Abilene Zoo: On the Cusp of a Growth Spurt

Abilene Zoo: On the Cusp of a Growth Spurt

Abilene Zoo in Texas is the only zoo in its region. It experiences incredible market penetration, but is still a small, municipal parks department zoo—20 acres and 250k visitors. With potential land to grow and new adjacent attractions opening soon, the zoo is poised to grow into a large facility.

Frank Buck Zoo: Building Repeatability

Frank Buck Zoo: Building Repeatability

Frank Buck Zoo is a small zoo in a small town. Although today the zoo is experiencing a massive market penetration, the zoo’s lack of identity and differentiation means future success is dependent on creating strong repeatable experiences for it’s local / regional resident visitors.

Caldwell Zoo: A Timeless Ballad

Caldwell Zoo: A Timeless Ballad

The Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas is a large ‘small’ zoo located in a small town. Drawing 250,000 in annual attendance from a drive time of about 1.5 hours, the family zoo is a great example of the best of small zoos—lovingly and thoughtfully designed using a blend of modern, innovative zoo design techniques with clean, timeless designs and light touches of theming set in a lush landscape with water features. A timeless, beautiful zoo borne from love—and a desire to be a community asset.

Austin Zoo: Keeping it Weird-ly Underperforming

Austin Zoo: Keeping it Weird-ly Underperforming

The 20-acre private zoo tucked into the hillside on the outskirts of growing Austin, Texas metro has plenty of challenges to tackle, but the beauty of the site and its proximity to Austin (and being the only zoo within an easy drive of the city) means the Zoo has almost unlimited untapped potential to become very successful—and a “weird” little gemstone to the community.

Happy Anniversary! 10 Years of

Can you believe this summer marks ten years of my little corner of the internet talking about design and the future of zoos and aquariums? Although my posting has become more infrequent as my professional life has evolved, you--my supportive and sometimes thoughtfully critical reader--remain constant. I owe you a huge Thank You for reading my ramblings, and contributing your thoughts. For funsies, I thought we'd review a few of the highlights from the past 10 years and over 200 posts!


Top Ten All-Time-Most-Popular Posts (by visits)

10. "Visitors: An Overlooked Species at the Zoo" (2013) by guest blogger and colleague, Eileen (Ostermeier) Hill. Discusses the critical importance of visitor studies at zoos, some hurdles to studies, and the role of designers relative to visitor studies.

9. "The Future of Zoos: Blurring the Boundaries" (2014) a second entry by guest blogger and obviously brilliant colleague, Eileen Hill. Powerpoint presentation with script about trends in zoos today and how they may play out into zoos of the future. Eileen proposes zoos of the future will by hybrids of multiple science based institutions.

8. "St. Louis Zoo's SEA LION SOUND" (2012). Showcasing the then-new exhibit at the Zoo including fly-thru video, photos of new exhibit, and interview with one of the architects from PGAV Destinations who helped bring the design into reality.

7. "SAFARI AFRICA! Revealed at Columbus Zoo" (2012). Announcement of the ground-breaking of the eventual AZA Top Honors in Design award-winning Heart of Africa (renamed). Includes renderings and site plan.

6. "Underdogs: The Appeal of the Small Zoo" (2013). Exploration of what makes small zoos so appealing to visitors, and meaningful to work for as a designer. Features Binder Park Zoo, Central Florida Zoo, and Big Bear Alpine Zoo.

5. "In Marius' Honor" (2014) by guest blogger and now Project Manager at the esteemed Monterey Bay Aquarium, Trisha Crowe. Trisha explores her emotional reaction to the Copenhagen Zoo's disposal of Marius the giraffe, and implores readers to support zoos, no matter your stance on animal rights.

4. "Small and Sad: Dubai Zoo's Relocation on Hold Again" (2009). Occurred to me today, should have been title "Small and SAND", but the sad state of the old zoo is what made this post so popular. Includes design plans and renderings--which I am sure are woefully out of date. Anyone have any updates??

3. "How to Become a Zoo Designer" (2014). After about 25,000 emails from aspiring zoo designers asking similar questions, I just went ahead and wrote it up to shortcut a step... Still, feel free to email me--I always write back. Let's be pen pals!

2. "The Next Zoo Design Revolution" (2008). One of my very first posts, which explains the popularity. Some say naïve, some say gutsy look at incremental revolution in zoos. The future of zoos has been examined at least 300 times since this one, but in re-reading, I see some kernels of accuracy. Expect an update soon...

And in the #1 spot....

1. "A Quick Lesson in Zoo Design History" (2008). Perhaps my second post ever, which again explains it's number 1 spot. A not-as-advertised look at zoo design history which, I have a feeling, has been referenced by many of the 25,000 students (above) in their zoo projects. Holla at me if you cited me!

Top Ten Recommended Reads for Zoo Designers (aside from those above)

10. "To Safari or Night Safari" (2008). I'm a sucker for the title. But this post examines the very slow to catch on trend of after-hours programming or extended zoo hours as a feasible method to increase attendance. Post-posting amendment: in particular, this is a great strategy for targeting adults without kids.

9. "Does Winter Have to be a Dead Zone at the Zoo?" (2013). I cheated a little on this one. I didn't actually post to, but to my blog at where many of my more recent posts have been landing. This one discusses another strategy to increase attendance by targeting the most difficult time of year for temperate zoos: winter.

8. "Zoo Exhibits in Three Acts" (2011). Storytelling in zoo exhibits, told through, what else?: a story.


7. "8 Characteristics of Brand Experience" (2018). A new one! Understanding what makes strong brands so very strong is important and applicable to new attractions at zoos and aquariums. Examined through the lens of non-zoo brands, like my fav: OrangeTheory.

6. "Interactivity and Zoos" (2013). Examining the different modes of interactivity that are available in zoos, and how they can be applied to experience. A good primer.

5. "How Animal Behavior Drives Zoo Design" (2011). Starting with animals in design can be overwhelming. What information is pertinent to a designer, and what is just interesting to know. Another good primer for learning the basics of zoo design.

4. "Chasing Big Cats: Snow Leopards and Perseverance" (2017). Being a good designer is about so much more than just having cool ideas and being able to communicate them well. Learn the qualities intangible qualities that make good designers, GREAT. Don't be afraid...hint, hint.

3. "Making Responsible Tacos: Conservation Brand Perception at Zoos and Aquariums" (2015). Adapted from a talk I gave, I examine how aspirational brand should translate to experience in zoos and aquariums using the popular taco analogy. Yum. Tacos.

2. "Five Zoo Innovations that have been around for Decades"Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 (2014). Again, pulled from Blooloop. A series of 5 posts examining design elements and characteristics that American zoos have been implementing for decades. This series was an angry reaction to the 'revolutionary' design of metal pods floating through a zoo in Europe. A woman scorned...publishes 5 posts to prove how you don't know anything about innovation. Ha!

1. "Zoos in a Post Truth World" (2017). What every zoo and aquarium advocate needs to consider in this continued atmosphere of skepticism, critique, and distrust. As a zoo designer, you must be aware of changing perceptions and the power we have to shape them.

Top Ten Things I Learned in the Last Ten Years (Blogging or Otherwise...)

10. I'm not shy; I'm introverted

9. How to poop in a hole while wearing 3 three layers of snow pants

9a. Always pack enough Pepto tabs (at least 2 per day while away)

8. I'm not good at social media (see: 10 years of blogging and 600 Twitter followers, probably mostly for cat pics)

7. And speaking of cats, the rubbery buttons of a TV's remote control makes said remote an easy tool to remove cat hair from sofas and pants

6. I sleep better when flying in Business Class


5. Always pay the extra money to hire movers to load and unload that U-Haul

4. Writing isn't hard. Just start typing and...

3. Confidence

2. I lose all 'adultness' around ice cream and baby animals

1. Zoo and aquarium people are really the best people in the world.

Here's to many more decades of Zoo & Aquarium design!

With love and respect--

Your friend, Stacey

Zoo Review: Zoo Zurich

20171021_160635 (Large)
20171021_160635 (Large)

Zoo Zurich is one of the best zoos in Europe, if not the world. You may recognize the Zoo from its architectural ode to elephants from local modernists, Markus Schietsch Architecture. But the Zoo is much more than that.

