What Not To Do at the Zoo

Some of my earliest memories are of the Audubon Park Zoo in New Orleans. My family lived in my Grandfather’s big house within hearing distance of it. As a toddler I knew when it was noon because the lions would start calling for lunch. I still love the quaint WPA zoo buildings with animals carved into the brick, the formal fountains and statuary. But in retrospect I realized that the zoo in the early 50s was actually an animal prison with iron bars whose tops curved down into spikes aimed at the animals. The inmates lived out their life sentences in small cells. Given the spirit-crushing boredom, I can’t help sympathizing with an inmate taking the opportunity to fling something at the gawking bipeds outside.

An Animal Exhibit Design Manifesto

I still love the quaint WPA zoo buildings with animals carved into the brick, the formal fountains and statuary. But in retrospect I realized that the zoo in the early 50s was actually an animal prison with iron bars whose tops curved down into spikes aimed at the animals. The inmates lived out their life sentences in small cells. Given the spirit-crushing boredom, I can’t help sympathizing with an inmate taking the opportunity to fling something at the gawking bipeds outside.

The Audubon Park Zoo and zoos worldwide have come a long way in the last six decades. They are now critical players in species preservation, part of which is educating the public. In addition to signs and lectures, modern zoos present animals in a larger context, with exhibits which mimic the animal’s natural habitat. We don’t see lions in prison, we see them at home on the Serengeti. This has created a specialized exhibit industry of designers and architects, general contractors, theme fabricators and scenic mural painters like myself.

When I first saw this new breed of exhibits, I was delighted. But now, after 30 years of painting the same generic foggy rainforest, the realization has crept up on me that our industry is stuck in a rut, producing variations of the same exhibit. Year after year, I see the same problems and missed opportunities, even from the best design firms. It’s time to step up to the next level.

The Status Quo

Let’s imagine walking up to an indoor exhibit of the rare African Spotted Dingbat. The hall floor looks like packed earth, but we can feel that it’s concrete. We notice the foot prints of an adult Dingbat embossed into it. Cool! And we see that the edges of the big sheet of glass between us and the Dingbats has artificial tree trunks hiding the vertical edges. Very clever. Inside we see the Dingbats sleeping in what looks like a dead tree in a muddy clearing somewhere in the Congo. The walls are painted with a lush rainforest scene which is somewhat at odds with the rather Spartan room devoid of any foliage. It’s not hard to see the corners and where the 3-D elements meet the 2-D illusion.

Do we feel momentarily that we’re really in the Congo? Well, no, we know we’re in the Hogswallow County Zoo. We know we’re looking into a room which has been decorated to look like the Congo. The vines look real, except for the chrome hardware at either end but the keepers have augmented them with ropes and canvas fire hoses which don’t look much like vines and there are baskets and plastic milk crates suspended among them. The Dingbats’ bright plastic toys and stainless steel food bowls are scattered around amid the corrugated cardboard which the Dingbats like to shred. There’s a brass drain cover in the lowest spot of the floor and a keeper door with a small window in the middle of the back wall mural. Then we notice the two steel animal transfer doors built into the artificial mud bank which sort of ruins the illusion. Also, there’s a blinding rectangle of sunlight from the overhead sky light sweeping across the walls and floor. The final disappointment is a stainless steel shelf one of the keepers bolted to the wall in the middle of the only patch of sky in the mural. But still, we appreciate that someone made an effort.

The Problem

What went wrong here? The zoo spent a lot on the murals, the mud bank, vines and trees in an effort to create a convincing illusion. But they didn’t go far enough because they felt constrained by practical concern like daily cleaning and moving the Dingbats on and off exhibit. The motivation for sustaining the illusion faded over time. The keepers were far more concerned with the happiness and well being of their beloved Dingbats than about the visitor’s experience and the zoo administration was reticent to make their jobs harder by insisting that they maintain the Congo illusion. But the biggest, overarching limitation is the building. It is probably older, built before natural environments were even conceived of and was designed to just house animals. The exhibit designer had to find a way to fit in the themed elements. The end result is a compromise, a hybrid of architecture and nature. We see what they were trying to do but it lacks detail, polish, coherence. It leaves the impression that everyone involved just didn’t try hard enough.


