Austin Zoo: Keeping it Weird-ly Underperforming


I had a brief moment of reluctance as I Googled “Austin Zoo” to look up their operating hours and found a recent spat of bad media. Not a good sign, but my job is to help zoos of all shapes and sizes to become their absolute best, so I adjusted my outlook and thought this an excellent opportunity to evaluate the place for myself. (For the purposes of this case study, I will not comment on animal welfare concerns raised in the media as I have not spent enough time at the zoo to make an informed evaluation.)

This was not only my first time to the little zoo—Austin’s only zoo—but also my first time to the city of Austin. For some reason, all of the “Keep Austin Weird” rhetoric gave me the distinct impression that Austin was a quaint little berg—a small pocket of liberal hippies and artists and musicians surrounded by countryside filled with cowboys. Yes, I’ve been to Texas before—so you’d think I’d know better. Austin is a legit city, ya’ll! It’s big! So imagine my surprise to find this steadily growing 1 million+ city (metro of over 2 million) with it’s cute ‘shop local’ neighborhoods surrounded by shiny new, trendy strip malls with the cool national brands like OrangeTheory and Mod Pizza—all surrounded by actual, you know, nature. And verdant rolling hills. Yes, verdant! Yes, hills! Who knew?

View from the entrance looking out to the surrounding hillsides. Train exits zoo to explore the surrounding area.

View from the entrance looking out to the surrounding hillsides. Train exits zoo to explore the surrounding area.

Tucked into them thar hills, accessed by busy single lane roads (that you know used to be gravel or dirt just a few years ago) running through brand spanking new McMansion neighborhoods and apartment complexes brazenly named ‘Sanctuary’ or ‘Preserve,’ the twenty-acre Austin Zoo can be found.

I visited the Zoo on a Saturday afternoon in late June, on a cloudy day with temperatures not quite reaching 90—a welcome respite to Austinites who, just 24 hours previously, were suffering with a heat index well over 100. I’m not sure if the break in the heat brought more people out, or if what I experienced was a typical summer weekend day, but it was busy! The Zoo has several gravel parking lots, even designated bus parking areas, and most of these were full.

Which brings me to my thesis for this small Zoo: Underperformance compared to potential.

Entry and Gift Shop at Austin Zoo.

Entry and Gift Shop at Austin Zoo.

The zoo has a story that makes it unique—it’s a rescue zoo. It does not allow animals to breed, and only takes in animals that have been rescued or are in need of sanctuary. This they told me in their pamphlet and also on Google. I’m not sure how deep that story is, in reality, as I didn’t see the message reinforced throughout, as I might expect. I might expect to see the individual stories of the animals to pull at my heart strings. To “show me” as Missourians might say (they don’t). I’m not great at reading signs, so maybe I missed it, to be fair, but I think I’m like most people at zoos. The 95% who don’t read signs…

The good things about the zoo today are few, but strong. The site itself is breathtaking. Really. Set on a hillside, I managed to get a glimpse through the trees (by sitting down on some steps leading to a keeper access gate, so probably a place I wasn’t supposed to sit and therefore, no one gets this view) of an incredible vista of the valley below with beautiful homes and cityscape rolling out beyond and amongst the green hills. Shame the zoo never takes advantage of it. Underperforming with views, but overperforming with native vegetation. The site is dotted with trees like a pointillist painting—its covered with them! Beautiful shagbark trees provide shade to guests and animals alike. Trees interrupt the pathways (which underperform—they are unpaved and likely do not meet ADA throughout), sprout up through exhibits’ ceilings, cradle corn crib cages, and are homes to hanging metal art. When they die, they become furniture in habitats—useful to animals in death as in life. The trees really make the zoo feel like a place I’d want to be, even on one of those 100+ heat index days.

The Zoo has a consistency to its design. Caging, for the most part, is similar throughout. Railings tend to match, and the pathways are consistently unpaved. The entry has a distinct design point of view with its buildings that feel like a Texas ranch. The Zoo uses color and metal roofs in those buildings in a charming, welcoming, upbeat, and thematic way. Unfortunately, not all of the buildings look like those few at the entry, especially the holding buildings which are concrete block USSR bunkers. Fine for back of house situations, but this zoo has no back of house. Everything is on display.

Which brings me to the bad stuff.

The good news is most of this stuff is easily fixable. Pathways are confusing and looping, and wayfinding for a first timer, even at a small zoo like this, is really confounding. Trees block wayfinding views that would normally help first timers at small zoos—but, don’t take down the trees. Just simplify the pathways.

Habitats here, for the most part (aside from the primates), are spacious, but they don’t take into consideration the views for visitors. Fence upon fence upon fence upon visitor pathway upon visitor pathway. Fence upon keeper area upon storage area upon random stacks of rocks upon a bunker (a pump house maybe?) upon a large plastic water cistern… Habitats have been spruced up with lots of furniture, grass, rocks, but the spaces in between have been totally overlooked. I get it. Take care of the animals first. But don’t forget the visitor—and the perception an untidy zoo gives to visitors is one of a zoo that doesn’t take care of it’s animals.

Short-term solutions? Clean up the edges—the spaces between the exhibits. Pave the pathways. Install consistent curbing of some sort on paths or at habitats that need them (instead of wedging whatever will fit and stay in the opening—I’m looking at you broken concrete blocks). Paint the holding buildings simply, but boldly. Get rid of cheesy homemade murals. A clean and bright color palette will look sharp and modern, and align with all of the cool metal folk art that can be found like easter eggs throughout. And do more of that…the metal art is pretty rad.

The primates, the lions, and the wolves would be my first priorities for improvements. I’m not sure what happened with all of the strange water features here. I’m not always a stickler for naturalistic water features, but these really are the most ‘interesting’ ones I think I’ve ever seen in a zoo. I get ‘keeping Austin weird,’ but this may be one step too far.

I’m looking forward to see what can be done with this little gem. It’s location and story gives it incredible potential. Challenges to growth will be funding, of course, and access via those single lane residential roads. Both may have some solutions if the Zoo’s future vision is strong and draws support from the community—which from the Googling I did, may be the biggest challenge yet.