?)? 

RMB: Water Conservation is probably the biggest.  Originally the old exhibit was a dump and fill pool.  The new system filters the water rather than replacing it.  {Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, Zoo President, recently stated that since the species of sea lions and seals living in this exhibit are not endangered, he believes this exhibit to be more about educating guests about the animals rather than about conservation.}

DZ: What were the main components to the design…theater, exhibit, holding, what else?

RMB: The Life Support Systems Basement.  Most people can’t tell that under the little holding buildings is a 2 story basement containing all the equipment needed to keep the exhibit healthy and beautiful.  Also providing shade for the public as well as the animals was a huge part of the project.

DZ: What other animal projects have you worked on?  Do you think of yourself as a zoological designer or just an architect that happens to have worked on animal projects?  

RMB: I’ve been a part of STL Zoo Bear Design and the design team for a project at Columbus Zoo.  Right now I would consider myself an architect working TOWARDS becoming a zoological designer.

DZ: What a great way to think about it!  You've certainly gotten some significant experiences under your belt!

RMB: I enjoyed being part of the process – I feel really proud when I take people to my local zoo and can say I was part of helping make it great.

Thanks for your time and dedication, Rosey!  Congratulations everyone who contributed to this wonderful project.

Glacier Run Wins TOP HONORS!


You may have already heard the wonderful news, but if not, Designing Zoos is proud to announce that Louisville Zoo's PGAV-designed Glacier Run received the Top Honors award in Exhibit Design on Wednesday, Sept. 12 at the annual AZA Conference in Phoenix. As mentioned before, this exhibit is near and dear to my heart as it is the first exhibit in which I was deeply involved.  I was even a part of the interview team--and as such, did some on-site visitor research at Detroit Zoo and at Louisville prior to meeting the zoo for the first time!

We're so proud of the innovation and teamwork required to concept, design, construct, and maintain the guest and animal experience, and inspired by the dedication and insight of the Louisville Zoo staff.  It truly is a wonderful exhibit!

If you haven't visited, get yourself there!  And be sure to share photos with us!

Labor Day Exhibit Openings


So far, I've heard about two new exhibits opening over the Labor Day weekend: National Zoo's newly renovated American Trail (link includes Portico Group's signature design fly-thru)  and Central Florida Zoo's river otters (which I'll be covering in person--stay tuned!). Traditionally, new exhibits are opened for the spring rush to experience an extra bump in attendance through the busy summer months. I wonder what is driving the timing of these two exhibits? Project delays? Or did they intentionally plan for Labor Day openings?

Summer as the high season for zoos and aquariums is not driven, as you might expect, by good weather--but rather the fact that kids are out of school. Weather is, of course, a factor in attendance, but even zoos, aquariums and theme parks located in yearlong mild climates see a bump during summer. Could these new exhibit openings be an attempt to correct the fall / winter slow down?

If you know of other new exhibits opening over Labor Day, let me know. And if you were involved in the opening date decision making, share your insight.



Check us out!  Don't we look fancy and new?  Much thanks to our friend Mark Robertson who donated his time and talent to designing a new logo for the site, and to the photographers who allowed use of their beautiful photos for the background and header design.  Please make sure to Follow us on Twitter and / or Facebook, and check out the new Shop where all proceeds go directly to the AZA's Conservation Endowment Fund. Thanks for reading!

Stacey Tarpley

Creator, Editor, Writer @

Elephant Ethics


Once again we are reminded of the many shades of grey we face regularly in the zoo and aquarium industry as a decision on the future of elephants at the LA Zoo was handed down from the CA Superior Court last week. The suit, brought against the zoo by a well-meaning real estate agent, Aaron Leider, demanded that elephants be banned from the zoo and relocated to a sanctuary.  Judge John Segal ultimately ruled that elephants may remain at the zoo, but the zoo must essentially clean up its act, stating, among other things, that the zoo must ban negative re-enforcement tools, such as bull hooks and electroshock.  However, the zoo discontinued use of these tools years ago.

The judge’s 56-page decision berated the zoo, essentially pointing out inadequacies of captivity and lack of understanding of how captivity affects the elephants.  He writes: “The Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo is not a happy place for elephants.”

Aside from the obvious question (who is this judge to assert whether or not an elephant is happy?) the lawsuit brings up questions with which we are often faced—and are rarely brave enough to answer.  Is captivity ever good enough?  Should animals only be in the wild?  How much interaction with humans should captive animals have?


