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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


In the zoological park setting, there is the unique situation of bringing animals and plants into the realm of people. Unlike an ecotourism destination, where people are brought to natural habitats and are expected to conform to nature’s ways, zoos possess the strength, and the responsibility, to bring close-up nature experiences to a large and broad audience. Here, nature and architecture must meet and natural elements must be manipulated for the sake of accessibility. Zoo visitors have very unique design needs, as do captive animals. The needs of these two audiences are often thought to be in conflict with one another.

The foremost goal of most zoological institutions is to use the entertainment value of live animals and re-created foreign worlds to draw people into an educational situation, in which they will learn about and gain respect for the animals they are observing, as well as nature in general. Encouraging visitors to lengthen their stay in the park is important to increase these educational opportunities, as well as increase the institution’s income (from concessions sales, for example) so that it can continue to thrive and carry out its work.

Visitors spend the most time at an animal exhibit when the animals are close-up and active (fig. 1). Most animals however, prefer to keep their distance from their human observers, if space allows. When space doesn’t allow, i.e. they are in a small enclosure with no visual cover, these animals suffer psychologically, resulting in their being inactive, or in their performing unnatural and undesirable behaviors. Unnatural behaviors detract from the educational value of the exhibit, as they do not accurately represent wild animals. The sight of an unhealthy or unhappy animal will not instill in visitors a sense of awe for the natural world and may contribute to a poor reputation of zoos.

However, give animals vast, heavily-planted spaces in zoos, in which they can lead a natural lifestyle in relative privacy, and visitors will not be able to benefit from observing them, as the animals will too often be out of view. This is why designing animal exhibits that are truly based on wild situations, and considering only the absolute needs of the animals, is often secondary in zoo exhibit design.

In investigating gorilla exhibits at 17 European and North American zoos over the past year, discussing animal keeping with numerous professionals, and learning about how people learn in casual settings, I have found that satisfying the needs of both captive gorillas and visitors in the zoo setting are not mutually exclusive. Rather, when an exhibit is designed with the natural needs of gorillas in mind, the visitors’ needs are simultaneously supported.

Gorillas have great attracting power – visitors are usually eager to see the large, mysterious animals that are so human-like (fig 2). However, gorillas are very elusive animals and not particularly active, decreasing their holding power, or their ability to hold the attention of visitors. Holding power can be increased by encouraging animal activity (through supporting natural behaviors) and increasing their viewability by visitors (Seidensticker & Doherty). The recommendations in this paper all support one of these objectives, with an emphasis on solutions reached through horticultural means. I hope that the ideas I have generated about designing for gorillas can be applied to other species as well.

Fig. 1: Zurich Zoo Tiger Exhibit, Switzerland
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003

Fig. 2: Burgers Zoo, Arnhem, The Netherlands
© Carlyn Worstell, 2003

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Revised 2017-05-17
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