Opened in 1929 and the home of famous zoo scientist and animal behaviorist, Heini Hediger, the Zoo surprisingly retains very little of its original history. The oldest features look to be no older than from the mid-20th Century.

Although many of these mid-century exhibits are now clearly out-of-date, the Zoo benefits from a gorgeous, terrain-filled site with lots of natural vegetation, and the zoo team has creatively, if not superficially, renovated the oldest exhibits, even while those exhibits are awaiting their fates at the hands of bulldozers.

Since the mid-1990s, focus for the Zoo has been on innovation, expansion, storytelling, and improved husbandry & welfare, ultimately creating a clear division between the new exhibits and the older section.

The new section includes an absolutely massive indoor rainforest exhibit (featuring more botanicals than fauna--proving once again, the European audience is far more patient than Americans), the previously mentioned elephant complex merging post-modernism with Asian thematic immersion (to a questionable level of success), a children’s zoo, and an under-construction African savanna.

The older section of the zoo has been renovated into a passable South American exhibit, with moments of brilliance (see the parrot interpretive), and a visually interesting Mongolian steppe.

They recently opened a very passable renovation of an older exhibit building and outlying exhibits focused on Australia featuring a wallaby, kangaroo and emu walk-through. Multiple koala exhibits with indoor and outdoor enclosures are also included.

A few other random exhibits are mixed into the zoo for good measure, but overall, this zoo deserves your time and respect--and to keep an eye on where they are headed in the future.


Zoo Review: London and Chester Zoos

The spring of 2017 brought the first of two trips to Europe for me this year. My previous post shared my experiences at two of Poland’s best known zoos. This post explores two of England’s most beloved zoos, London and Chester Zoos. Having a few long-time friends from England, I’ve been lucky to spend quite a bit of time in this beautiful country. I’ve visited the south west region several times (visiting Paignton Zoo and Eden Project in the late 1990s), but as many times as I have fallen in love with London, I had never once visited the famed Zoological Society of London’s crown jewel, London Zoo. The experience of visiting the London Zoo and the Chester Zoo back-to-back allowed for some stark contrasts and very few, but very key, parallels indicating the strong trend of Euro zoo evolution toward immersive storytelling.

Let’s begin in London.

London Zoo is considered the world’s oldest zoo still in existence, having opened in 1828 in Regent’s Park in the heart of metropolitan London. It is an urban escape, and still boasts a wide-open park-like green where modern zoo-goers picnic alongside the zoo’s retro airstream BBQ food trailers.


However, the London Zoo suffers from the constraints of its past.  As would be expected in such a historical city, older buildings are closely protected and preserved as historic monuments--and therefore untouchable for demolition or adaptive reuse (structures can be maintained and repainted, but only in the original palette of colors!). The world’s first aquarium still functions on grounds, and the infamous modernist penguin exhibit that is commonly held as the standard of how not to design an exhibit, remains empty and untouched. The Zoo is also terribly landlocked, and with its historic structures, its site is a patchwork of small pockets of land available for new attractions.


But given these constraints (and perhaps because of these constraints), the Zoo can and should be considered one of the world’s best, with moments of experiential brilliance to 20170411_122824rival any. The relatively new Land of the Lions was a small budget (under $10,000,000 USD) renovation and expansion that weaves visitors through a fully immersive story of conflict between Asiatic lions and the ever-expanding population centers of India. Thematic architecture is used as lion barriers and blurs the lines of people and animal spaces. And, educational moments (probably the most clever part of the entire experience) are disguised as theming. A barber shop that teaches about lions’ manes. A seamstress kiosk that shows us the biological difference between Asiatic and other lions. It’s a place to explore and be surprised, and although the immersion is heavily skewed to a human dominated space, the lions’ habitat feels natural and appropriate.

As good as the Land of the Lions is, my favorite piece at the London Zoo was a thematic overlay to the historic bird house. The Victorian building, originally built as a reptile house in 1883, was renovated at some point to include multiple small bird flight cages as 20170411_124501well as a relatively small walk-through aviary. What seemed to be a more recent renovation implemented a fairly simple graphic overlay. The striking part of the renovation was the intentional decision to embrace the building’s heritage, instead of trying to hide it. The graphic overlay features Victorian styled artwork highlighting the beauty of birds, including ingenious classic silhouette art of several recognizable bird species, as well as the use of “wrought iron” rails and benches traditionally associated with this time period. I loved the intent and the impact of this small project, but I would’ve loved to see this story implemented on a larger scale—redesigning the cages themselves to be highly ornate bird cages we would’ve seen in this era. What a platform to introduce the concept of “where we’ve been, and where we’re going” in terms of zoos, as well as our society’s evolution in regards to our relationship with animals.


In contrast to the urban, historical zoo experience of London Zoo, Chester Zoo is large, sprawling, and reflective of the English countryside in which it resides. Located about an hour outside of Manchester in the north of England, in a “posh” suburb with lots of football money (according to my Brit friends!), the Zoo is a relative newcomer, having opened in 1931. Despite its age (which relative to American zoos is quite old), the Zoo--unlike at London--is not restricted by historic facilities nor is it landlocked. Its oldest building still in use is the forgettable Aquarium from the 1950s.

The Zoo may be best known for its participation in several television series since the turn of the new century, but its most impressive exhibit experience is the new Islands at Chester Zoo project. Phase 3 of the project is expected to open in 2018, but the bulk of the exhibits focused on tropical Asia where the zoo is heavily involved in conservation, opened in 2015. The massive exhibit area expanded the zoo by 15 acres and includes tigers, orangutans, visayan pigs, birds, and much more anchored by the visually impressive river boat ride. Although I personally am lesIslands_architecture (2).jpgs than enthusiastic about boat rides to see animals (and I didn’t get to ride this one—out of season), the aesthetic of the river running through the exhibit experience was impressive and added a lot to the immersive setting. Although visitors begin their journey through Islands in a fishing village, and eat at a large Balinese (?) building, the bulk of the exhibit is landscape immersion, rather than cultural immersion, with limited props providing a hint of location specificity. The orang exhibit featured a research hut with jewel exhibits and educational features hidden expertly amongst theming.

Islands_Lazy River Boat Trip.jpg

Chester Zoo was created with the intent to eliminate bars typical of Victorian zoos, like London Zoo. So, while many of the oldest exhibits definitely feel outdated, most are broadly sweeping with shared landscape views unimpeded by visual disruptions. The Zoo overall feels like a walk through the countryside or even a quiet park in a small town. The few wide promenades that remain, dotted with generic exhibits like storefronts, are tucked away and non-intrusive. This zoo, more than any other that I have visited in Europe, felt most like the American zoos that we have come to know and love.

Chester Zoo - Black Rhino

The thing that REALLY sets Chester Zoo apart, making it one of the world’s best zoos, is its incredibly strong message of conservation. The dedication to branding and message at this zoo is unlike any I’ve seen. A visual continuity through font and graphic style ties the 20170410_133122.jpg“Zoo Message” (as I call it) throughout the various exhibits, while still incorporating a sense of place within each exhibit through independently styled graphics and props. The Zoo Message is reinforced through small moments (like a pollinator garden along a viewing rail), eye-catching signage, videos, and even a book that can be purchased at the gift shop. What’s most important about Chester’s messaging style is that it is always approachable (visually and content-wise) and embraces family and fun with a touch of whimsy and humor.  A great lesson to be remembered, because, as we know, people come to zoos (and aquariums) for a fun time that makes them feel good about spending their precious resources (of time and money).

20170410_135602.jpgGet yourself to England to check out both of these incredible zoos!

Zoo Review: Wroclaw and Gdansk Zoos

Last month, I was able to spend a week in Europe focusing on zoo design. I attended a zoo design conference with many of the world’s leading designers and representatives from some of the most influential zoos from around the world. It was fascinating to see how differently everyone’s perspectives were, where their priorities lay, and what kind of risks they were willing to take.  For more on the conference itself, keep any eye out for my upcoming Blooloop post summarizing my key conference take-aways. 20170404_153329

After the conference, my colleague from PGAV and I were able to visit a handful of zoos, presenting a range of experiential designs and husbandry styles. As a strategist, I visit zoos with an eye to understanding their particular brand and differentiators, instead of focusing so much on details. In my experience, every zoo has good habitats and those that need attention. It is the constant challenge for any zoo—understanding where and when to spend their limited capital budget.

