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3.2. Methodology

3.2.1. Empirical Research

In order to gear my project to professionals I sent out a first proposal and discussed it with zoo professionals. The first proposal suggested "research on instruments for zoo design assessment and the media to publish this information in order to propagate appropriate zoo design".

The feedback from zoo professionals on the feasibility and the usefulness of my proposal resulted in changing the focus and approach:

  • Instead of evaluating the qualities of animal exhibits, my further research focused on finding useful standards for describing them.
  • Instead of relying on subscription fees from zoo professionals, the website should target a wider audience with attractive pictures, discussions, and contests and, by doing so, attract sponsors too.
I developed the criteria for the assessment of animal exhibits based on these findings.

3.2.2. Development of Criteria for the Assessment of Zoo Exhibits

3.2.2.1. The American Zoo Association's Criteria

As a starting point, I analyzed the criteria that the AZA Honors and Awards Committee has used for its contests since the award was initiated in 1974. The set for the 1999 award was:
  • suitability and safety of exhibit for specimens,
  • spatial allotments, personnel utilization, and safety,
  • suitability and safety of exhibit for visitors,
  • educational value,
  • aesthetics,
  • husbandry management and
  • conservation.
Unfortunately, the judging is not documented. The only publication is a press release with a few paragraphs describing the winning exhibits. According to the Chairman of the AZA Honors & Awards Committee (Chapo, 1998), the AZA has changed its criteria several times according to the feedback received.

3.2.2.2. Systems for Assessment Criteria for Animal Exhibits

Meaningful systems to organize assessment criteria for zoo exhibits are:
  • features of the exhibit - such as suitability, safety, aesthetics, etc.;
  • purpose of the exhibit - such as education, recreation, conservation, etc.;
  • participants' perspective of the exhibit - participants being animals, keepers, curators, educators, directors, sponsors, veterinarians, visitors, local residents and the ecosystem's residents (in a very broad ecological sense).
The criteria used by the AZA are part of all three systems. They are not systematic in this respect which might be the result of practical considerations or might come from compiling more detailed criteria.

Using features of an exhibit as the organizational system makes it necessary for judges to switch between different participants' perspectives. For example, suitability will be judged differently from the concerned animal's perspective, the keeper's perspective and the visitor's perspective. This is a fact that the AZA criteria take into account by repeating, for example, the safety criterion (suitability and safety of exhibit for specimen; spatial allotments, personnel utilization, and safety; suitability and safety of exhibit for visitors).

If not repeated for different participants' perspectives, then one criterion results in just one judgement that is influenced by the judge's perspective. Consciously or unconsciously, this perspective implies values and the weight that the judge attributes to the criterion, relative to other criteria. For example, when considering the conservation value of a given exhibit, the conservation issue may not have the same importance for a zoo exhibit from different persons' perspectives. These aspects can result in very inconsistent judgements from different people using the same criteria.

Considering the disadvantages of using features or purposes for the organization of assessment criteria, I chose the participants' perspective as the main ordering principle.

While the reasoning on perspectives comes from a theoretical framework, useful criteria also have to comply with constraints in time, money and the availability of information. They also need to be appropriate for publishing: What may interest the general public? What do institutions want the general public to know; and what do they allow the general public to know? Some otherwise interesting assessment criteria may be of no practical relevance for these reasons.

First, the media envisioned in my proposal have to serve a broad audience. Thus, information that is of interest for this audience is provided, regardless of its value for an evaluation, for example awards and firms involved in design and construction.

Second, the local and the ecosystem's residents are imaginary participants who may ask, "what does this zoo exhibit do to me"? The relevant issues are categorized by the terms "local resources" and "conservation" because these terms are more common and less abstract than local residents' and perspectives of ecosystem's residents .

Third, the criteria are theoretically supposed to be used by neutral and objective observers with access to all necessary information. In reality, one or two knowledgeable persons supply the requested information on animal exhibits. They supply, whatever they remember and have at hand at the time of the request. Usually, the printed material available is designed to advertise the exhibit. Exhibit information therefore is strongly limited by the availability of documents and the efforts of the informant. Describing an exhibit from different participants' perspectives, such as curators, educators, directors, sponsors, or veterinarians, is hardly feasible from the information commonly available.

The relevant criteria therefore were narrowed down to the three main user groups: animals, keepers and visitors. Other participants' perspectives are covered by less specific criteria: The educators' perspective is mainly covered by the criterion on interpretation, the curators' and director's mainly be the criterion on research. The sponsors' perspectives are too diverse to be used as a specific criterion. They can be business people, local residents, members of a society, or the city government owning the zoo. The criteria relevant to sponsors might be included in the animals', visitors', educators', and curators' perspectives. Finally, the veterinarians' interest should be that the animal's confinement and husbandry is not adverse to its health. To some extent, this is ensured by the compliance of an exhibit with the relevant husbandry manuals and motivated keepers.

The overall attempt is to use criteria that are highly comparable and easily understandable for the intended audience. The resulting exhibit assessments are a compromise between rigid exhibit evaluations and subjective exhibit descriptions. Their format is very open. Still, the design philosophies should be revealed to a degree that helps to understand the design objectives. This should be accomplished by the descriptions of features dedicated to the three main user groups and the descriptions of efforts, undertaken for interpretation, management and research related to a given exhibit.

3.2.2.3. Description of Assessment Criteria for Animal Exhibits

The criteria to be defined for standardized descriptions of animal exhibits need to remain topical, even when trends in zoo design change. This is particularly important for an international approach, as the pace of the evolution in zoo design is very uneven.

The ordering system proposed for describing animal exhibits consists of three sets of criteria. The first set of criteria is serving as background information for the description. The second set includes animal issues and human participants' perspectives. The third set pertains to ecological issues.

The criteria chosen for standardized descriptions of animal exhibits result from a compromise between two diverging needs of institutions exhibiting live animals. On one hand, there is their need for credibility and trust. On the other hand, there is their need for critical evaluation of exhibits. Descriptions using the suggested criteria are more or less subjective but cover defined topics. The format is flexible enough to allow emphasizing certain issues but steady enough to be comparable. Allowing zoos to describe their exhibits themselves by using this format will fulfill both needs mentioned above: The descriptions do not imply any judgement but allow a reader to infer evaluations.

The following list gives an overview of the criteria proposed:


Background information:
1. LOCATION (of the zoo)
2. KEYWORDS (for search in a database)
3. ANIMALS (exhibited)
4. AWARDS (that the exhibit earned)
5. DESCRIPTION (of the exhibit)
6. SIZE (of the exhibit)
7. COSTS (of the exhibit)
8. OPENING DATE (of the exhibit)
9. DESIGN (involved firms)
10. CONSTRUCTION (involved firms)
11. LOCAL CONDITIONS (of the area)
12. PLANTS (used in the exhibit)

Participants' perspectives:
13. FEATURES DEDICATED TO ANIMALS (the individual animal's perspective)
14. FEATURES DEDICATED TO KEEPERS (the keepers' perspective)
15. FEATURES DEDICATED TO VISITORS (the visitors' perspective)
16. INTERPRETATION (the educator's perspective)
17. MANAGEMENT (relating to the operation of the exhibit; the veterinarian's perspective)
18. RESEARCH (relating to the exhibit; the curators' and director's perspectives)

Ecological issues:
19. CONSERVATION (measures taken by the institution relating to the exhibit)
20. LOCAL RESOURCES (used for the exhibit)


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