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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

3. Conceiving animal-visitor relationships

Perhaps the most demanding architectural element in a zoo is enclosure barriers, because of their critical function, as well as their need to remain inconspicuous. Barriers should be obscured as much as possible and visitor views should be controlled to avoid barriers being obtrusive in the view. Often, plantings are used in an attempt to obscure barriers. However, plantings on the visitor side of barriers actually emphasize the barrier further if they contrast with the plants used inside the exhibit. The plant palette of an exhibit should apply to both animal areas and visitor areas, to help visitors feel as though they are sharing the same space as the animals (fig 10). This facilitates a more exciting encounter, and can increase visitors’ respect for the animals, as it gives the impression of standing in the animals’ territory, rather than the impression of an isolated animal enclosure within an urban park.

Wet and dry moats are commonly used as barriers for great apes. Often, moats are constructed as concrete-lined ditches, which are extremely obtrusive and unnatural in appearance. Moats can, however, be designed to be discreetly out of view. When the ground plain slopes up before dropping into a moat, the moat will essentially be hidden (Hancocks, 1995). This technique can be employed at the front of the exhibit, however it requires a large amount of space and results in the animals being more set-back from the visitors. This technique is very effective to disguise moats at the back of the exhibit or between adjacent exhibits, as the space will look continuous. Plantings on the opposite side of the moat will be protected from the animals, ensuring a lush backdrop.

Moats, particularly in front of the exhibit, can also be made appear as a natural part of the habitat, when constructed with varying width, and appropriately planted with the same planting characteristics on either side (fig 11). Moats allow for an unobstructed view of the animals, without blocking-out sound or smell. Animals at a distance appear bigger, and therefore, closer, when viewed across a moat barrier than across another type of barrier (Kortlandt). However, moats take up considerable space and may restrict the use of vertical elements in the enclosure, as a large distance must be maintained between a climbable structure and the moat, to prevent the animal from jumping down over the moat and escaping. Thus, too small a land space can be further compounded by limited use of the vertical space when a moat barrier is used (Maple and Hoff).

The exhibit should contain the maximum number of viewpoints for visitors without introducing cross-viewing and without shortening the animals’ flight distance at any point. Ideally, visitors should not be able to see the whole space from any one viewpoint, maintaining the illusion of an undeterminable space. A series of smaller, more intimate viewpoints is more affective than one large viewpoint. Smaller groups of observers will be less stressful to the animals (Coe, 1999) and a sense of immersion is more easily created at smaller viewpoints that handle less traffic.

Visitors tend to be quieter and more focused on the animals in small, immersed spaces (Lee & Coe). This is especially desirable in indoor areas, where noise is often compounded by echoing, disruptive both to visitors and animals (fig 12). Sound absorbing materials and exhibit elements that create sound (such as a waterfall) are helpful. However, encouraging visitors to observe in quiet awe is the ideal solution, as lack of distraction is one element in creating a memorable experience (Coe, 1985).

Multiple view points, placed on more than one side of the exhibit, diminish the common two-dimensional scene that visitors are typically presented with (Polakowski) and also allow animals to be observed more often, as people can change their position according to where the animals are. When visitors can even be surrounded by the animal enclosure on more than one side or even pass through the enclosure, as at the Bronx Zoo’s glass tunnel through its gorilla enclosure, visitors will gain a better sense of immersion and respect for the animals, who will be dominant in the scene (fig 13).

Gorillas will socialize with one another more when they are not surrounded by large, glass windows, or overwhelmed by crowds looking down upon them (fig 14). Belfast Zoo has completed a study that compared the behavior of their gorillas before and after the large windows into their space were partially covered by camouflage netting (fig 15). It demonstrated that when animals are provided with more privacy they are more likely to spend their time focused on one another and their own social relationships, than on the visitors who are observing them, and they also demonstrate lower levels of stress (Stronge) (fig 16). Netting and paintings over glass panels are two ways zoos are retrofitting exhibits, but plants would be an even more natural medium (fig 17).

When visitors must “peek” through vegetation in the foreground, in order to spot the animals, it enhances the excitement of the experience – as though they are in the wild and spotting an animal by chance. The exhibit automatically becomes more participatory, increasing the sensory and emotional impact of the exhibit, which, in turn, enhances its educational and recreational impact (Polokowski). At the Blackpool Zoo, peeking through small windows at the great apes while standing in a themed environment is exciting for the visitor, as well as beneficial to the elusive animals, who enjoy more privacy (fig 18). After all, of what good is a large viewing window, when the animals are inactive or not behaving naturally? The Blackpool Zoo used to have a series of large windows, angled in towards the animals, along a straight hall for viewing gorillas and orangutans indoors. After a simple, but effective, renovation, the windows are partially covered with bamboo walls, about .5 meters out from the windows. Small holes, of different sizes and shapes and at different heights, allow controlled views into the animal space. Visitors now stand on a wooden boardwalk, surrounded by wood chips and potted plants. These, along with the dim lighting, create a sense of atmosphere. Light comes only from doors at each end of the hall and a few spotlights highlighting signage. Crowding at the windows is generally not a problem, as high-attendance generally coincides with nice weather, when the animals choose to be in their outdoor exhibit. This technique should only be applied in indoor exhibits, where the number of animals is dense for the amount space, to ensure that many windows enjoy a view of an animal at a given time, better accommodating large groups of visitors. A system of small windows is employed to view the outdoor exhibit at Burgers zoo where the animals have a vast space in which to spread out. The result is that the animals are often visible in only one or two windows, and the crowd must compete to see the animals. Outdoors, trees and plantings, rather then walls, should be used to obscure the bodies of visitors.

