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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

7. Plants: How to use them

A planting design should always begin with the existing conditions in mind. Full-grown shade trees are very valuable to an exhibit, the aim of which is to appear lush on opening day, if they can be salvaged. Zoo Leipzig incorporated existing vegetation into its primate exhibits, which were built on a forested site. Trees were saved in strategic locations, while others were removed to open up the space and allow an herbaceous layer of native grasses, clovers, and thistle to grow beneath. Because all plants are native, additional irrigation isn’t required.

The plant palette used in the animal space should be mirrored in the visitor space. These plantings should begin to surround visitors before they even reach the exhibit, in order to set the mood and begin to take visitors into a new context (fig 51). Formal annual beds in front of exhibits, only increase the contrast between people space and animal space. Visitors will feel little connection to the animals they are viewing, when they are standing in a park-like setting, simply viewing into a piece of wild African habitat. Designers can lessen perceptual clues that remind people that they are in a zoo. The setting should be free of contradictions, such as obviously man-made structures would be in a wild habitat (Coe, 1995). Plants, rocks, soil and architectural character can aid in providing visual connections across barriers.

While selecting appropriate plant species is the first step to creating a convincing landscape, the layout of the plantings is equally important (Jackson), especially in making the space functional, i.e. using plants as architectural elements.

Plant masses in animal spaces will serve as architectural elements – walls defining spaces of various sizes and characters, benches and raised areas for standing, sitting, or sleeping, translucent or opaque screens to direct views. Some evergreen plants can be used to ensure that the exhibit does not become too open in the winter months.

The relationship between plants and space is the first determinant in creating a sense of place or atmosphere. Space can be defined with plants in a number of different ways. An open space, such as a savanna, can be created by surrounding an open space with plants. The African rainforest, however, is made up of spaces that are seemingly cut out of an enclosed, canopied space. Single-stemmed, high-branching trees create a look of a cathedral ceiling, held up by tall, straight poles. In the rainforest, growth is always emphasized up, toward the sun. Trees are generally widely-spaced. Wide spacing and an absence of branches below the canopy are ideal in an exhibit, where visibility through the space is desired.

Trees and other plants should be spaced and clumped in a random fashion. Rainforest plants generally grow as individuals mixed together, rather then in homogenous clumps. A clump of plants usually contains individuals of various species (Richard). Thus, species variety is a characteristic of tropical rainforests and exhibits should reflect this, while including some degree of species repetition within animal and visitor spaces, to create an understandable scene. An illusion of greater depth can be achieved by placing large-leafed plants nearest the visitor and small-leafed, or fine-textured, plants in the background.

Tactile access to natural elements such as tree trunks and live plants is important for the animals. Gorillas use plants in nearly every aspect of their daily lives in the wild. Eating, nest-building, playing, leaning, viewing, and aggressing are all heavily based on plants or plant parts. Natural behaviors can be encouraged by allowing the animals tactile contact with plants. In the exhibits I have seen in the past year, I have found that a variety of plants can survive the handling of gorillas. The biggest determinants of the plants’ survival is how well they are established before animals have access to them, the ratio of plants to the number of animals, and how much other browse they receive as part of their diet (Pacinotti).

Rotterdam and Blackpool Zoos have found effective ways to allow animals to forage for willow (Salix), while not killing the willow completely. At Blackpool, willow near the water moat is fenced off by electric wires, separating it from the animals (fig 52). The animals can reach the branches that grow over the wires, but the willow can grow uninhibited toward the water (Webster). At Rotterdam, a number of willow clumps are wired off separately. From time to time, the wires are removed from one of the clumps, allowing gorillas access. Later, the wires will be replaced, to let the planting re-grow and another clump will become accessible (de Vries).

Duisburg and Paignton Zoos have built innovative herb gardens in their gorilla enclosures (fig 53). A metal grate protects the roots and base growth of the herbs. In Duisburg, herbs are planted about 20 cm below ground level so that the grate unobtrusively sits on ground level (fig 54). Gorillas have access to the new growth that rises above the metal grate, while the roots of the plants are protected, allowing re-growth. The animals have shown great interest in the various scents and textures of the herbs.

But even plantings that the animals cannot physically touch are still valuable in an exhibit, whether they are just outside the enclosure, or inside the enclosure but protected by hot wire or some other means. Visitors will connect the animals to their forest home, and the animals may feel more comfortable – after all, numerous studies show that the presence of houseplants decreases stress in humans, so we can infer that the same might be true for one of our closest relatives, who are more intimately connected to nature than ourselves. Protecting plants from total annihilation by gorillas is challenging, but feasible.

Plant protection is achieved in many different ways. Plants can be placed between a double-paned glass wall, simply making a green backdrop, as at the indoor exhibit at Munich. Trees can be surrounded by hot wire or, like at Apenheul Primate Park, by an artificial trunk, made of hard plastic, which still allows the animals to lean against the trunk and even drum on it (fig 55).