In this post, I will present to you the two zoos we visited in Poland.

Zoo Wroclaw (pronounced something like “Vrot-zwoff,” although I still just mumble my way through it!) is considered to be the best zoo in Poland. It’s an historic zoo with historic structures in a fairly urban setting, but has nice site characteristics, such as naturally forested areas.


Overall, this zoo is fairly representative of an average zoo found throughout Europe. It has its charms and its challenges with the reuse of historic elements, like the original zoo restaurant (turned into a reptile house) and the zoo’s first structure, a castle-like brick enclave that originally housed bears (turned into unconventional bird enclosures).



The layout is confusing and a reflection of its long history, and the intentionality of food service and retail could be improved.

The biggest lesson of this zoo is, however, the fact that many European zoos have not yet moved beyond their fascination with big A architecture—architecture for architecture’s sake, rather than serving a purpose for storytelling or supporting animal welfare.


The Afrykarium, opened in 2015 and designed by local architect arc2, is a massive indoor Africa aquarium experience located at the heart of the zoo. Its expansive, monolithic black surface can be seen from most places in the zoo—and it’s not a good thing. It is not human scale; it does not feel inviting; it does not give a clue to what is held inside; it is in complete contradiction to the character of the zoo.


Once inside, it is clearly apparent that the architects had never created an animal habitat before. Although the habitats are quite spacious and in some instances, quite complex, the ability to recreate a natural habitat indoors is an art that takes many years of practice. This was very much an amateur project, and at $60 million, an unfortunate first attempt for the Zoo.



Gdansk Zoo, located in a city park just off the coast, is a humble zoo that truly benefits from its natural surroundings. The habitats are (mostly) large and naturalistic, many filled with trees and vegetation.




More than just the aesthetic benefits, the Zoo utilizes the site, located at the base of a low mountain range, to tap into a natural supply of fresh water for the habitats. Although none of the exhibits contain underwater viewing, the water is regularly tested to meet quality standards, and is filtered naturally through a series of enhanced wetlands before moving into the city’s sewer system.



The habitat barriers throughout exemplify the willingness to take risks that is characteristic of European zoos. Many exhibits here appear to have only hot wire as a barrier, and those with actual barriers, tend to be lower or less robust than what we would do here in the US. There are even places where hot wire is located to impede GUESTS rather than to stop ANIMALS. For example, the tiger caging is surrounded by hot wire on the guest side, with a hand rail along the guest path. A sign warns guests to not touch the hot wire, and also to not get close to the tiger enclosure.



However, this zoo has a comfortable, park-like feel that welcomes guests to take their time and stroll. This is a very traditional approach to zoo design which generally is less appealing to me, but given the natural beauty of the site, the use of natural materials and vegetation within habitats, and the size of most of the enclosures, this zoo has a certain familiar, comfortable charm.


WCS: A Brand Experience

Beautifully themed Africa zone in Bronx Zoo About 20 years ago, the zoological society that oversaw the system of zoological facilities in and around the New York metropolitan area underwent a brand facelift.  They became the Wildlife Conservation Society—a deep integration of the five metro facilities with the conservation organization that had existed since the late 19th century.  And, as I’m sure they would argue, it was much deeper than simply brand: it was a laser sharp focus on mission.  Specifically, the mission of conservation.

The discussion of zoos as conservation organizations is admittedly a quagmire: zoos and aquariums are no doubt contributing to the conservation of species.  The degree to which they are contributing depends on the individual institution, and the public perception of them as conservation institutions is probably as convoluted.  But this post is not about zoos as conservation organizations.  This is about conveying that message to your public.  This post really is essentially about brand.

The iconic theater where gorillas are dramatically revealed, post-movie, at Congo in the Bronx Zoo.

The reveal.

Perfect immersion in 'natural' Congo landscape at Bronx Zoo

Last year, I had the pleasure of spending a late summer weekend with a colleague exploring three of the WCS facilities: Central Park Zoo, Bronx Zoo, and New York Aquarium.  Each are as unique from each other as snowflakes: Central Park Zoo is a delightful historic gem tucked into a city park where wealthy urbanites can escape their apartments for an hour with their children.  The Bronx Zoo is a massive, day-long excursion winding through mature forest—as much a nature experience as a zoo.  The New York Aquarium, still recovering from storm Sandy, is a small to medium sized aquarium on par with any found in a medium-sized city—think Landry’s, SEA LIFE, Ripley’s.

However, each clearly conveyed the WCS message: We are conservation.

Non-animal theater show with puppets at Bronx Zoo

The sea lion show at the Aquarium. The Madagascar (and of course the Congo) exhibit at Bronx.  The Rainforest exhibit at Central Park.  Each clearly stated and restated the conservation issue, the solution, and how WCS is involved.  This is done through graphics, video, docents, and message-driven immersive storyline.  The exhibits are beautiful.  Each thoughtful, innovative, and clearly immersive.  Each exhibit created with upmost care by a talented team of designers who obviously has the formula down to a science.  These places are conservation.  You cannot miss it.

Sea lion show at still recovering New York Aquarium

Amazing snow leopard (and exhibit) at Central Park Zoo

This prototype of zoo as conservation organization is a clear success story and model for other zoos as we continue to showcase the amazing work zoos and aquariums do every day—and too often behind the scenes.  As we continue to evolve this model, a particular emphasis should be focused on further blending conservation education and fun.  While WCS is successfully integrating conservation into the experience, it does, at times, feel a bit heavy-handed—overwhelming guests with bad news and bleak outlooks for the future.  People come to our institutions for wholesome family fun, and the integral blend of pure joy, amazement, and conservation education will be the foundation of successful zoos and aquariums of the future.

Spent some time with this guy at Bronx Zoo

Then saw this horrifying display next to his window illustrating the illegal bird smuggling trade.

Enjoyed watching the tigers in their strikingly convincing naturalistic exhibit at Bronx Zoo.

Explored this fun display that just screamed to be interacted with.


Sweet little tank with a nice balance of conservation message and animal exhibit at New York Aquarium.

Five Stars: The Best of Yelp's Zoo Reviews


Reputation is everything. We’ve known this since middle school. That’s why it’s important to carefully monitor your public perception, especially if you are an institution supported primarily through admissions and tax support.  With the instant feedback available 24-7 on internet review websites, there is simply no excuse for any zoo or aquarium to not be aware of public sentiment. Interested in what the general populace was thinking and inspired by my favorite podcast, How Did This Get Made?’s “Second Opinion” segment, I wandered the lonely streets of to find the best 5 Star Reviews of “top 5” Zoos around the country.  What I uncovered was by and large disappointing: well-conceived, coherent, thoughtful reviews of zoos that are deeply cherished by unwavering, supporting communities.

But then there were these.

San Diego Zoo

  1. Numismatics rejoice!San Diego
  2. Sybil likes the camels. San Diego2
  3. Sexy, sexy pigs and delicious signs San Diego3

St. Louis Zoo

  1. Cheap food brought to you by…. stl
  2. Meh. *Shrugs* Five Stars. stl2
  3. The first cut is the deepest. We’ve all been there. stl3
  4. Direct from the conversion van parked in the McDonald’s parking lot.  (Free Wi-Fi.)  stl4

Henry Doorly Zoo

  1. We all know zoos are for the 1%. omaha1
  2. Who says literature is dead? omaha2
  3. Did you say DEDICATED GIFT SHOP?!?!?!? omaha3

Columbus Zoo

  1. We’ve discussed this many times in new exhibit meetings. Columbus3
  2. Just don’t “make” them or have them at the zoo, please.  Unless you’re part of #1.Columbus4

Bronx Zoo

  1. Oh thank god.  (Read til the end) bronx1
  2. Can’t argue with that. bronx2
  3. From the owner of Comfortable Binoculars & Just-A-Little-Bit-Better-Than-Terrible Box Lunches located conveniently on Bronx Park South & Southern Boulevard, The Bronx. bronx3
  4. Wait…what? bronx4


That Cuss the Kangaroo: The Ultimate Zoo Soundtrack

by Ben Cober wearing-headphonesRecently I really enjoyed Bryan Wawzenek’s Theme Park Insider post about the top ten songs about theme parks. I started to plunge into the depths of the internet to seek out the best jams about our beloved zoos, and was shocked to find out that there currently exists no central repository for tunes on this great topic!