In the indoor exhibit at the Cologne Zoo, exotic plantings between the visitor pathway and the glass windows into the animal space immerse the visitor in the animals’ environment and also serve the added purpose of preventing visitors from tapping on the glass – a benefit to the animals (fig 19). Foreground elements, such as plants, increase the sense of depth of the exhibit for the viewer (fig 20), making a more interesting view and causing small spaces to appear more vast.

The Munich Zoo’s indoor ape enclosures are viewed through floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which expose the entire space (fig 21). Because all walls of the enclosures can be seen, they appear to truly be enclosures, even smaller in appearance than they actually are. At the same time, the animals do not have any view to the outdoors, and visitors view the animals against a very architectural, mural-painted wall (fig 22). The same amount of glass, when placed behind the animals would give the animals a view to the outdoors, as well as a green, seemingly endless backdrop in the visitors’ view. The visitors could then have a solid wall between them and the animals, with a series windows, placed at different heights, to look through. The animals’ well-being would be improved, as people would appear smaller from the animals’ perspective, which reduces stress. Visitor views could be dictated through window placement, to avoid exposing the entire space at once. A glass background would allow live plants, hills, and sky to be “borrowed” as part of the view.

Skylights in the ceiling prevent the animals from being backlit, as is a problem in the Paignton Zoo’s indoor gorilla viewing area, where animals are silhouetted against windows behind them, and thus difficult to view (fig 23).

When visitors appear smaller to the gorillas, stress may be decreased. In addition to keeping visitors’ bodies from being fully exposed, visitors can stand below the animals, which will cause them to appear smaller. It has also been observed that apes become anxious when approached from above (Cousins). Thus, visitor viewing areas should be placed at eye level with the animals, or slightly below, or else the space directly below the visitors view will go unutilized (as at the indoor exhibit at Paignton), resulting in wasted space. It is also believed that people’s impressions of the animals will be more respectful when the animal is placed in the higher position (Coe, 1985). Raising the animal space above the horizon line of the visitors, automatically aids in hiding barriers and buildings (Hancocks, 1995) (fig 24).When visitors are placed in a high position, it is more likely that they will be able to view over the entire enclosure, making it appear smaller than it is, or even over the entire zoo, extracting any mystery or surprise from the visit experience (Polakowski).

In off-exhibit holding areas, attention should be paid to the animal-human relationship as well. Animal enclosures should be raised above keeper space, so that the animals are generally at eye-level with keepers. It has been observed in sloth bears, that the animals will not lie down in their holding areas when a keeper is nearby, because it makes them lower than the person. The floors of Leipzig Zoo’s sloth bear holding rooms are .5 meters higher than the floor of the keeper gangway, to help the animals feel unthreatened by passing keepers (Schulman).


Fig. 10: Visitors are immersed in the gorillas' habitat. Rotterdam Zoo, the Netherlands
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 11: Moat in Leipzig Zoo's Pongoland, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 12: The indoor exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo is filled with echoes of visitor noise and crashing waterfalls. Texas, USA
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 13: Tunnel through gorilla space at the Bronx Zoo. New York, USA
© Wildlife Conservation Society, 1999


Fig. 14: Zurich Zoo, Switzerland
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 15: Netting covering large windows into Belfast Zoo's indoor gorilla enclosure reduces stress in the animals. Belfast Zoo, Ireland
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 16: Peeking into animal space at Belfast Zoo, Ireland
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 17: Plants create translucent screens for "peeking" at Paignton Zoo, England
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 18: Renovated indoor viewing area at Blackpool Zoo, England
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 19: Plantings Between Visitor Pathway and Viewing Window at Cologne Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 20: Plants as foreground elements at Cologne Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 21: Visitors are completely exposed to the animal space at Munich Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 22: An abrupt background at Munich Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 23: Gorillas are backlit in the indoor exhibit at Paignton Zoo, England, making them difficult to view.
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 24: The horizon line of this zebra exhibit is higher than visitors. Forth Worth Zoo, Texas, USA
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003

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Revised 2011-10-30
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