To me, there are no perfect answers.  But, we need to remind ourselves that the zoo industry is constantly evolving—an evolution that is sometimes slow, but on the whole clearly visible.  As we continue to understand the needs and psychologies of animals, both in and out of captivity—as any scientist worth his or her salt will tell you, they are different!—captive environments and lifestyles will change.  Nothing in life is completely static.

I am not afraid of these confrontations, of these questions, of these indignations.  They push us to examine.  They push us to improve.  And maybe one day we will no longer have the need for zoos and aquariums, but at the rate we as a species are destroying habitat, captive environments may be the only sanctuaries left.

Zoos Good for the Economy

Okay.  This is sort of a 'duh' post.  But...get over it. According to AZA's Economic Impact Report released earlier this year:

"Total contribution of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to the U.S. economy in 2010 was $16 billion, generating personal earnings totaling $4.7 billion and supporting 142,436 jobs."

This contribution was attributed to both zoo spending (operating outlays and capital improvements) and guest 'before-and-after visit' spending.

For the full report, click AZA Impacts 2011.


Hot Topic: Integrating Mobile Media into the Guest Experience

Every so often, a new idea has so much traction its all anyone can talk about.  The new idea at AZA this year?  Integration of mobile technology into the guest experience.  Big words.  Simple ideas. 8:30 a.m. Saturday.  Many people have left the conference by now.  Others are simply too tired from a long week (or a long Friday night out) to even imagine dragging themselves out of their comfortable Omni Hotel bed into the chilly gray Atlanta morning to listen to non-industry experts talk about Macro Trends.  But not me.  I'm there in room A305 along with a smattering of other over-achieving, artificially awake zoo and aquarium professionals.

Our reward this morning?  The Vice President of Marketing Strategy and Insights at Coca-Cola, Stan Sthanunathan, and Heather Baldino, the Senior Vice President of Network Marketing and Operations for Turner Broadcasting System.  Big wigs.  Real, world-class big wigs.  For us zoo folks, practically marketing gods.

This session was named Macro Trends in the Zoo and Aquarium Industry.  Not technology trends or social media marketing.  Trends.  But what did both of these big wigs have to tell us?  Get connected to your audience.  And not in the touchy-feely sorta way.  In the digital way.  And its got to be a two-way street.

Stan talked about the importance of this as a means to respond to the changing market.  Today's biggest changes?  Shifting demographics (the world is getting older), shifting economic center (its China and India, not the great West), sustainability as a core value (especially with limited resources of water and petroleum), the emerging middle class (expect an additional 800 million by 2020), the connected world (think "world news in a matter of minutes, if not seconds"), and a focus on well-being (the US is fat).

As the world changes, zoos and aquariums must adapt and evolve in our relationships with our market.  Baldino pointed out that on-demand entertainment (like Netflix, YouTube, Roku, XBox 360, iPhone, iPad, etc) has skyrocketed in the last two years alone causing a steep decline in non-electronic sources of entertainment.  People who like media, use media.  All kinds and all the time.  People are "watching CNN at home on the couch with their smartphone, pulling stats from the CNN website, investigating things they see on TV."  The younger generation are even more dependent on media, and much more adept at digital multi-tasking.

So, how do we increase our share of the entertainment time budget of our audience?  How do we expand the experience to before and after their visit to our parks?  Digital media, and more specifically:  mobile media.

Depending on the source, between 28-38% of the US population carries a smartphone.  Smartphone users access the internet (or some internet based app) at least four times a day, according to Baldino.  More than half of the US population accessed Facebook in June 2011.  These users are not just kids.  In fact, the majority of these users are between the ages of 25 and 54.  What does that mean for zoos and aquariums who tend to focus on content for kids?  It means an opportunity for developing a social experience within the family.

According to Baldino, most of the users of the Cartoon Network's website and Facebook pages are adults on behalf of their kids.  They don't access the pages FOR the kids, they access the pages WITH the kids.  These experiences can enhance the zoo visit by "amplifying and extending the experience."

Of course, it also presents an opportunity to reach out to our heretofore untapped resource of "adults with no kids" market, which as shown in our PGAV Zoo-Goer study, is interested and does exist.

But how do we do that?