There is discussion as to whether or not animals tend to leave a consistent distance of a meter or so between themselves and any hot wire. If this is true, the presence of hot wire in an exhibit will radically reduce the amount of usable space for the animals. Further study should be undertaken on this topic.

Shrubs and trees, if they do not have thorns already, can be surrounded by a planting of thorny shrubs, such as Cotoneaster, Berberis, or Ilex (which have the added benefit of being evergreen) (fig 56). Chester zoo uses rose whips and Pyracantha to protect trees in its chimp exhibit. Animals can later be allowed access to the trees, as they become more established, by leaning a log against the tree trunk, allowing the animals to climb over the thorny shrubs.

Both animals and visitors benefit from the existence of large shade trees – protected or not - in the exhibit. The essence of a broken canopy accurately represents the type of habitat gorillas inhabit in the wild, supporting visitor education of gorillas as part of a unique ecosystem (fig 57a, 57b). Shade may also make for more active animals – very important in holding visitors’ attention. In the wild, and at many zoos in varying climates, it has been observed that gorillas are more active when not in bright sunlight (de Vries). Providing shade at all times of day, and all seasons, is important for the physical comfort of the animals and can also be used to encourage the animals to spend time close to viewing spots. Zoo Leipzig provides shade at the front of the exhibit, nearest to the visitor, to entice the animals to this area (fig 58). When the animals are in the back of the exhibit, up on the hill, they are in full sun, so they are still easily visible to visitors. If an animal, especially a dark-colored one like a gorilla, is far away and in the shade, it will be difficult for visitors to see it. Background plants can be chosen for colors that will best contrast the animal’s color, to make the animal stand out in a complex exhibit.

Also, the contrast between the light and shady areas will make the bright area appear closer to the visitor than it actually is, much like a bright stage in front of a darkened audience (Polakowski). The opposite will be true for the animals. As they look back, visitors standing in shade will seem farther away, increasing the sense of privacy and flight distance for the animals. This is often achieved by placing visitors in a cave or shelter as they view into a sunny enclosure (fig 59). The same effect can be reached with shade tree plantings in and near the visitor area (fig 60). In areas with glass windows, it is essential that the visitor area be darker than the animal area, in order to avoid distracting reflections and glare on the glass.

There are many good reasons to set aside budget for moving and protecting mature trees when building new exhibits. In addition to what I have already mentioned, large trees in an exhibit also create multiple niches, offering the opportunity for mixed-species exhibits (fig 61). By utilizing different niches, such as the terrestrial, arboreal, and aquatic, more species can enjoy the same area, thus using the zoo’s space in the most efficient manner. For example, while gorillas are mainly terrestrial, Guerzza monkeys utilize the canopy space, making them a logical mix in terms of education. Mixed –species exhibits also contribute to the enrichment of the animals’ lives by adding variety and complexity to their environments and contribute to visitor education by showing ever more holistic pictures of ecosystems. They also aid in holding visitor attention because when one animal species is inactive, another may be very active, giving visitors reason to stay at the exhibi.

In areas of limited water, planting beds should be constructed to retain water. They should always be deep and wide enough to allow for a stable root system to develop and to encourage fast-growth – both will aid them in self-defense from animals. Compost and mulch will reduce the amount of water needed, though mulch should not be used in areas where the public can see it, as it is unnatural in appearance. Mulch can be used within planting beds, when kept away from visitor pathways. Drip systems of irrigation, aimed at specific plants and irrigating at night will help conserve water. Also, waterfalls should be able to be easily turned off at night, which saves water and also offers the animals a quieter atmosphere.


Fig. 51: Planted path leading to primate exhibits begins to set the mood. Hannover Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 52: Semi-protected willow can be partially accessed by gorillas at Blackpool Zoo, England
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 53: Herb garden at Paignton Zoo, England
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 54: Herb garden at Duisburg Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 55: Protected trees can be leaned and drummed on at Apenheul Primate Park, Apeldoorn, Netherlands
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 56: Thorny shrubs protect delicate trees from gorillas at Bristol Zoo, England
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 57b: There are many places of both shade and sun, giving gorillas choice, at Leipzig Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 57a: Large, lush trees give the essence of a forest at Burgers Zoo, Arnhem, Netherlands
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 58: Leipzig Zoo employs shade to improve visitor viewing. Leipzig, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 59: The animal area appears closer to visitors, because it is brighter. Hannover Zoo, Germany
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 60: Shade obscures visitors from the animals' view. Bristol Zoo, England
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003


Fig. 61: An orangutan and a gibbon use the trees of their shared enclosure at Zoo Leipzig, Germany
© Monika Fiby, 2001

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Revised 2011-10-30
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