What Makes for Good Zoo Design?

I’ve just been going over a number of articles on the Internet about people’s perception of what makes for good zoo design. As a zoo designer, I am always trying to understand what the “typical” zoo goer wants to experience during their trip to the zoo. During some of my “free time”, I search blogs, tweets and other social media formats for responses from ordinary visitors as to what experiences they consider make a trip to the zoo worthwhile and what good zoo design really is.

While most of the responses are very similar, I was quite surprised that a lot of folks mention things like; natural habitats, I can see the animal, the restrooms are clean, the food is good, it’s not to hot, etc. Things I feel relate more to the individual then to the residents of the zoo.

Very seldom do you read about things that relate to how animals are kept in captivity, with the exception of supposed animal welfare groups. This makes me sad. At PJA, we feel that good zoo design starts with the animal or animals that we are designing for. I know a few other of the zoo design firms that have been in the business for years and make zoo design their main focus agree with me. Sorry to say that there are a lot of architecture and landscape architecture firms out there that make zoo design part of a greater portfolio of design work that don’t get this. You see this by what they consider important aspects of creating a new exhibit.

Zoo design, very simply put, is about the animals. Without the proper exhibits, holding facilities, and back of house support for the animals, zoos can’t exist as zoos. People would not support them and not visit them. Not all the fancy restaurants, gift shops and clean bathrooms in the world will give you the same experience and create the same empathy for animals that a well-designed exhibit can.

When I was just finishing working on Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Dr. Jane Goodall (name dropping!) at Rick Barongi and Diane Ledder’s house in Orlando., Florida. I have always had this feeling in the back of my mind that being a zoo designer was somehow a dubious profession as it was I that was creating an aesthetic jail cell. I asked Jane (I’m on first name basis now, think it had something to do with a bottle of Scotch and trying to assume a Japanese kneeling position without falling over) what she thought about me as a designer, creating captive environments for animals. In essence, creating pretty boxes for holding animals. Her answer still drives the designs of PJA to this day. She calmly stated (Jane is the most calming person I have ever met. Just being around her lowers your blood pressure by 20 points) and I paraphrase, “as long as you do your utmost to give animals the best possible environment to live out their lives, then you are doing the right thing”. It is with this direction that PJA has put pencil to paper to create new zoos and exhibits.
Animals come first, from the size of their exhibit to the amount of enrichment they are given, we are the voice of the animals. It is up to the designer to push, no, to demand that the most appropriate exhibit be designed on each and every project, no matter it’s scale or cost. As designers, once we have met all the needs of the animals to be exhibited, then we can concentrate on all the other requirements that will make a trip to the zoo a pleasure for both animals and guests.

So on your next trip to the zoo stop and really look at the exhibits. Notice what the animals are doing. Notice if there is enough shade, food, water, enrichment, and especially room for the animal. Years ago the San Diego Zoo had a great marketing campaign when they were moving to immersive exhibits. Simple stated “A funny thing happens when you put animals in a natural environment, they act natural”.


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