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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

4. Exhibit features: benefiting animals, benefiting visitors

Many animal species, including gorillas, benefit from living in a group. While a larger group of animals may require slightly more space for appropriate accommodation than a smaller group, the relative density of animals within the space can be increased, by effectively breaking-up the space. A high density of animals in the space increases the likelihood of visitors seeing at least one animal and of at least one animal being near the visitor viewpoint at a given time. The animals will also be more active, when they are a social species, such as gorillas, because of their interactions with one-another. The entertainment and educational value of the exhibit is thus improved, as visitors will enjoy watching animals interact with each other and will gain an impression of the animals’ natural behaviors.

The social make-up of a gorilla group in nature, gives us an important clue as to how their space should be formed. Different individuals interact with one-another differently and subordinate individuals often seek to visually separate themselves from other individuals (Fossey). In the wild, natural barriers allow primates to escape aggression within their group, spend time in pairs or subgroups to bond, or to breed out of sight of dominant individuals (Blount). In captivity, a series of distinct, differing spaces, rather than one open space, will allow these natural social behaviors, as well as offer choice – both enhancing animal well-being (fig 25). There should be a wide variety of spaces, to compensate for the overall lack of space in the captive setting.

According to gorilla keepers at Apenheul Primate Park, a single space of 180 square meters for their indoor enclosure would not be big enough to house their large group, however this same amount of space, broken up into 10 different spaces of varying shapes and sizes, houses them very well and allows for lots of complex movement within the space (van der Beek) (fig 26). This concept applies both to indoor holding rooms, as well as to outdoor spaces. Both should be designed in such a way that there are no dead-ends, i.e. there is a circuitous route throughout. This will prevent an individual from being trapped by another animal and allow for continuous chase games. Apenheul and Bristol Zoo accomplish this in their indoor facilities by arranging them in a two-leveled “C” shape around the visitor viewing area. A corridor running over the heads of visitors completes the shape into a full circle.

Structures, topography and plantings, can be used in outdoor areas as architectural elements to separate distinct spaces (fig 27). The breaking up of an outdoor space with hills and vegetation proved to lessen aggression in a large gorilla group at the Jersey Zoo (Redshaw & Mallinson) (fig 28). The use of plants to form translucent barriers between spaces allows animals to separate from one another as they desire, while allowing them to remain aware of the other individuals in the exhibit (fig 29).

How does this benefit the visitor? The breaking up of a single space into multiple, overlapping spaces makes the exhibit appear deeper to the visitor and obscures the edges of the exhibit (fig 30). Placing darker-colored and finer-textured plants near the back will enhance this even more, as they will appear to eyes as being further away, due to their smaller size and more shadowy appearance. When the edges of the exhibit are undeterminable, visitors can easier believe they are looking at nature. However, because the enclosure is, in fact, not as large as it appears, the animals will never be too far away from observing visitors.

Varying topography and climbable elements also increase the number of unobstructed views the visitor will enjoy. Male gorillas are very often seen in zoo exhibits standing or sitting on raised areas that afford a view over the entire enclosure and beyond (fig 31). Another common habit of silverbacks is placing themselves near the front of the exhibit, facing back towards their other group members, as if keeping guard over their family and placing themselves as a barrier between visitors and their custodies (fig 32). These observations suggest the importance of providing high spaces on top of rocks, logs, or hills, with expansive views of the rest of the exhibit and beyond, allowing animals (especially males) a sense of control over their territory (fig 33). High spaces offer great opportunities for visitors to get an unobstructed view of the animal, and should be placed in ideal viewing locations.

Gorillas at the Blackpool Zoo are often seen standing on top of the enormous hill in the middle of the island, making a superb view for visitors. The rocky hills of the island ensure that there is no cross-viewing over the island, though visitors can move around and view it from all sides. The side that visitors encounter first is completely natural in appearance with features such as trees, boulders, and waterfalls (fig 34). The built climbing structure is located on the opposite side of the island. While the first impression of the gorillas is a scene of magnificent nature, visitors can observe the animals climbing abilities after walking around the island. The animals spend about equal time on both sides of the island.

The natural terrain of the rainforest can serve as an example for topography design in gorilla exhibits. Hills in the rainforest are usually rolling, and gently-sloped. Dried-up river and stream basins are often present. The shallow soil of the forest floor leaves rocky outcroppings and large tree roots exposed (Weigel), however, large rock walls or cliffs are rarely seen.

An understanding of what kinds of spaces gorillas like to inhabit suggests where in the exhibit the animals will spend most of their time. This helps bringing them closer to visitor viewing areas to be easily viewed in even a large, complex enclosure. In a gorilla group, the dominant male is the leader. The other group members follow his lead, and tend to occupy space relatively near to him, particularly young and their mothers (Hoff & Maple; Box). Therefore, designing an exhibit with the dominant male’s habits in mind, can result in the entire group being more visible.