Therefore, as we celebrate the opening of Heart of Africa at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the beginning of zoo season, I present the Top 10 Songs about Zoos. These have been pulled from some of the darkest corners of discussion forums and web obscurity, so most might not bring on the waves of nostalgia that Freddy Cannon’s Palisades Park might, but are still a great journey through artists’ love of these great destinations.

At the Zoo Simon and Garfunkel Single (1967)

At the Zoo is a tribute by Paul Simon to his hometown of New York City. While it chronicles Simon’s trip to the Central Park Zoo, the song was later licensed in advertisements to the Bronx and San Francisco Zoos in the 1970s. The song hit #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was released and its lyrics were adapted by Paul Simon in 1991 into a children’s book.

Going to the Zoo Peter, Paul, and Mary Peter, Paul, and Mommy (1969)

Going to the Zoo was released on side two (you read that right, remember when albums had SIDES?!) on Peter, Paul and Mommy by Warner Brothers. It was the group’s first children’s album, and took home a Grammy the following year for the Best Album for Children.

Zoo Song Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman Nuts in May (1967)

Nuts in May was a comedy movie for TV that was broadcast on the BBC in the late 1970s. The movie follows a nature-loving, self-righteous couple trying to enjoy their idyllic camping holiday. A nearby camper comes to check out their campsite, and is reluctantly treated to a song the couple “made up last year” about their trip to a zoo in London. The banjo and guitar skills are….questionable, and the lyrics are rather…uninspired, increasing the awkward tension between the poor guest and the couple.

Perfect Day Lou Reed Transformer (1972)

If you do a little research, this song gets deep. While not solely about the zoo, Perfect Day is thought to allude to Reed spending a day in Central Park with his first wife, Bettye Kronstad, that includes “feed animals in the zoo.” The song was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, and was featured in 1996’s Trainspotting; a 1997 BBC charity single which made it the UK’s number one single for three weeks; an AT&T commercial during the 2010 Olympics; and commercials for the PlayStation 4 and Downton Abbey. {Editor Note: This is my favorite. Stacey}

Funky Gibbon The Goodies Single (1975)

The Goodies were a comedy trio in the 1970s and 1980s that released a number of humorous tracks, Funky Gibbon among them. The song is an “instructional video” that teaches a dance the group made up about their favorite primate while they were at the zoo. It was their most successful single, and entered the UK singles chart at #37 in the spring of 1975. Slightly awkwardly, in the “About” section on the above clip, one of The Goodies shows' biggest claims to fame was that it was so funny that it actually killed a man from King’s Lynn by making him laugh himself to death. Ok…

Sonntags im Zoo (“Sundays at the Zoo,” translated from German) Die Toten Hosen (“The Dead Pants” – Google Translate, don’t ask) Unsterblich (“Immortal”) (1999)

Despite the rough, punk-rock sound of this German thrash, the song is actually about a really nice day at the zoo and loving all the different animals. Don’t believe me? First verse: “Look at the giraffes, their necks are long. Look how they smile, they say thank you.” The chorus? “Here we are happy – you and I. Here we are free – on a Sunday at the zoo.”

The band is originally from Dusseldorf, their name colloquially meaning “The Dead Beats.”  Amazingly, this album is considered as one of their more “peaceful and quiet” ones, and the band apparently hated the album cover – a filtered photo of the Alps with pine trees and a sign reading “until we meet again!” Sounds pretty punk, anti-establishment to me!

5 Years’ Time Noah and the Whale Single (2007)

Once again, similar to Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, 5 Years’ Time isn’t really directly about a zoo, but more about a couple imagining what their relationship will be like in five years – as they walk around the zoo. (That’s a nice sentiment, right? A couple’s dream spot in the future is a zoo!)

Sadly the song didn’t do too well when it was first released; but when the group re-released it in August of 2008, it became the group’s first top-ten hit, climbing to number 7 on the UK charts. The music video kind of feels like a Wes Anderson film, and was featured in a 2008 SunChips commercial.

The Carnival of the Animals Camille Saint-Saëns Composed 1886

So this gets really interesting. Carnival is a musical suite comprised of fourteen movements by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns, which follows a jaunt through the zoo and the different animals met along the way. It’s a rather comical piece, based on earlier works it references in more playful manners.

Saint-Saëns actually didn’t want Carnival published until after he had died, since he had written it “for fun” and was worried it would detract from his more serious, professional works. Little did he know that it would go on to become one of his best-known works. Covers of the various movements can be found in Fantasia 2000, Space Mountain, a trailer for The Godfather Part II, Babe, Charlotte’s Web, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Simpsons, The Ren and Stimpy Show, How I Met Your Mother, France at Epcot, the famous piano duel between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, during red carpet premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, and even Weird Al Yankovic did a cover called Carnival of the Animals, part II.

Daddy’s Taking Us to the Zoo Tomorrow Sung by Patsy Biscoe Sings Favorite Children’s Songs (1993)

If Funky Gibbon by The Goodies can make the list, so can DTUttZT by Patsy Biscoe. The song is a pretty straight-forward children’s tune about going to the zoo, although sadly hasn’t achieved the notoriety or reach that many of the other songs on the list have.

Biscoe herself though is pretty fascinating. She was born in Shimla, India, and moved to Australia with her family after the Partition of India (which is basically when the Punjab and Bengal provinces were divided along with a number of assets). She studied medicine at the University of Tasmania, singing and playing music at a local jazz club on Sunday nights, and was a finalist on the Starflight International talent quest on Australian Bandstand. She was really popular on the local Adelaide children’s shows Here’s Humphrey and Channel Niners; and has been Deputy Mayor of the Barossa Council local government and a naturopath (which is a form of alternative medicine that says special energy called “vital energy” or “vital force” guides bodily processes).

Walking in the Zoo Alfred Vance Live (1870)

The internet refuses to relinquish the actual music, but here are the lyrics.

Vance’s real name was Alfred Peek Stevens, being that “Alfred Vance” was a stage name he used throughout English music halls in the mid-1800s. Walking in the Zoo chronicles Vance’s day at Regents Park’s Zoological Gardens in London with a lady, ending with a horrific mauling by a cockatoo. The song has two fascinating precedents set within it. First, it’s the earliest known use in the UK of the term “O.K.” in the sense that we actually think about it today – something being all right or good. Second, it’s also one of the earliest uses of the term “zoo” instead of “zoological garden” – which actually really upset some stuffier “zoological garden” professionals of the era.

Sumatran Tiger (aka Endangered Song) Portugal the Man Smithosonian's National Zoo (2014)

From National Zoo: "There are only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. That's why the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute partnered with indie rock band Portugal. The Man, bringing science and music together to distribute a previously unreleased song titled "Sumatran Tiger." The song was lathe-cut onto 400 custom poly-carbonate records designed to degrade after a certain amount of plays. There are no other copies of the song in existence. The records were sent to 400 participants asked to digitize and share the song through their social channels with the hashtag #EndangeredSong. The song will go extinct unless it's digitally reproduced. The Sumatran tiger will go extinct unless we take action. 

So what can you do? We need your help to share our message and raise awareness about the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and need for conservation efforts.

Scour the internet and search for the song using the #EndangeredSong on sites like SoundCloud, Radio Reddit, MySpace, Twitter and Facebook. 

Retweet, repost and tell everyone you know. Visit to learn more about the initiative and how to help perpetuate the song. 

Conservation is a multigenerational issue that needs a multigenerational solution. We must reach and inspire the next generation of conservationists."

All sorts of great tunes! Feel free to make that playlist and sing along on the commute to your zoo!