To break out of this design dilemma we have to rethink our most basic assumption. If we intend to build an impressive edifice and then figure out how to fit animal spaces into it, we’re already in trouble. An animal exhibit is not a piece of architecture, the building is just a shell to protect the exhibit from the elements. It’s not about the building, it’s about the animals’ quality of life, the keepers’ maintenance needs and the visitors’ experience, that is, the exhibits. They are the starting point. The design develops outwardly from there.

Exhibits are not just animal enclosures. They should be thought of as theater stages on which animals do improv performances daily, sort of like a reality TV series except that it’s real. Once you think in these terms everything falls into place: the floor slanting toward the viewer, the absence of places where the animals can hide, scenery in layers to create depth, the sight lines dictating where the objects will be placed to hide unwanted elements, the accuracy of the natural features, the actors’ entrances and exits, and above all, the control of light and shadows. The animals can take care of wardrobe themselves.

I still marvel at the nature dioramas from the 1930s in Chicago’s Field Museum. Everything on the other side of the glass, the stuffed animals, the vegetation, land forms and spectacular murals are all thoroughly coordinated, thoroughly convincing. That should be the standard against which we measure the quality of a new zoo exhibit. A display of such impressive quality would be stunning because it would probably be bigger than a museum diorama and have the distinct advantage that the animal isn’t dead.
(I’m not totally against taxidermy. I sometimes think that since koalas, tree sloths and other slow species hardly ever move, a zoo could get away with a taxidermied animal instead of a live one. The keepers would just relocate them every few days. No clean up, no feeding! Just a thought…)

The ideal design scenario would be to go to the Congo, find an appropriate spot, take extensive notes, photos and artifacts, then recreate it back at the zoo as faithfully as practical. Such an exhibit could not help but be thoroughly convincing. A cheaper alternative might be finding a photo from a big coffee table book of landscapes. The point is to start with as clear and specific an image as possible.

The next step is to get plenty of input from keepers on their needs and the needs of Dingbats so that we can design the behind-the-scenes support facilities. Care should be taken to design keeper pathways through the jungle of trunks, vines and dead falls, as well as easy climbing routes up the bigger rock features. Given the random nature of rocks, it doesn’t take much more than consideration to accomplish a significant convenience for the keepers.

The third step would be a model. Even the best, most thorough exhibit designs will have surprises pop up during construction. One indicator of this is that the compositions of most of my murals are dictated not by artistic principles but by the need to disguise unwanted features that no one caught at the blueprint stage. A scale model is the best way I know to catch rude surprises before they’re built. It’s amazing what you’ll discover with this simple tool. It doesn’t have to be museum quality with miniature scenery. You can cut up manila file folders and assemble it with tape.

In a darkened room, orient the model with a compass. Move a small flashlight in an arc from East to West above the model to simulate the path of the sun, high up for summer, low for winter. You’ll discover where the shadows will fall, where the glare of sunrise and sunset will be, where the shapes of light from windows and skylights will fall, where you’ll get harsh, direct light and where you can take advantage of more diffuse Northern light. You can also use it to simulate artificial light, and see if the 3D scenic elements (mini-rocks of clay and mini-trees of wire), will cast unwanted shadows on the murals. Finally, and most importantly, you can check the visitors’ sight lines by putting your eye where their heads would be. Will they see something they shouldn’t? If you can’t get your eye down inside a miniature hallway, make or buy a small periscope and use it upside down to walk yourself through the model so you can tweak the dimensions and angles until you achieve perfection. Work out your mistakes in cardboard before they’re set in concrete.

There are at least seven parties concerned with the design of a new animal exhibit. The architect wants to build a fabulous building which will look good in a portfolio. The designers want to do something unique and creative. The construction company wants something they can actually build at a profit. The zoo administration wants an impressive new feature at a cost they can handle. The keepers want a functional exhibit in which they can get around, clean easily, and move the animals as needed. They are the advocates for the next party, the silent ones, the animals. They want food, water, shelter, and maybe a social life. And finally there’s the visitors who wants to be entertained and enlightened. I’m their advocate.

