Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #3

PGAV heart of africa columbus zoo

Heart of Africa at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Stacey Ludlum continues her review of innovation in zoos’

I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least “rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Zoo Innovation #3: The Quintessential Wild: Herds of Animals Freely Roaming Acres of Land

Herds of wildebeest and antelope, zebra and impala, the occasional giraffe and a few rhino wandering without a care in the world across fields of tall grasses waving in the breeze as a pride of lions looks on from their perches high above the savanna: this is the quintessential vision of “wild’ in most peoples’ heads. C’mon. You know what I’m talking about. In this innovation, we’re talking about recreating this “wild’ in captivity, and what it comes down to is multiple species of animals in large social groups moving through and around vast open spaces.

This image has actually been replicated again and again in a captive setting by zoos of all sizes and shapes. And really it is a very complicated innovation to achieve, since most of these characters have very specialized needs, physically and socially. Rhinos, for example, do not play well with most other animals. Lions, of course, can never be housed with antelope. Giraffes are a mixed bag: sometimes easy-going and carefree, other times wildly skittish and frightened of their own very long shadows. However, over many years, keepers have developed an understanding of which species can actually be housed together and today its commonplace–to the point of it being expected–to see mixed-species exhibits throughout the zoo, not just in the Africa section (although Africa seems to be the most likely to have the large, wide open spaces).

Beyond mixing species, other innovations have made these spacious and natural-seeming exhibits possible. One method, rotation, links exhibit yards by a common back of house building to allow species to be rotated through yards throughout the day. For example, the lions may be in Yard A in the morning, while hyenas may be in that yard in the afternoon. Hiding barriers and layering views is another innovation that makes wonderfully complex exhibits occur.

This innovation is actually one of the oldest tricks in the books, developed in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. It involves hiding barriers in deep empty ravines called moats.

Hagenbeck Tierpark Nordland

And finally, creating the savanna itself is somewhat of an innovation all on its own. Finding the perfect soil mixture and grass composition to withstand the pressure of herds of hoofstock day in and day out has taken decades to perfect, and some might say, is still being perfected. In fact, this horticultural challenge is one faced not only with hoofstock animals, but in nearly any animal exhibit where the animal is terrestrial, spending the majority of its time on the ground.

Creating the true feeling of “wild’ in captivity is very difficult, and although it has been achieved to varied success repeatedly across the U.S., it is no less a feat. Especially when created with few visible barriers.