ZooLex Gallery Additions: BEEHIVE

zoolexOur friends over at have invited DesigningZoos to partner with them to provide a place for readers to share their experiences and commentary on the new exhibit gallery additions.  Every month, we'll post links to the new Zoolex exhibits here, and encourage discussion amongst readers in the comments section. This Month: Beehive at Tiergarten Schonbrunn


"Beehive is an animal exhibit at the Vienna Zoo that challenges many stereotypes about zoo animals. The bees are free ranging, but not wild. They are domesticated, but not tame. They are scary for many people, but not dangerous. They are hardly noticed by most, but heavily needed by all. Beehive is a colourful and playful stage for their show."

Have you been to this exhibit?  What do you think of it?  Let us know, below!


Happy 5th Anniversary!

large-logo-rgb-anniversary.jpg Celebrates 5 Years of Exploring Zoological Design

Holy cats!  I almost dropped my chai tea latte when I realized my very first post was five years ago today!  So many things have changed...I've celebrated a full decade with PGAV Destinations, lived at 8 different addresses in 4 different cities, facilitated four successful master plans, participated in the  opening of three new exhibit projects with two on their way soon, added a new fur baby and a collection of zoo and aquarium mugs, presented at three conferences, developed a professional development course for PGAV, became a blogger for Blooloop, wrote two novels, learned to play guitar and got a divorce.  Phew!  That's a lotta livin!  And through it all, I managed to find time to dedicate to this little blog.

Large Logo RGB Anniversary

To celebrate our five years, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the 165 posts of (that's an average of almost 1 per week!)--in case you accidentally missed one or two!  And since it's our 5th anniversary, I thought I'd create some TOP 5 lists.

Top 5 Most Viewed Posts of All-Time

5. Multi-Disciplinary Integration...A Mouthful of Fun!

One of my personal favorites, this post explores a potential for the future of zoos--the merging of multiple tourism attractions into essentially a 'one stop shop' for edutainment.

4.  New York Aquarium Facelift?

Perhaps because its been a long-time coming, or perhaps because it's about a beloved institution, but this post has been a popular one with those seeking insight into the forever looming redesign.  After closing down due to extensive damage from Sandy, it is unclear to what extent the original plans will be instated.  However, with the Aquarium now partially reopened, they've promised to move forward with its sharks exhibit.

3.  Small and Sad: Dubai Zoo's Relocation on Hold Again

Similar to the NYA post, the constant promise and cancellation of this truly pathetic institution seems to be important to many readers.  Rumors are always flowing about this one, and the current rumor is the project is once again a go.

2.  The Next Zoo Design Revolution?

A highly controversial post generating wonderful discussion about the future of zoos.  I'd argue, five years later, novelty-based design is, in fact, now on the cusp of full implementation (see Glacier Run, conceived to keep animals and people surprised and engaged; and the myriad possibilities for integration of interaction, including but not limited to digital technologies).

1.  A Quick Lesson in Zoo Design History

The world must be full of history buffs! This post not only is the most viewed on DZ's site, but it has been viewed almost 3 times as much as the runner-up.  Must be the Google search 'Zoos as Jails.'

Top 5 Editor's Picks

5. Why Master Plan?

Sometimes you just gotta lay down some knowledge.  This post is favorite of mine, because it explains to zoo-goers and professionals alike what that mysterious term 'master plan' means and how a successful one is created.  I truly believe institutions must spend time developing a master plan, and this post tells you exactly why.

4.  Video Games Get It...Do We?

Wow, this is an oldie--but a goodie!  A fun read with some insight into my life outside of zoo design (and perhaps a hint into why my marriage is now defunct).  Reveals how designers often look at the world--getting inspired in the most unexpected places.  Although none of the design thoughts have been implemented in any way yet, tourism destinations are, in fact, starting to  use game design theory  to create experiences.

3.  Zoo Exhibits in Three Acts

Storytelling is such a buzzword these days, but it truly is crucial to the development of a good exhibit experience.  Once again, here I drew from an unexpected inspiration to provide insight into the art of zoo design.  Also, I love Black Swan.

2.  Elephant Ethics

Not often do I broach a truly controversial subject on DZ, but the unwarranted uproar of animal activists got me all in a tizzy and I had to address it.  This post is a not-so-strongly worded look at why zoo design can be a true moral and / or ethical challenge.

1.  Inspiring Kids to Become Activists (AZA 2012, Day 3)

This is by far my favorite post.  Not because it's ground-breaking or because it's so well written, but because the subject was so inspiring to me.  I've always struggled with whether or not zoo experiences are truly making an impact on conservation, and through the development of this piece, I subsequently discovered an actual, plausible methodology to do so.  Now, I just need a client willing to explore it with me...

An elephant.  Happy February.

Top 5 Site Visit Posts

5. DZ's First Zoo Review: The Mote Aquarium

My first and last zoo review.  A failed experiment in site visits, this post is constructively critical with interesting tips and design insights, but perhaps a little too harsh. I do enjoy revisiting the post, though, as it reminds me how far we've come.  And, I might add, how Mote has improved as well.

4.  DZ Visits the Lemur Conservation Reserve

Visiting with lemurs in Florida had to make the list!  What a special place helping to ensure the survival of some of my favorite species.  The post includes some specific information regarding sizing for holding buildings that may come in handy.

3. Lincoln Park Zoo: Defining an Urban Zoo

One of my favorite posts as I had an epiphany about exactly how to review zoos.  Subsequent to this visit, I also realized zoos come in one of four varieties: Urban Zoo, Suburban Formal, Suburban Park-like, or Natural Park-like.  I like to categorize things, so this was a nice moment for me.

2.  Minnesota Zoo: Be True to Yourself

Another great zoo review based more on 'the moral of the story is' rather than a critique.  I also just really loved the Minnesota Zoo and have a real soft spot for zoos trying to succeed in a cold climate.  Can't we get visitors to come in winter??  I think MZ's approach is just brilliant.

1.  Underdogs: The Appeal of the Small Zoo

This might be a cheat since it covers multiple zoos and is one of my most recent posts, but I really do love small zoos.  I love their design challenges--small site, small budget--and their big hearts.  Not all small zoos are good zoos, but those doing it right, should really be congratulated.


I sure do hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane.  Cheers to everyone who's ever read the blog, especially those loyalists, to everyone who's ever helped me out with a contributing post or information, and here's to 5 more years!

If you would like to be a contributing blogger to, please contact me using the form below.  I'd like to keep a once weekly schedule, but often don't have the time, so if you have something you'd like to share regarding zoo and aquarium design, I'd love to hear from you!

[contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

Underdogs: The Appeal of the Small Zoo


I’ve always been partial to the underdog.  Those whose beliefs and perseverance outweigh the skeptics' might by shear doggedness and tenacity.  Those tirelessly working to do right despite just scraping by. I’m one of those people who gladly buys the opening band’s CD despite not having anything on which to play it.  I always choose a local restaurant over a chain.  My March Madness bracket is upset city, and I never liked that Michael Jordan.

The same is true for zoos and aquariums.  Don’t get me wrong…I love the big guys and the top-notch experiences they offer.  Their excellence in care, leadership in conservation and education, and ability to fill a day with shows, thematic exhibits and fun activity; the star species and large, diverse collections they maintain.

by Patrick Owsley

by Patrick Owsley

But there’s just something about the little guys.  The ones caring for an oftentimes misfit collection of domestic goats, non-releasable hawks, three-strikes bears, confiscated leopards and donated snakes.  Those whose skeleton staff, supported by an army of volunteers, work 18 hour days and happily offer up their own home as an impromptu nursery or quarantine area.  Those zoos and aquariums whose budgets for capital improvements over the next 15 years barely equal the cost of a single exhibit at a world-renowned counterpart.  The little guys.  The underdogs.

So what constitutes an underdog zoo or aquarium?  It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but on which haven’t truly come to a conclusion.  There’s something about its physical size—probably less than 35 acres; something to do with its attendance—maybe less than 100,000 annually; gotta’ include its capital expenditures, its market reach, its operating costs, its staff size and its collection size.  But, really, there’s always going to be exceptions.  What it comes down to is the feel.  Just good ole’ fashioned, gut feeling.  Like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart famously said, “I shall not today attempt to further define {it}…But I know it when I see it.”

