sink hole themed overlook in bear exhibit

If you’ve visited a zoo recently, you may have noticed that the exhibits the animals call home look very different from the old concrete and metal bar living spaces the animals once inhabited. The new spaces are prettier, for starters, but what makes a good exhibit for an animal may not be exactly what you would expect. Ideas about appropriate zoo habitats are still evolving, and it’s a complicated process.

Juggling the needs of animals, keepers and visitors can be a challenge, says Stacey Tarpley, who designs exhibits in her job with the firm PGAV Destinations and blogs about it at "Each of these groups often has competing needs, and all these things are trying to be put together to make this place where animals and people and staff can be happy and healthy together."

Evolving Ideas

In the 19th century, zoo exhibits were natural looking, but not because designers were concerned with the needs of the animals. "They thought about the viewing area as a painting," Tarpley says. "The animals weren’t really being addressed at that time — they were more like set dressing for the painting." In the mid-20th century, those romantic landscapes were replaced by concrete boxes that look barbaric to us now but were meant as a step up in animal care. "Animals started living longer because [zoo staff] could clean easily and control disease," Tarpley explains. But those bare spaces caused other problems both for animals and viewers. For example, behaviors like pacing emerged as symptoms of stress and understimulation.

In the late 1970s, zoos began to introduce the landscape immersion exhibit. The goal was to recreate a natural habitat — an attempt that wasn’t always successful. "We wanted to go back to the idea of creating this beautiful place where people feel good about being there but animals also are being cared for and have longevity," Tarpley says. "Those exhibits looked very nice and made people feel very comfortable." But though the spaces were a success in the short term, they often failed to meet the long-term needs of both the animals and the zoos.

The problems with creating specific landscapes for specific animals become clear when the species in an exhibit is changed, as often occurs because zoos have to make use of what animals they have. "You get an exhibit that was designed for, say, snow leopards, and it ends up being used 20 years later by baboons," Tarpley says.

"A snow leopard exhibit would be very vertical, there would be a lot of rocks, places for the animals to climb and to hide," Tarpley says. Put baboons in the same space, though, and for them it’s only a little better than the concrete box, although it would still look like a nice wild habitat to the viewer. "The naturalistic exhibit gives a little bit more choice than the sterile environment, but you have to provide for the things that allow the animal to use the environment in the way they’d naturally want to," Tarpley says. Because baboons don’t naturally climb, most of that vertical space would be of no use to them and wouldn’t help them engage in their natural behaviors.

Start With the Animal 

trainer and bear at a zoo exhibit

To create a state-of-the-art exhibit, Tarpley says, you start with the needs of the specific animal. "I start with the most basic stuff. How much time will an animal spend in a tree? Where is it from? A desert? A rain forest?"

Much of the detailed information about each species comes from Association of Zoos and Aquariums husbandry manuals written by people who’ve worked with that species for decades. Still, individual animals may surprise you, as she found when designing a giraffe exhibit for the Columbus Zoo.

Assured that giraffes would never step over a swathe of large stones, called rip-rap, or large fallen trees, she used those as natural-looking barriers to keep the giraffes from eating expensive decorative trees. However, when the giraffes were brought into the finished space, "they walked up to the rip-rap, thought about it for, like, three seconds, then walked on through," Tarpley says.

Consider the Keepers 

It’s also important to account for keepers who may have slightly different ways of working with the same species in different facilities.

"We’ve done five or six polar bear exhibits, but every time we go to do a new polar bear exhibit we have to sit down and talk [with the keepers] about how [they] handle bears," she says. "How much training do you do? How close do you get to them? Are you with them all day long? Do you feel comfortable transferring them every hour to a different space, or do you want them to stay in one yard all day long? Do you feel comfortable with them going down and up vertical spaces?"

The needs of the keepers are critical, because they’re the ones who interact most with the animals and play a major role in making sure their needs are met, and how they do that is evolving all the time.

"We’re creating habitats that need to function for the keepers, because the keepers are becoming more and more hands-on, when oftentimes before they would be somewhat hands-off — feed the morning chow, leave [the animals] alone all day, maybe put in a toy and check a couple times," Tarpley says. "We’re seeing a definite evolution of keepers being more specialized and tasked to fewer animals, and spending more time with animals throughout the day."

The result is that though she used to think about building permanent enrichment facilities into exhibits — like a digging pit for bears, for example — now the priority is making it possible for keepers to change things frequently.

girl in truck with bear

Telling a Story 

A major goal of any zoo is reaching the public, so another aspect of researching a species is coming up with the educational message. "We usually look at conservation issues and work up a kind of story based around that animal," Tarpley says. "It’s important to create a storyline that will create a place that people will be immersed in."

One recent project that put all those considerations together in a clever way is the polar bear exhibit at the Louisville Zoo. There are several connected areas, one of which provides a stage for both changeable enrichment and an educational message. "It’s a room that is all concrete, so it can be washed down really easily. The keepers will go in there and set up all of this super fun stuff for the bears — trash cans full of treats, ice blocks and so on."

The bears don’t care that the trash cans don’t look natural, and they fit perfectly into the story the exhibit tells: The room is designed like a loading dock. "The whole exhibit looks like you’re in the middle of a fictional town modeled after Churchill, [Alaska], where the bears are starting to come into town because they’re losing food sources and habitat."

A Peek Behind the Scenes 

Tarpley says another trend is to let the public see caretaking activities that used to happen behind the scenes. A big reason for that is that it helps visitors feel comfortable that the animals are well cared for. "If they’re not satisfied with the condition of the animals, they don’t come back," she says. "If you can’t get people through the doors, if they’re not having a good time, they’re not going to learn anything, they’re not going to be inspired."

Training demos and on-exhibit enrichment let people see active animals engaged in interesting behavior. That increases empathy — and it’s also just fun. "It’s very engaging to see the animals figure things out, to see the keepers’ relationships with the animals. It’s relatable," Tarpley says. 

Still, much of what’s vital to the animal’s well-being isn’t visible to the visitor. Sometimes that’s as simple as a water source that’s hidden from sight because it’s not visually appealing. Other times it’s more complex. The Louisville polar bear exhibit, for instance, is designed to make sure the bears get as much exercise as possible moving between the different sections. "That’s a critical part of their physical health," she says. "They go up and down stairs and ramps, rotating between them throughout the day."

Engaging With the Animals

Of course, the biggest complaint visitors often have with zoo exhibits is that what isn’t visible is the animal itself — one problem that never arose with those old concrete cages. "If you give the polar bear a 2-acre exhibit and it really likes sleeping in that far corner, guests are happy it’s big and naturalistic, but what they’re going to walk away with is, ‘That stinks. I didn’t get to see that polar bear,’" she says.

So there are ways that designers try to get the animals to prefer the areas where they are visible. "By understanding what the animals like, we can do things like provide shade or a pool right up next to the window," Tarpley says. "Oftentimes when you do that sort of thing, the animals start to become engaged with the guests."

Those opportunities for engagement can be designed into the exhibit — at the Louisville zoo, people stand in a viewing area that looks like a truck cab that the bears can bounce up and down. But the animals can also create their own viewing areas, and they don’t have to obey the rule about not tapping on the glass.

"I’ve watched polar bears swim up and bang on the window and startle people who weren’t paying attention to them," Tarpley says. "Little kids will jump and scream, and the bears look so contented. When that happens, it’s awesome."

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