On Friday afternoon, a large, happy group of conference attendees met to address exactly that question.  Currently, QR code integration and direct texting are the hottest methodologies in use at zoos and aquariums.  But, Mobile Excursions, LLC CEO, Dan Shropshire, recommends utilizing hybrid apps for smartphones.  Only 20% of the top 80 attractions by attendance are using apps at all, and he thinks its mostly due to price.  Hybrid apps are useful to zoos and aquariums with limited budgets as they utilize web content already created thereby bypassing the resource intense content creation phase.

Craig Leonardi, Lead Product Manager Industry Solutions at AT&T, points out that if you want to delve into smartphone apps and mobile web, you must have easy navigation, big buttons, an editor's eye to content, and ensure proper formatting.  If you don't deliver these things, your guest may use the app once and never return to it.  That obviously won't help us achieve our goals!

Leonardi goes on to suggest the use of QR codes.  If you've been asleep for the last year or so, QR codes are the funky black and white squares you see on almost every print ad out there.  You'll see them on products and packaging, too.  I've seen them on Pepsi cups at the Milwaukee County Zoo.  As a consumer, you simply download a QR reader app onto your smartphone, then scan the code with your phone's camera, and you are instantly connected to some specific web content related to that particular brand or attraction.  The Pepsi cup took me to a web-only commercial parodying and besting Coca-cola's famous polar bear ads.

The nice thing about QR codes is that any zoo can utilize them with minimal cost as free QR code generators are accessible and easy to use online.  All you need is a computer, a printer, and a video uploaded to YouTube.

That's exactly what Santa Barbara Zoo is doing right now.  Using a QR code generator called Kaywa, the Zoo is able to easily create expanded content for its guests.  And they've even utilized a fan video, which has gone mildly viral.  And I'll admit, I'm slightly obsessed with it.


If you're going to use QR codes, Leonardi suggests taking advantage of your guests' downtime.  Meaning, any time they are standing in line, sitting down, or otherwise not actively engaged in an activity, make these opportunities available.  Dean Noble from the Santa Barbara Zoo went so far to suggest using them at exhibits that are known to be snoozers.  If you're animals aren't all that active, offer a code linking to a cool enrichment or training video.  It won't replace the live animal interaction, but it'll offer another aspect of the animal that the guest is not currently getting to enjoy.

As for texting, Monterey Bay Aquarium is utilizing a simple scheme to help visitors see cool things throughout their visit.  Everyone loves watching the critters get fed.  So, through a voluntary program where guests opt-in to direct texting for one day, the Aquarium, via text message, suggests guests make their way to certain exhibits minutes before an unscheduled feeding is to occur.   The Aquarium can use this system to selectively send guests to one exhibit or another based on attendance and crowding that day, ultimately helping to distribute guests throughout the Aquarium more efficiently.

With all these cool things zoos and aquariums are doing now, we have to understand that currently, today, right now, usage of these apps, QR codes, and direct texting is very low.  According to both Shropshire and Mike Chamberlain at Monterey Bay, usage hovers between 1.5-2% of attendance.  However, as trust of these new technologies increase over time, usage should also increase.

In order to succeed in integrating these technologies into the guest experience, Baldino suggests that the digital reward must be interactive and short.  According to her, smartphone users are looking for quick info, tidbits, immediate gratification.  She calls it "snacking."  If the content is too long, you'll lose the audience's attention.  She went on to say interactivity is absolutely key to digital content especially for kids.  Things like polls and voting, the ability to collect electronic prizes, like badges or digital animals, and share their collection with friends, photo tagging, games and live chats enable the audience to get involved, to interact, to connect.

"Digital is here to stay," said Baldino.  It should serve to amplify your product, not be the core experience.  It should engage and connect customers.  Many times, especially the older generations, feel digital experiences are alienating and isolating, which is the polar opposite of what we are trying to achieve in the zoo and aquarium world.  But according to Baldino and Stan, digital is actually community-building.  People tell each other about videos and apps, they send each other links, and talk to each other online.  "Its the new water cooler," said Baldino.  "If you're going to take advantage of Facebook, do it now."

AZA Friday Opening Session: The Importance of Zoos and Aquariums

The importance of zoos and aquariums seemed to be the underlying theme of Friday's AZA National Conference morning general session which featured talks by several prominent zoo and aquarium personalities including AZA President & CEO, Jim Maddy, AZA Chair of the Board and St. Louis Zoo Director, Jeff Bonner, and keynote speaker, CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, John Racanelli.