Binder Park Zoo (from Southwest Michigan Dining)

Binder Park Zoo (from Southwest Michigan Dining)

My love affair with the little guys probably began with my first real zoo job.  I spent an undergrad summer bumbling through the construction of a Colobus monkey exhibit, part of the huge Africa expansion at the Binder Park Zoo.   Flummoxed by construction documents my zoology classes hadn’t prepared me for, I found myself wandering the existing zoo grounds during lunches or after quitting time.  I remember most the intimacy of visiting prairie dogs, digging through their dirt pile exhibit, interacting with the talking ravens, housed in a welded wire mesh aviary, and the simple beauty of exhibits carefully located between the towering old growth trees of the Michigan zoo’s deciduous forest.  Even with the expansion, this zoo’s character is that of a walk in the woods; the African hoofstock and giraffes wandering the plains of a meadow that just happened to be there.

Similarly, the Central Florida Zoo, located just outside theme park mecca Orlando, takes advantage of its site to create more of an enhanced nature walk than the in-your-face, wholly man-made sensibility of a larger zoo.  Rusticity is embraced and forgiven in a setting where you might expect to spot a free-ranging and truly wild alligator or Florida panther lurking in the swampy woods of the zoo grounds.  This is a place where you know—from the moment you pull into the vehicular approach surrounded by the tunnel of live oaks dripping in Spanish moss-- to slow down, to take your time.  You can see it all and do it all.  There’s simply no rush.

Boardwalk and exhibits at CFZ

Boardwalk and exhibits at CFZ

Despite the Central Florida Zoo’s lack of both pathway hierarchy and organization based on distinctly defined regions (which do in fact seem to be defining characteristics of a small zoo), you won’t get lost.  And so what if you pass by the porcupine exhibit two or three times in order to see the whole zoo.  He’s sleeping conveniently in a location where you can get a good, close look at him.  From the gravel parking lot and train ride outside the zoo gates to the elaborate spray pad surrounded by shaded seating, this zoo is quaint, and filled with an unmistakable sense of community.  In this region, so ostentatiously built for tourism, this little zoo provides an escape to normalcy and a place for residents (and tourists alike) to enjoy a quiet afternoon in nature with family.

Good sleeping spot, my friend.

Good sleeping spot, my friend.

Perhaps the most meaningful zoo design experience I’ve had is with the Big Bear Alpine Zoo.  PGAV’s partnership with the struggling Moonridge Zoo (as it is formerly known) began way back in 2005 when we interviewed in the beautiful San Bernardino Mountains in southern California.  The existing zoo, which was the result of many years of dedicated work rehabbing the regions’ animals devastated by negative human interactions, is located on 2 acres in the parking lot of a local ski resort.  The animals living here are non-releasable rehabs and confiscations, like Yoda, a Sawet owl, whose wing was amputated after being hit by a car.  The animals are well-cared for, but the physical Zoo itself does not reflect the level of care and the conservation / education significance of the facility.  Exhibits are chainlink and welded wire, crammed one after the other into its two acres.

Yoda from Big Bear Alpine Zoo

Yoda from Big Bear Alpine Zoo

We were hired to create a master plan and eventually to the design a wholly new zoo on a larger site, but still on a tight budget.  And over the years, we’ve watched as the community support for the project has grown--despite bumps in the road.  One day, the new zoo will be complete; the animals will have spacious new homes, the visitors will have an enriching experience, and I’ll be absolutely humbled to have been a small part of making a difference for such a worthwhile institution.

Kit foxes released after care at Big Bear Alpine Zoo from BBAZ

Kit foxes released after care at Big Bear Alpine Zoo from BBAZ

So, for me, the appeal of small zoos and aquariums stems from the fact that it seems, as designers, we can affect change the most at these institutions.  These are facilities which rarely have capital for major physical changes.  Places with big visions, but limited resources.  These facilities need master plans not only for fundraising and planning purposes, but for the team building and strategizing they provide—for clarity of vision.  They need experienced consultants that can offer creative and low-cost solutions to design issues; provide guidance on guest experience.  Oftentimes, simple changes drastically affect the public perception of a place —and sometimes just the act of planning itself illustrates such commitment and resolve to achieve more that the zoo is elevated in the public’s eye.  Many of today’s powerhouses began as just ‘a small zoo,’ but with the support of the community, were able to grow slowly and steadily over the years.

Do not overlook the little guys.  Especially the little guys who’ve made the extra effort to become accredited by the AZA (or EAZA, IMATA, or AMMPA).  This is an amazing feat for an institution of any size.  And as we know, underdogs can impact the world just as mightily as the conventional leaders.  We just need to give them a chance.

Lincoln Park Zoo: Defining an Urban Zoo


Character and ambience are often noticed subconsciously, defining the feeling of a place; contributing to the brand.  Most people recognize historical charm or modernist style, and may understand their predilection for a certain design aesthetic.  Oftentimes, these predilections are borne from a person’s associations with comfort and happiness, as in a childhood home or the neighborhood where two people met and fell in love. Main EntryThe same associations can be true in zoos.  Guests come to the zoo with a whole host of preconceived notions, from their ability to correctly identify a brown bear from a sun bear to their favorite hamburger toppings.  This means that, just like the many styles of residential homes, zoos also have a variety of styles--endearing themselves to some visitors, while disaffecting others.

Because zoos cannot be all things to all people, they must clearly define themselves.  And, as often is the case in architecture, taking a cue from their context (i.e. an urban zoo just north of downtown Chicago) may prove to be a well-received approach (although just as in architecture, juxtaposition from context may also be a successful strategy, i.e. the wilds of nature in the middle of New York City).

Lincoln Park Zoo is an example of using context as a guide for physical planning and aesthetic, and, in so doing, is the prototypical Urban Zoo.

Opened in 1868, Lincoln Park Zoo is one of America’s oldest, and its long history is reflected in its physical plan.  Nestled inside Lincoln Park, the zoo’s roots trace back to the addition of a pair of swans to a park pond, quickly followed by the acquisition of a bear.  As such, the zoo is a reflection of the 19th century urban park in which it was derived with grand walkways, formal gardens and ornate buildings.

This was (and still is) a place to escape the congestion and grit of early city life.  A place to recreate with the family, to socialize with friends.  A place to take time, to stroll slowly, to enjoy the softness of a green lawn under bare feet.  This was an urban park that just happened to have animals.

Today, the Zoo is more than simply a ‘park with animals’.  And although the historic aspects have been maintained out of respect (and out of requirement--monetarily and preservation-wise), the Zoo has moved squarely into the 21st century.  The Regenstein Center for African Apes is highly regarded around the country as a leading facility for gorillas and chimps in captivity, both in the physical design as well as the husbandry practices.

The Regenstein African Journey utilizes compelling visual storytelling and theming to transport Chicagoans to jungles and savannas in a rich indoor and outdoor experience.  Portions of the Small Mammal House are fully immersive and spectacular, and the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo, including the indoor Treetop Canopy Climbing Adventure, is an inventive and playful walk through the woods, pairing physical play with small animal exhibits.

Alas, the historical nature of the Zoo does create challenges.  Despite renovations, many of the original indoor exhibits (termed ‘houses’ as in Lion House, Bird House, etc.) leave much to be desired.  The Kovler Lion House is especially depressing, with cage after small cage housing medium to large cats, including the namesake.  Although the indoor stalls do connect to outdoor exhibits, the negative perception from the indoor visual (and smell of years of stale cat urine) ruins any chance of a positive impression.  Similar in layout, but far less offensive, are the Bird and Primate Houses in which cages have been updated and refurnished and theatrical lighting added to soften the original historic nature.  The Zoo did cleverly reuse an old animal exhibit building, however, converting from its original use into a centrally located restaurant.

Additionally, the urban-ness of the Zoo is in itself limiting. Ironically, getting to the Zoo is somewhat challenging with $20 parking and no convenient L stop. The towering skyscrapers will never be hidden allowing a total escape into the wild. The 35-acre site is landlocked, and without acquisition from the neighboring park, will always fight for space with itself.  The historic buildings preclude demolition, and, in fact, the site itself may have historic preservation issues for future demolition, as has been the case in other zoos with bear pits and allees.

