In April, over 200 zoo design professionals from around the world met in Wroclaw, Poland to discuss the state of the industry, trends, challenges, and new innovations at the Zoo Design Conference.

By Stacey Ludlum, Director of Zoo & Aquarium Planning and Design at PGAV Destinations.

The focus on the conference was “Designing for Enrichment”, which meant the discussions were mostly centered around design for welfare and wellness of animals. Because zoos arestacey ludlum zoo designer pgav destinations so varied around the world, this topic allowed a wide range of discussions from basic husbandry and design process, to deep dives on dynamic, living environments.

Delegates heard from speakers including Simon Tonge, Executive Director of Paignton Zoo, Radoslaw Ratajszczak, Zoo Director of Wroclaw ZOO since 2007 and Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park. Renowned designer Jon Coe – among the first to call himself a zoo designer – and freelance landscape architect and zoo designer Monika Fiby also presented. The venue was The University of Wroclaw.

After the conference, I reflected on what I learned from presenters and from discussions in the lecture hall lobby, food queues, and corridors. I came back with four major take-aways for exploration and further thought.

1. European and American zoos are cousins

Sometimes when we visit zoos in other countries, it’s clear that the market is lagging behind American standards, but the European market (which represented the majority of speakers at the conference) cannot be compared in this way to American zoos. One is not necessarily “better’ than the other; they have simply evolved differently in response to our different cultures. They have become entirely different animals, each with their own failures and successes, and each can learn from the other.

brother and sister watch giraffes at zoo

Specifically, European zoos are just starting to embrace immersive, story-driven visitor experience (rather than a more traditional, leisurely, passive activity where guests walk by exhibits, rather than engage with them). This style of exhibitry highlights architecture in a Big A sort of way. It does so rather than using architecture to tell a story, or hiding the architecture all together. Additionally, European zoos often have much larger and more naturalistic outdoor animal spaces, but juxtapose the architecture harshly against these outdoor spaces.

Embrace the immersive

European zoos like Chester, London, and Zurich have taken a cue from American zoos (and theme parks) to understand that storytelling (especially related to conservation) can be accomplished through experiences in immersive environments. More European zoos need to abandon the Big A architecture adoration to embrace immersive design.zoo design conference logo

On the other hand, American zoos are far more conservative and risk averse. American zoos are overly “visitor safety-conscious,’ and rarely willing to take risks with their animal collection. European (and other international zoos) prioritize naturalism. They also seem more willing to take chances with visitor proximity and interactions, animal social groupings, and allowing animals to exhibit truly natural behaviors’even if that includes stress or fighting. As one speaker put it, “Stress, in doses, can be enriching.”

2. Dynamic habitats are critical

In many ways, outdoor habitats are inherently dynamic’they are exposed to weather, seasonality, even daily micro-climate changes. However, in nature, most animals experience much more diversity in dynamism. They move to different habitat types and they experience different kinds of plants, substrates, different water velocities and flows. They experience tides and other animal species moving through their territories. Yet, in zoos, we rarely use dynamism as an inspiration for design. We should rethink this strategy’especially for indoor exhibits that lack natural and inherent dynamism.

One idea that received a lot of discussion was dynamic landscape design. In order for this to work, we have to let go of our preciousness when dealing with plantings and plan for it to be destroyed and replaced often. We also need inter-departmental cooperation to plan for the on-going maintenance and replacement costs. We need to plan for the landscape to be dynamic. In addition, we should choose plants that change over the seasons, seasonally replace plantings, and move plantings around. Simply approach zoo design with dynamism as a goal.

3. Rethink the definition of success for a species.

Every animal is different, so different measures of success should be considered. Reproduction is a common measure of success, but it isn’t always indicative of a truly enriching environment. On the flip side, stereotypical behaviors are not always indicative of negative stimulus or lack of stimuli.

aquarium visitors

One speaker suggested looking to nature for models of success’for natural behaviors that serve as goals and inspirations for the environment. Another speaker pointed out that when looking to nature, remember that for many species, nature includes manmade elements like electrical wires and shelters.

New freedoms

Jon Coe is arguably the godfather of modern zoo design. He presented his suggestion for an update to the traditional five freedoms for animals in captivity which focus on understanding how a species may achieve a life as naturally lived as possible. His new freedoms include the ability to:

  • Achieve competence in behaviors’To not only express behavior, but to be able to master those behaviors; to exhibit them in the widest range possible.
  • Have choice’To be able to make decisions about what, where, why and how they will live in their habitat.
  • Take control’To be able manipulate the environment and the conditions around them.
  • Experience variety’To have multiple options.
  • Engage in complexity’To have options that challenge and require thought.

4. Guests want to know that zoos are providing the best care to animals first and foremost. However, they don’t always know what “good animal care’ is.

It’s clear that worldwide society is changing and has a growing awareness and caring for all living things. It is demanding zoos provide the absolute best care possible to animals, no matter what. The problem we encounter is understanding what our visitors (and non-visitors) believe is good care, and educating them on what is actually good care.

One speaker gave a wonderful example illustrating this. At his facility, he experienced negative feedback after moving primates into a large spacious aviary from their aged monkey island. The mere presence of the aviary structure implied imprisonment and decreased animal welfare. However, the original exhibit surrounded by a water moat posed much greater threats. Specifically, the risk of drowning and inability to change out furniture and enrichment regularly.

A successful conference

We must continuously evaluate our habitats for the messages they send to our audiences. We must also remember that our guests don’t necessarily understand true animal welfare. And, we must make a goal of educating our guests in husbandry and care standards as a key component in programs and physical experience.

Having the opportunity to totally immerse into zoo design philosophy, discussion and sharing of ideas is critical to the continued evolution of zoos. I hope to see this conference return on a regular basis.