Racanelli's bold rhetorical question still lingers with me:  "How is there still a question as to why zoos and aquariums matter?"

The U.S. boasts 225 AZA accredited animal facilities.  That's 225 zoos and aquariums, and variations thereof, that have dedicated themselves to achieving the highest husbandry standards possible,fostering an environment for serious scientific inquiry, creating wholesome, fun, educational family experiences, and supporting long-term conservation programs both in-house and in the wild.

In fact, America's accredited zoos and aquariums invest nearly $115 million annually in direct support of wildlife conservation efforts.

Unlike other non-profits with similar expenditures (ie WWF), supporting conservation efforts is NOT the primary reason zoos and aquariums exist.  According to Racanelli, they exist to create social and emotional bonds to wildlife, to inspire {a love of nature}, and to do these things in a manner that the public respects.

Cynthia Vernon, VP of Education, Guest and Research Programs at the world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium once told Racanelli that people come to aquariums to "find social time, not to be educated."  So how do we create bonds and inspire the guests in a respectful way that allows them to satisfy their need for social experiences?

Racanelli suggests to educate when the guest is open to listening.  This means inserting the educational aspect while the audience is inspired, not after, as is often the case in a traditional exhibit.  Think about it.  How often do you see the interactives and informational graphics tucked away in a corner or gathered together as you exit?  How often do you feel compelled to explore these educational options?  How often are you watching the animals wishing you knew the answer to "what the heck is that walrus doing?"

Racanelli suggests that we "rethink how we do what we do."  We need to build a movement.  In order to do so, we need to understand who our audience is today and tomorrow.  Today's audience may still be Boomers, but Millenials are a major segment and will only continue to grow.

Millenials are "selected, protected and connected."  Selected, as in parents today are making a conscious decision when to have their children and exactly how many to have.  Additionally, they are protecting them from the world's dangers like at no time before (ie must be in car seats until they're 4' 9"?!?! No more lying in the back of the station wagon watching the streetlights pass overhead!).  And of course, they are the permanently wired generation.

Check out this link for more Millenials info.

Other interesting and little known info about our current audience?  Hispanic, non-English speaking families are more likely to recognize that humans are the primary threat to oceans than caucasian families.   And they are willing to pay more for seafood that is caught responsibly.

So how do we change with the ever-changing visitor market?  Be controversial! says Racanelli.  We're often so focused on not being the center of controversy (the target of animal rights smear campaigns) that we forget the old celebrity adage:  Any press is good press!  Of course, we only want good press when it comes to animal welfare and conservation, but the point is still valid.  Be bold.  Be confident.  Get the audience's attention!

They sure got mine.

Designing Zoos at the AZA Conference!

I probably should have announced this BEFORE actually getting to the conference so that I might have had a chance to meet a reader or two, but, as they say, hindsight is 20/15, right?

It's Friday, and the AZA National Conference in Atlanta, GA has been in full swing since Wednesday.  I, however, just arrived last night, and thus today is my first, and only, full day here.   The Conference is jointly hosted this year by the Georgia Aquarium and Zoo Atlanta.

What makes this conference special is the fact that it is all about getting things done and sharing knowledge.  Unlike many other professional conferences, whose main draw is a large exhibit hall unveiling new technologies and new products, the AZA Conference is 3 full days filled with concurrent sessions about topics ranging from (picking randomly from the conference program...) "Zoo Elephants: Towards a Sustainable Population with Excellent Welfare" to "The More We Work Together: Successful Departmental Collaboration within Zoos and Aquariums" and "Aquariums, Social Media, and New Initiatives to Engage People with Climate Change."  Additionally, the Conference serves as a meeting place for the very active committees present within the AZA, with multiple days dedicated to these closed door sessions.

I will be documenting the sessions I attend, so keep alert!  And if any of you attended a session that I didn't cover and would like to share your thoughts, please let me know.

It's Official...Glacier Run is a Success!

Since it’s opening in April, Glacier Run at Louisville Zoo has been a busy place!  Not only have they recently received a rescued polar bear cub, bringing their population to 2, but they have been housing a family of three grizzly bears rescued from Yellowstone earlier this year.

Word from the zoo is the grizzly bears are especially fond of the large dig pit included in the new exhibit.   They apparently spend almost all of their time digging around in the gravel and mulch, and to our pleasure, we have succeeded in keeping the mess from the dig pit from entering the pool.  The secret?  Locating the dig pit at a slightly lower elevation than the water level, and separating the dig pit from the main pool by a shallow stream.