But the in the end, these limitations are what make Lincoln Park Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo.  The history, the urban park-like setting, the city looming just outside the gates.  City-dwellers find solace in the escape, tourists appreciate the zoo for being apropos.  For its character, its ambience.  For being…so Chicago.

2012: A Year in Zoo Review (and Aquariums, too!)


The new year is just around the corner and like so many, I've put together a list of the year's highlights--from a zoo design perspective. So, on this final Friday of 2012, grab a cup of joe, tea, or a good ole fashioned flute of champagne and follow along as we recount the opening of permanent exhibits across the U.S. in 2012.

Dallas Zoo's Koala Walk-About

Opened in March, the koala habitat--one of only 10 in the US--anchors a series of Australian exhibits including a lorikeet feed.

LA Zoo's LAIR by David Crane

L.A. Zoo's LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates, & Reptiles)

Opened in March, this extensive indoor / outdoor exhibit is one of few major new exhibits in many years to focus entirely on the 'creepy crawlies' of the zoo--attempting to make stars out of those species often overlooked.

Tulsa Zoo's Helmerich Sea Lion Cove

Opened in March, the completely re-vamped exhibit area features an integrated demonstration theater.

SeaWorld Orlando's Turtle Trek

Opened in April, this innovative exhibit and 3D theater experience is a renovation of the existing manatee and turtle exhibits that concisely and powerfully delivers a critical conservation message: You can be an everyday conservation hero.

TN Aq River Giants by Steve Hardy

Tennessee Aquarium's River Giants

Opened in April, the 90,000 gallon freshwater exhibit renovation--converted from a saltwater tank--features species that grow to enormous sizes.

Akron Zoo's Journey to the Reef

Opened in May, the collection of aquatic exhibits replaced a temporary jelly exhibit and features a ray touch pool.

Aquarium of the Pacific's June Keyes Penguin Habitat

Opened in May, the habitat provides above and below water viewing for the Aquarium's 12 new Magellanic penguins.

Toledo Zoo Tembo Trail by Diana Schnuth

Toledo Zoo's Tembo Trail

Opened in May, the African complex is anchored by a major renovation to the elephant exhibit including improved visitor viewing and greater enrichment opportunities for the animals.

Cincinnati Zoo's Cat Canyon

Opened in June, the exhibit features updated homes for tigers, cougars and snow leopards, and eventually achieved Gold LEED status.

Denver Zoo's Toyota Elephant Passage

Opened in June, the innovative 10-acre exhibit is built for up to 8 bull elephants, along with many other Asian species, and features a series of yards--including an overhead transfer bridge--with a deep pool for full submersion. The exhibit also utilizes Timed Entry--limiting visitor capacity--to ensure a great guest experience.

Saint Louis Zoo's Sea Lion Sound

Opened in June, Sea Lion Sound features an entirely new exhibit--featuring a 'never-before-seen for sea lions' walk-thru tube--and large integrated show amphitheater.

Hogle Zoo Rocky Shores by Utah's Hogle Zoo

Utah's Hogle Zoo's Rocky Shores

Opened in June, the entirely new exhibit area, anchored by polar bears with underwater viewing, features species new to the zoo including bears, otters and seals.

Discovery Cove's Freshwater Oasis

Opened in June, this new freshwater experience replaces the original Tropical Reef and features in-water viewing of marmosets and small clawed river otters.

Knoxville Zoo's Valley of the Kings

Opened in August, the revamped lion exhibit enriches the habitat and increase visibility for the guests. Baboons were also brought back to the zoo.

Philadelphia Zoo's Great Ape Trail

Opened in August, the first phase of the first-of-its-kind trail system allows apes to traverse the zoo through a system of overhead mesh tunnels.

Peoria Zoo Walk-About by David Zalaznik_Journal StarPeoria Zoo's Australia Walk-About

Opened in August, the new Australia exhibit allows a barrier-free experience among emu, swan, wallabies and budgies.

National Zoo's American Trail

Opened in September, this series of exhibits completely revamped the existing North America section of the zoo, and features a large sea lion exhibit with demonstration area.

Central Florida Zoo's Otter Exhibit

Opened in September, the lovely exhibit with partial underwater viewing is a true jewel for the small, local zoo.

Cosley Zoo's Bobcat Exhibit

Opened in September, the 20' tall exhibit for a pair of bobcats marks the first major capital investment for the tiny zoo in twenty years.

Fresno Chaffee Zoo's Sea Lion Cove

Opened in September, the zoo's new home for their 3 sea lions and 2 seals caused record attendance for Labor Day weekend.

MN Zoo Black Bears by Joel Schettler

Minnesota Zoo's Black Bear Exhibit

Opened in September, the naturalistic bear exhibit marks the completion of the Minnesota Trails exhibit complex update.

Oklahoma Aquarium's Extreme Amazon

Opened in November, this small exhibit allows guests to pop-up into the habitat of iguanas and Amazonian fish.

Did I miss any? Let me know by commenting below.

Wishing everyone a Happy Zoo Year!

Minnesota Zoo: Be True to Yourself


The Minnesota Zoo, located in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, has long been on my list of must-sees, but especially so after the opening of the much lauded Russia’s Grizzly Coast four years ago.  Of course I would find myself flying to the Great White North a few days before Thanksgiving—what better time of year to visit?  Luckily for me, it was a beautiful, sunny, warm day with just enough visitors to make it interesting.

The Zoo is located near a wildlife preserve and surrounded by residential neighborhood.  The grounds are beautifully wooded with several lakes and wetlands.  Most of the exhibits are new or recently renovated, with those untouched slated for improvements soon.  The Zoo is large enough to fill most of a day (I saw everything except the Farm in a leisurely 5 hours), and is well-organized, avoiding large stretches of nothing to see or having to backtrack.

But what makes the Zoo so interesting to me is its understanding of self.  It’s a very self-aware Zoo.

You may think my next statement is obvious, but its important.  The Zoo is located in Minnesota.  Snowy, cold Minnesota.  This is not balmy Florida.  This is not even temperate St. Louis.  This is a very specific climate.  Cold in the winter.  Not as cold in the summer.  Why is this important?  Let me tell you.

First, climate dictates animal collection.  Many zoos try to shoe-horn species into their collection based on popularity with their market, such as African mammals in Canada or polar bears in the Bahamas.  While this can be done successfully, it is very limiting in that it restricts animal access to outdoors.  This in turn either increases project costs by creating massive indoor exhibits or creates distinct seasonality for the exhibits.  Minnesota Zoo made the decision to feature climatically appropriate species along their outdoor trails.  This means the animals will be active and happy year-round, making for a great experience for those hearty enough to brave the exterior exhibits in winter.

The Zoo has invested in some wonderful indoor exhibits as well--which leads to my next point: Climate dictates organization.  Minnesota Zoo realized that in order to attract any guests at all during the long cold winter, many exhibits would need to be indoors.  Instead of scattering those indoor exhibits along a main path throughout the zoo, the indoor exhibits are clustered around the main entry.  This allows guests to take off their winter coats, drop them into a locker, if they so choose, and spend several hours enjoying the zoo in a comfortable environment.

What’s more, the indoor exhibits are genuinely good.  The Tropics Trail features rainforests from around the globe allowing a broad range of mixed species exhibits-- including a beautiful reef tank featuring the unusual zebra shark and--when I was there--the amazingly popular tank-cleaning diver.

As for Russia’s Grizzly Coast, it is genuinely engaging, featuring many charismatic species including brown bears, sea otters, tigers and leopards in beautiful and complex exhibits.  The rather simple tiger exhibit is huge, and even when the tiger is far in the distance, can easily be seen due to the slope of the exhibit and the elevated, center viewing platform (although I was there when the foliage was dormant, so my experience may be different from others').





Throughout, the Zoo thoughtfully designed places to encourage up-close viewing of the animals.  At the small, but well-executed African penguin exhibit, the exhibit setting extends into the guest space via climbing rocks to allow kids to get face to face with the penguins.  The bear exhibits have dens with windows--and they actually use them.  The cat exhibits are long and skinny so they can be seen even when fully asleep on a rock.