Gorillas prefer to occupy spaces that are flat, with some kind of element in the space (Lash, et. al.). They especially enjoy features that they can sit and lean their back against, while viewing out in three directions (fig 35). This is called “refuge and prospect” and is a concept that humans have carried with them throughout evolution – the desire to watch for predators while having their backs covered (fig 36). While an animal can use any element to sit or lean on, trees and logs are natural items that visitors will associate with the forest, emphasizing the animals as wild and part of an intricate ecosystem. The animal will also enjoy the tactile access to natural textures. Young ones use raised areas to play “king of the hill” and often center their chase games around a central object, such as a log or a boulder. Thus, both adults and juveniles utilize dead logs, which are prevalent in a natural forest, and these should be incorporated into the space.

Tree trunks appear natural and allow animals to peel the bark and drum on the surface. However, they rot quickly and must be changed often. For climbing structures, pressure-treated poles last longer - up to eight years (less in areas near the sea with salty air) and ropes generally last 2 – 3 years (Webster). Metal holders in the ground can be used to hold dead tree trunks and poles vertical, allowing old ones to be slipped out and new ones slipped in easily. Gorillas are quite agile climbers and climbing opportunities increase the amount of available space in an enclosure, by utilizing the vertical plane. Platforms placed in trees or on poles have shown to be favorite spots for sitting and sleeping, particularly for females (Shulman) (fig 37). Climbing structures and ropes should be designed to be easily changed, allowing the environment to be modified periodically so that animals are exposed to novelty (Maple & Perkins). The enclosure space should be accessible to trucks and cranes to easily facilitate the changing of logs, rocks, etc. Gorillas have been known to move unattached logs and place them up walls or over moats to escape (Cousins) so the length of introduced logs should be monitored. Gorillas have also been known to throw rocks at glass windows or out of the enclosure, so all rocks inside the enclosure should be substantial enough that a gorilla could not throw them.

Artificial trees may look more natural in appearance then poles, when mixed with live trees, as is done in the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest. Here, constructed replicas of African rainforest trees include heating and cooling systems, pipes for food-hiding, and parallel branches that create a “couch” for comfortable sitting (Ehmke). Artificial trees can be built around poles or beams that should be hidden from view.

Many recent gorilla exhibits have incorporated caves into their features, usually heated and facing a visitor view point, to provide gorillas with a warm place to rest while encouraging them to spend time in view of visitors (fig 38). However, caves are not natural spaces for gorillas to inhabit, as they nest primarily among vegetation on the ground or on low branches in trees, and few captive gorillas have shown a preference for these spaces. Caves in exhibits usually end up being used as raised areas, from which to view out. This emphasizes once again the need for raised areas in gorilla exhibits, including raised platforms to facilitate nesting when the ground is wet.

Gorillas should, however, be provided with shelter from rain, as most apes do not enjoy getting their heads wet (Brown, et al.). A variation of the cave is a simple wooden structure enjoyed by the gorillas at Bristol Zoo (fig 39). These 4-sided, roofed shelters allow the gorilla to be covered on three sides (refuge and prospect) and choose in which direction it would like to view. It has also been used to stand on top of, for that ever-important expansive view. Adequate shade should be provided for the animals by means of shade trees.


Fig. 25: Topography and natural features break up the gorilla enclosure at the Fort Worth Zoo into a series of smaller spaces with varying characters. Texas, USA
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 26: Plan of Apenheul Primate Park's indoor facilities, showing the complex movement enabled by the joined spaces.
© http://www.gorillas.nl in March, 2003


Fig. 27: Apenheul's outdoor gorilla island employs the same concept, using hills and trees instead of walls. Netherlands
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 28: A complex space, broken into many spaces, at the Jersey Zoo, United Kingdom
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 29: Plantings define space at Blackpool Zoo, Great Britain
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 30: Overlapping elements create the illusion of depth at Burger's Zoo. Arnhem, Netherlands
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 31: Great view of gorilla at Blackpool Zoo. Great Britain
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 32: Male gorillas, like this one at Munich Zoo, seek a sense of control over their space by sitting where they can view the whole enclosure. Munich, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 33: A rock at Hannover Zoo offers an important element for gorillas - an expansive view over their space. Hannover, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 34: The first view visitors encounter of Blackpool's gorilla island contains only natural elements - a meaningful first impression. Great Britain
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 35: Gorillas enjoy leaning their back on something. Hannover Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 36: Human primates enjoy sitting and leaning - "refuge and prospect" - as well. Hannover Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 37: Females and juveniles especially enjoy sitting in treetops. Zurich Zoo, Switzerland
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 38: Caves have become popular features in gorilla exhibits, despite the fact that they are unnatural for this species. Duisburg Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 39: A clever shelter enjoyed by the gorillas at Bristol Zoo, England
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003

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Revised 2011-10-30
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