Last month, PGAV Destinations sent out the following press release:

Glacier Run Exhibit Opens at Louisville Zoo

PGAV Destinations Project Teaches Visitors Better Bonds with Wildlife and Our Planet 

(St. Louis, Missouri – August 16, 2011):  PGAV Destinations, a global leader in the planning and design of entertainment and cultural destinations, is pleased to announce that its Glacier Run project is touted as a sensation at the Louisville Zoo.  PGAV Destinations served as the lead designer of this state-of-the-art attraction.

Designed as an imaginary town on the edge of the arctic wilderness, Glacier Run is modeled after the real town of Churchill, Canada, known as the polar bear capital of the world, where humans and wildlife have learned to co-exist.

“Glacier Run is sure to delight and entertain, but also tells one of the most important environmental stories of our generation. This arctic-themed exhibit fundamentally advances a Zoo’s mission of ‘bettering the bond between people and our planet,’” Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak said. “The very nature of this exhibit’s design is based on the idea of humans learning to co-exist with wildlife.”

PGAV Destinations’ design features include an old mining quarry, now flooded with water, where the bears come to play, a fishery and warehouse dock for more bear play space, and a melting glacier, that has destroyed a road in the town, for extra bear play space. The exhibit offers spectacular views, captivating stories of the arctic and unique opportunities for close encounters with polar bears, as well as grizzly bears.  Guests have the opportunity to interact with zookeepers, learn about current challenges to arctic environments and animals, and discover how incremental changes in human everyday activities and behaviors can make a difference for our planet and these magnificent species.

The attraction is on its way to increasing attendance at the Louisville Zoo to more than 890,000 visitors annually and creating a $33.6 million economic impact for the region.

About Louisville Zoo

In its 43-year history, the Louisville Zoo has dedicated itself to the pursuits of education, conservation, scientific study and recreation. Accredited by the American Zoological Association (AZA) in 1980, the "State Zoo of Kentucky" currently exhibits over 1,700 animals in naturalistic and mixed animal settings representing both geographical areas and biomes or habitats.

About PGAV Destinations                                                                                                                                  

PGAV Destinations is a global leader in the planning and design of unique destinations. The firm uniquely combines award-winning storytelling and creativity with business strategy to create some of the world’s most important cultural, heritage, and natural destinations. PGAV develops growth-oriented master plans and translates these plans into innovative new destination products. Now in its fifth decade, the firm has authored hundreds of highly successful projects in places such as SeaWorld, the Grand Canyon, Biltmore Estate, The Brookfield Zoo, the Georgia Aquarium, Kennedy Space Center, and Busch Gardens.

New AZA Elephant Policy Requires Protected Contact

Announced last month, the AZA has instated a new safety policy for keepers working with elephants.  This new policy essentially eliminates the option of free contact for accredited zoos.

For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, “free contact” refers to the husbandry practice whereby keepers and animals share the same space with no barriers between them.  This allows keepers to easily train behaviors without impediment, but generally requires use of the controversial bullhook—essentially a stick with a metal hook and pointed end.  “Protected contact” is the opposite.  All elephant areas must have barriers to protect keepers from harm.  This limits direct keeper animal contact and decreases likelihood of injury.

Because of this policy change, some zoos will have to make operational and husbandry changes by 2014, and will of course also cause some need for facility changes, namely the inclusion of additional barriers and dedicated keeper walks within barns.

Perhaps the most controversial effect of the policy change will be the implied elimination of elephant interactions such as rides and possibly some shows.  However, most zoos have already eliminated these types of free contact situations, and many zoos have switched to protected contact years ago.

Personally, I believe this is only a positive change as ultimately it will serve to protect both the animals and the keepers.  But as we know, for some, change is a difficult pill to swallow.  Hopefully those institutions not meeting the new policy requirements decide to pour themselves a nice big glass of water, and join us here in the future.


Just about every time we start a new master planning project, we ask ourselves, "What are our guests' favorite animals?"  Finally, we've decided to find out for ourselves.  Knowing the popularity of an animal helps designers plan parks by understanding which animals will act as draws for guests through the site.  It also helps the parks prioritize implementation of renovations and/or additions of new animals to take full advantage of revenue and admissions increases.

Be a part of helping plan future zoos, theme parks, and aquariums by letting us know which is your favorite animal!

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