These interests often conflict resulting in some unfortunate compromises. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe we can have our monkey chow and eat it too.

I propose that we put the visitor’s experience first. The goal would be to whisk them away to Madagascar, the Amazon or the Great Planes while increasing their knowledge and understanding of the natural world. What makes sense to me would be appointing an “Exhibits Specialist,” maybe some one in Facilities or Maintenance with an artist’s eye and hopefully some artist skills, who would be the visitors’ advocate, working with keepers at maintaining the illusions and creating natural looking objects for the exhibits. Compromises are inevitable but the ways in which all parties’ concerns are accommodated should be held up against the goal of astonishing the visitors.

Mural Planning Basics

Now that we have the general layout we should consider the following.

> Get a muralist involved early on, when we’re still sketching ideas on the back of a napkin.

> Plan the horizon line to be 5’4” (the average eye height in North America) above the surface upon which the viewer stands.

> Plan to have obstruction in front of any mural so that animals or visitors can’t get at it and do damage (especially the big cats whose urine contains enough ammonia to melt acrylic latex paint and, in the people spaces, distracted mom’s with strollers).

> Our objective is trompe l’oeil, to fool the eye, to allow the viewer to be momentarily transported to an exotic locale. The rudest thing we can do is to destroy the illusion of a distant landscape by having, for instance, a window in the middle of the sky.

> Don’t plan to put any objects in the mural which should be in motion. Having a bird frozen in flight, a water fall not falling, waves not rolling or palm fronds not tossing in the wind just proves that it’s a picture and defeats the basic idea of creating a convincing image. Actually, you can get away with a water fall if it is far enough away to be just a white stripe.

> Don’t plan to have long 3-D objects die into the mural surface with the intent that the muralist will create the illusion of it continuing into the distance. This is a perspective issue of foreshortening which is impossible to pull off successfully. For instance, if you have a dead fall log which runs across the exhibit and dies into the side wall and you ask the muralist to make it appear to continue in a straight line, the only way s/he can pull it off would be to have visitors view the mural through a peep hole because as soon as they move their head from the exact vantage point the muralist chose to work from, the illusion of the straight line will bend one way or the other at the juncture. (Having a log which dies into BOTH side walls is a double nightmare which I actually faced about 20 years ago.) In fact…

> Don’t allow ANYTHING to die into the mural. Rocks, mud banks, sand dunes, beaches, roads, etc. should not slope up into the wall. Aside from the perspective nightmare, the tiny shadows from the texture of the two different materials will make the juncture obvious. Avoid this problem completely by thinking in theater terms again. The 3-D elements should be roughly thought of as the scenery flats on an stage, one standing behind another.

> If you want a road or coastline to extend into the distance, accomplish the illusion entirely within the mural. You can make the 3-D/2-D junction more difficult to spot by placing it out of sight. Do this by planning a small cut back, a V grove, where rock work meets the wall so that the actual junction can’t be seen. Because of the daily hosing, drainage has to be considered with any such grooves. By the same token, building tree trunks as half rounds emerging from the surface are just a waste of time; build them against the wall but with at least three quarters of the circumference exposed, creating the vertical equivalent of the groves.

> Consider something out of the ordinary, beyond blue sky and puffy white clouds. A gray overcast, a dark, stormy sky, distant curtains of rain, a starry night or full moon, twilight or a sunset/rise (especially if augmented by some creative lighting), might be a delight for visitors.

Beyond Murals

What else should we not to do at the zoo? Here’s a hit list.

Basically, no unnatural features in the exhibit. By limiting sight lines with overhead foliage or blocking the view with rocks or tree trunks in existing facilities or by careful planning of new exhibit designs, a zoo should be able to eliminate all doors, windows, vent covers, etc. from public sight. There’s no excuse not to.

