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Reconciling User Needs in Animal Exhibit Design Carlyn Worstell
Content - Introduction - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7 - Chapter 8 - Chapter 9 - References

1. Insight into natural behaviors and habitats

Western lowland gorillas inhabit secondary forests with widely-spaced trees and a semi-open canopy (Lash, et al.) (fig 3). The widely-spaced, slender trunks of the trees in these forests allow the large, mostly ground-dwelling animals to easily move about their large home ranges in search of resources. The semi-open forest canopy allows a limited amount of sunlight to reach the forest floor, supporting the over 50 species of herbaceous plants that are so critical to the gorilla’s diet (Harcourt).

Gorilla troops in nature are territorial, occupying vast territories and traveling up to five kilometers per day (Harcourt). They are subject to constant change in their surroundings. This nomadic lifestyle contributes to the well-being of the animals. These intelligent animals thrive in an environment that changes daily and seasonally (fig 4).

These large territories in nature provide animals with visual, olfactory, audible, and tactile stimulation (Hutchins et al.). In the captive setting, plants, topography, and exhibit features can provide various stimuli. Gorillas’ natural habitats are varied both spatially (multi-dimensional surfaces of varying textures) and temporally (daily and seasonal changes in light, temperature, and humidity). Ever-changing stimuli and access to choices directly improve animal well-being and reduce stress in captivity. Light, temperature, and humidity can be technologically controlled to replicate the natural situation (Fortham Quick). These elements also play an important role in plant growth and flowering, as well as in the visitor immersion experience.

Gorillas usually sit and sleep in nests on the ground, which they spend much time building each day out of plant material. Daily allotments of nesting material will allow them to express this important behavior in captivity. A soft substrate, such as grass, is desirable for animal comfort. Floors of indoor gorilla enclosures tend to be of hard concrete, which is easily cleaned, but denies animals a pleasant tactile experience and is unnatural in appearance (fig 5). A “Bio-Floor” – a metal grate that allows drainage covered in about .5 meters of mulch - is one way to offer a soft and movable substrate. Natural bacteria will develop in the mulch, keeping diseases at bay and, because the mulch is not often changed, there is no added maintenance (van der Beek).

Gorillas do not spend much time playing in the wild or in captivity, though young ones play more than adults. Much play among gorillas in a zoo enclosure is likely a symptom of boredom, caused by inadequate choices and stimulus (Goerke et al.). Traveling, eating, and nest-building make up most of gorilla activity. About 50% of the day is spent foraging for food (Cousins). Animals in captivity should be encouraged to move about their space and spend time performing these natural activities as much as possible.

The Rotterdam Zoo has developed a feeding system that keeps the gorillas moving about their island and eliminates routine feeding, which offers no variation for the animals. Twelve metal boxes with electro-magnetic closing devices were placed in the ground throughout the island. Food is placed inside each box in the morning, before the animals enter the island and timers are set by a digital pad indoors to unlock the boxes at different times throughout the day. By setting the opening times in a different pattern everyday, the animals are constantly moving around in search of available food (de Vries).

Resources besides food should also be distributed throughout the space (Coe, 1999). The presence of several shady, elevated, and hidden areas allows animals to choose where they want to be and ensures that more than one animal has access to a certain element at any given time.


Fig. 3: African Rainforest
© www.micro.utexas.edu/... /RAINFORESTS/ndoki-clearing.gif in March 2003


Fig. 4: Gorillas move through large territories.
© Florence Magliocca, MaxPlanck Institute, Leipzig, Germany, 2003


Fig. 5: Indoor Exhibit at Hannover Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003

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Revised 2011-10-30
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