How Animal Behavior Drives Zoo Design

Some designers begin with a poem.  Others look at the educational message.  Still others envision a place.  I always start with the animal. When I start my design process with the animal, I don't literally mean that I sit down with Google (or even--do you remember this--flipping through books!) spending  hours researching the animal's natural history.  What I mean is that I immediately register what I know about that animal and have that inform all aspects of design.  Of course, I've been doing this for a while and I have quite a bit of animal trivia logged away in my own dusty library of grey matter.

But, really, what is it that informs design?  What information about an animal is truly useful in creating its surroundings?  The subject of animal behavior is a nearly unending panacea of amazing stories, but determining what facts help inform design can be an overwhelming question.

For fun, below is my absolute favorite (and quintessential) animal behavior example.


To help you navigate the masses of information available about specific animals, I've condensed the vast subject of animal behavior into six basic categories relevant to zoo designers.

1. Food Acquisition:  Are they carnivores, omnivores, or herbivores?

2. Social Structure:  Do they live in groups, pairs, or singly?

3. Time of Activity: Are they nocturnal, diurnal, or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk)?

4. Micro-Habitat: Do they live primarily in trees (arboreal), on land (terrestrial), in water (aquatic), or some combination of any or all of the three?

5. Personality: Are they shy, curious, skittish, indifferent, vicious?

6. Reproduction: Does their reproductive strategy require any particular element in their physical environment?

Each of the above will provide insight into the physical surroundings that will best house an animal in captivity.  For example, carnivores tend to exert energy in bursts, spending the rest of the day sleeping.  They also tend to prefer the high vantage points where they can scan the horizon and smell the air.  Knowing this, we'd immediately suggest providing this carnivore with several high points in their exhibit, preferably where they can be in close proximity to the guest as they sleep.  Jungala at Busch Gardens achieves this well with their tiger pop-up--highest point of the exhibit is actually a viewing window!

Another great example is the amazing bower bird.  We could easily create just another generic aviary with a gravel floor or concrete basin.  But understanding their reproductive behavior would allow us to create an environment whereby they are able to create their own habitat.  {Or, more than that, we could re-create one of their creations on the guest side of things in order to illustrate their great ability.}


Beyond these basics, understanding animal behavior encourages us to strive for ever-more enriching environments.  To design an enrichment device, or simply to provide a habitat that provides the most basic form of enrichment--choice, requires that you understand the natural history of an animal.

Oftentimes designers who do not have a specialization in animals, jump immediately to the guest experience; creating a place or a story for the visitor.  But, we must understand that a good guest experience at a zoological park revolves around the ANIMAL, not the setting we create.  People come to the park to see animals.  And if the animals look unhealthy or unhappy, the most beautiful ancient Mayan ruins won't save the experience.  Look to the animals first.  Be inspired by their lives before creating a story, and you'll see that your final product will be by far the best experience possible for both guests and the animals living there.

Every animal has a story.  Its our job to tell it.


"Integrating Animal Behavior and Exhibit Design" by John Seidensticker and James Doherty

"Part Five: Behavior" from Wild Mammals in Captivity