Similarly, no unnatural objects in the exhibits. Animals of higher intelligence can still have their enrichment toys but only in their off exhibit spaces. This may be a harder change for the keepers, than the critters. But if the enrichment can be disguised as some natural object appropriate to the locale, no problem-o.

No visible doors. If there are any 3-D themed elements, tree trunks, mud banks, rocks, dead falls, etc., there is no excuse for having walk doors or transfer doors visible to the public. It doesn’t cost anything to rearrange the furniture before things are set in concrete.

No visible corners. Cove them. A general contractor can buy ready-made coving in assorted widths and lengths which can be slapped up in the corner and plastered in place giving the mural painter a beautiful curved wall on which to create a convincing illusion. If a wall/ceiling junction is visible to the public, it also should be coved.

No leafless jungles. The biggest visual disappointment with most exhibits is the absence of enough foliage. The effect is of a barren patch surround by the lush greenery of the mural. You can’t replicate a pine forest, swamp or rainforest without foliage. But the keepers have to hose down the exhibit daily and some species would destroy artificial foliage or just eat it, right? Right, but if you test the behavior and capabilities of particular animals, new opportunities may appear. Even with the destructive ones, fake foliage and plantings can be placed behind mesh or harp wire or simply out of the animals’ reach. New plant products need to be developed which can stand up to the worst that keepers and critters can dish out and still look good. One example might be to re-purpose the tough vinyl strips use to simulate exterior thatch. By flipping them upside down, painting them in shades of green and embedding clumps of them in concrete mud you could mimic tall grass, weeds, bull rushes, etc,

No stumpy concrete trees. You know what I’m talking about; thick columns with good looking bark texture but with short thick branches and proportions closer to a saguaro cactus. But if the rebar based branches are anchored into the trunk, AND the ceiling, soffit or wall at a point outside of the visitors’ field of view, the branches could be of elegant proportions yet still strong enough to hold an active climber. The same is true of vines so there’s no more need for cargo nets. The equivalent can be constructed of coated cable or rebar fashioned to mimic a web of vines.

Don’t take lighting for granted. Just as on a stage, it’s critical that you manage the light and shadows so they contribute to rather than blow the illusion. Sky lights and artificial light sources should always be beyond the visitor’s sight lines. There are circumstances in which you can get fancy with lighting, such as a focused beam from a hidden source striking a painted moon in the mural of a nocturnal exhibit (I’ve seen this work well enough that the reflected “moon light” was completely adequate for viewing the animals), or using the same trick for a painted sunset. But most of the time the idea is to keep the lighting simple. The goal is an even wash over the expanse of the mural, with no hot spots or shadows on the sky. Consider lights shining up from behind rocks or the backsides of trees to even the wash.

The Future

So using some of these ideas, let’s visit the newly designed Dingbat exhibit of the future.

The first thing we realize is that the sleepy Dingbats are now part of a huge multi-species exhibit called “Equatorial Africa.” At the entrance in what appears to be a wall of dense jungle, is a changeable listing of the animals we’re about to encounter with basic information and a photo of each, minimizing the need for signage inside. The door way leads to a path between tall, dense bamboo thickets. When it widens, we are in a triple canopy rainforest. Columns of giant buttress trees rise through the lowest leaf canopy, perhaps 40 feet overhead, to unknown heights. Dappled sunlight moves across the soft pathways and clearings. The sounds of the forest are everywhere. There is not a straight line or 90 degree angle anywhere in sight. You can see a few other people between the trees in the hazy distance. The air is warm and thick with moisture. It smells of chlorophyll and leaf mold. Our trail seems to be following a winding stream bed. Along the trail are small clearings where we can observe the mixed species living on the opposite stream bank or in the trees but we’re blocked from approaching them by barriers such as fallen logs and branches, vine tangles and the rocks of the stream bed.

It’s all but impossible to detect the harp wire or mesh which form the hidden barriers separating different animal populations. When you are looking through glass at some animals it’s also hard to detect the edges because they are so cleverly hidden. There are primitive benches made from fallen logs at intervals. Every so often we find a thatched shelter to dash under when the rumble of thunder announce a periodic sweep of rain through the trees. There are children playing among a tangle of giant roots or inside the hollow chimney of a strangler fig whose host tree has rotted away. In a few clearings are small camps with volunteers dressed as researchers who explain what they are doing and tell us we can take a zip line and suspension bridge tour of the canopy if we make a reservation and take a short safety course. The stream bed becomes deep and empties into a valley. Our path turns sharply and we cross a bridge over the chasm from which we can stop and admire the view. Before us, between the tall trees, the vista opens onto a wide valley carpeted by the rainforest treetops with mist enshrouded, emerald blue ridges perhaps 10 miles distant. It’s a favorite photo op for visitors. At the last bend in the trail, we recognize a pair of Spotted African Dingbats asleep in a tree.

The Possibilities

Sound far-fetched? Too expensive? Impractical?

The stream bed was bulldozed into the ground and the rock fabricators and plantings followed. Using a conventional construction crane, the trees were made from used steel power line poles 60 to 80 feet tall, with prefab steel and rebar branches bolted on. The upper two thirds were simply painted gray brown and hung with clustered military camouflage netting. The bottom third have their trunks wrapped in prefab bark with the finely sculpted detail and buttresses down at ground level. At one third up, the branches are more detailed and they support a layer of artificial leaves which obscures the visitor’s view of the camo netting and cruder branches above. Then the tree company decorated the lower third with vines, epiphytes and flowers.

The understory plants closest to the trail are all real but further back, the giant ferns and palms are fake. Any visitor seeking to sneak off the trail soon finds himself tangled in fine black nylon mesh and may have to call for help extricating himself. The trail is made of a unique recycled foam which is resilient to the touch of a foot and which virtually eliminates visitor injuries from falls, saving a lot in insurance costs. Among the tree branches are the vine-like pipes of the sprinkler system and a few hidden speakers for the periodic washing of the exhibit via rain showers.

The keepers and creatures enter and exit enclosures via well hidden access to the underground support facilities surrounding the huge lozenge shaped forest. After the big trees were installed, the branches were trimmed to form the inside of a curving vault. The branches were tipped with conventional half sphere plastic rebar safety caps. Then a huge clear plastic covering with ¼” steel cable in pockets on 4 ft. centers was inflated with hot air balloon burners until it floated and could be walked by a crew of men holding the cables, over the tall trees and pulled down onto them. The cables were fixed to steel ground anchors, the ends closed off and the plastic sealed around the bottom edges with batten strips. In the event of a puncture or loss of hot air, the dome would rest on the safety capped branches. After 10 to 12 years the cover will be replaced by reversing this method which will take about a day.

The sides of the exhibit are formed as earth berms using material from the excavation. Visitor are unable to see beyond these vegetation covered slopes, terminating the illusion at the perimeter along all sides except at the far end. Here the ground has been excavated the deepest to create the valley vista. It’s outer wall, seen from inside by visitors on the bridge, is actual a curved mural of the distant ridges whose top edge follows the contours of those ridges. Above that the actual sky can be seen through the clear plastic dome.

None of this is fantasy. The technology exists today. All we need in the money and the will.


What it comes down to is this; either we’re in the Congo (Arctic, Outback, Amazon) or we’re not. The Congo does not have ceilings, straight lines or 90 degree angles. Nor does it have windows, walk doors, animal transfer doors, exit signs or emergency lights, louvers, sprinkler heads, thermostats, duct work, light switches, or fire extinguishers. The exhibit must really look like the Congo.

There are some brilliant designers out there who know far more about exhibit design than I do, yet in almost every zoo exhibit I’ve worked in over the last 30 years, I find at least a few of these same mistakes and missed opportunities. The exhibits cry out for simple changes which would not have significantly affected the cost but would have enhanced the illusion. The finished products should look as if its creators tried hard, thought it through, sweated the details and put a high value on creating a convincing illusion. We want the visitor, if only momentarily, to feel swept away to an exotic location but without the inconvenience of airfare, heat, humidity or mosquitoes.

No guts, no AZA award.