Of course, I am obligated to find some faults.  Overall, my biggest concern was with the interpretives.  They were too heavy with text and generally, not integrated into the thematic story of the experience.  They were in no way terrible; they simply were not up to the level of design of the physical habitats.

My other concern was revenue locations.  This may be a result of visiting during winter when many stands are closed for the season, but I found myself wishing for a nice place to stop and have lunch at the halfway point near the Grain Elevator.  Perhaps a sit down restaurant overlooking one of the lovely spacious exhibits of the Northern Trail, or adjacent to one of the Tiger exhibits would work well.  At the main entry building, the zoo restaurant (a food court) is directly next to another snack stand, Penguin Café, which seemed to me would hurt profits.  I could be wrong though.  And of course, the retail shop is in the wrong spot entirely—located between food court and Penguin Café.  To maximize profits, always locate near the entry--and encourage guests to exit through the gift shop.

Overall, the Minnesota Zoo is a great zoo and highly recommended.  If you live nearby, remember the zoo is winter friendly, so go visit in January.  I swear you’ll be just fine.

New River Otter Exhibit at Central FL Zoo! (UPDATED)


Over the Labor Day weekend, I made the trek up to Sanford, FL--a suburb of Orlando, approximately 2.5 hours from my home base in Bradenton--just to check out their new North American River Otter exhibit on opening day.     The Central Florida Zoo is a small, quaint park, tucked into what appears to be native Florida swamp lands.  The zoo features winding boardwalks, a gravel parking lot, and a ropes course weaving between old live oaks dripping in Spanish moss.   A fairly simple zoo--most exhibits feature welded wire mesh supported by thick, rustic timbers.  Basic, but not offensive providing an easy, carefree family day out. The new otter exhibit is markedly different.  Adorned with high-quality rockwork as mudbanks (complete with roots and branches), the exhibit features three glass viewing areas, each from a well-conceived and unique vantage.  The main view, along the longest dimension of the exhibit, allows for partial underwater viewing.  The water that day was crystal clear.  Unfortunately, the otter wasn't swimming while I was there.

The other two views occur on the short dimensions and are located in such a way as to eliminate cross-viewing of guests.  The exhibit is filled with turf as well as medium and large plantings, enough to allow the otter to explore, play, and, to my dismay, disappear.

The exhibit is spacious, but sized for at least two otters.  Since the Zoo did not previously have them in the collection, the otters are slowly being introduced to their exhibit--and to each other.  Hopefully soon, they'll both be on exhibit together, increasing the odds of seeing at least one while visiting.

My only criticism is the shade, or lack of shade, at each viewing window.  At the underwater viewing glass, the design of the shade structure is visually appealing, but the slatted design of the pergola creates shadow that, while minimizing glare, is incredibly distracting and almost disorienting.  At one of the dry viewing panels--where no shade was provided at all--the glare was so bad, the window was almost unusable.  I did visit during the afternoon (2pm), so wonder if this problem persists all day, or if I was perhaps just unlucky with my timing. want the details of the exhibit?  Ask and you shall receive, my friends!

Designer: Borrelli + Partners, Inc. (Orlando, FL)

Total Area (sf): 1540

Total Volume (gal): 11,000

Holding: 424 sf CMU building with (2) 4' x 5' stalls, plus an off-exhibit outdoor yard

Project timeline: Design began in Nov. 2010; Construction began in July 2011; Exhibit opened Sept. 2012

Total Cost: $80,000

Yes, that last number is correct.  $80,000!!  This exhibit feels like $1 million, so kudos to the Zoo and staff for getting creative and finding cost cutting ways to achieve the project.  "The Zoo typically builds or updates exhibits for less than what the average zoo can do since our staff helps with building and design efforts,” said Shonna Green, Director, Communications & Community Resources for the Zoo.  Among these efforts was the rockwork, constructed by a zoo staffer.

Additionally, the Zoo confirmed the opening date to not be strategic, but in fact simply dictated by completion of construction.  "We normally prefer to open an exhibit over spring break or during the fall, however we were finished with construction in August.  The Zoo couldn’t hide an exhibit of this size from our guests; therefore we determined to open it over a long holiday weekend for our community,” said Green.

Again, congratulations on a great exhibit, and thank you for sharing the exhibit details.

DZ visits the Lemur Conservation Reserve


After a quick email exchange and phone conversation with Patti Walsh, Director of Research and Operations at the Lemur Conservation Foundation, a visit to their Lemur Reserve was in order.  Located just outside Myakka City, FL, a town with little more than a farm store and a yellow light, the Reserve is over 100 rural acres of mixed pine and oak forest.

The Foundations’ 44 lemurs have free-range within two fenced-in forested yards, 10 and 13 acres each.  Compatible breeding groups are rotated between these two yards and holding facilities near the yards.  The holding facilities have both indoor stalls (of various size, but averaging 8’ x 8’) immediately adjacent to outdoor, fully enclosed yards.  These yards are approximately 20’ x 10’ x 8’ tall, and are elegantly appointed with all manner of lemur fun, playtime equipment.

Within each large forested yard, lemurs have the option to hang out in a holding facility featuring a geodesic dome which provides respite from the weather.  The domes are made from Styrofoam, covered in plaster, and offer insulating qualities in both the heat of summer in central Florida and the chilly temperatures that sometimes occur during winter.  The domes are located between two elevated outdoor stalls, and allow indoor transfer between the two outdoor yards for maximum flexibility and in case of emergency.

Currently, the Reserve features a small on-site clinic space—really little more than a room with veterinary supplies, and each holding building has its own small kitchen space.  The 13 acre yard holding building’s kitchen is slightly larger allowing for the bulk of food storage, but with fresh produce donations occurring twice weekly, no large cooler space is required.

The Reserve was opened in 2000 with 32 lemurs and continues to grow with successful breeding on-site.  The lemurs are often lent to other institutions for breeding as directed by the SSP. Long-term plans include the addition of another forest yard but is limited by both funding and growth of currently scrubby shrubs and seedlings.  In the short-term, the Foundation is looking forward to enlarging the clinic space to enable more procedures to occur on-site, rather than transporting, as they do now, to a local veterinarian, nearly 45 minutes away.

Ultimately, the goal of the Reserve is to return lemurs to the wild, but for now, it is used as a breeding facility and base for research.  The lemurs here are interested in people, and several came from their patrols in the forest to check me out from their perches high in the trees.  Those housed in the holding facilities ran to say hello.  So amazing!

If I could suggest anything for this special place, it would be to create an experience that the public at large could enjoy—right now, only researchers and special guests are allowed.  This would represent one version of the future of zoos as visualized by some designers.

DZ visits South Florida Museum


A while back, I posited (and yes, I've recently been watching a lot of Fringe) the future of science based institutions is a re-integration of the currently separated disciplines into a 'one-stop shop' of education and recreation.  Here, guests will learn holistically about an ecosystem or geographical place in a fully immersive and hands-on atmosphere.  I pointed to a small institution, Durham Museum of Life and Science, as an example.  Today, I add another small institution to the list: Bradenton's South Florida Museum.

This institution focuses specifically on Bradenton and the greater Manatee County area, looking at its natural (all the way back to the early Cenozoic era--65 million years ago) and cultural history.  The Museum is broken into essentially three distinct sections (to me): the planetarium, the museum, and the aquarium.

Bishop Planetarium is simply that--a traditional planetarium with 3-4 shows daily.

The museum houses an array of exhibit halls with  interesting artifacts and dioramas including a Mastodon skeleton, Megalodon's jaws, pottery and arrow heads, gynecological instruments (yes, its true!), antique cameras, and a Model T.  Believe me, it all makes sense when you visit.

Finally, the Parker aquarium is famously home to the world's oldest manatee, Snooty, and not much else.  Of course, for me, Snooty was the draw.  I was skeptical of a manatee aquarium with underwater viewing from an outdoor corridor along a space called the Spanish Plaza (which prominently features a statue of local hero, Hernando DeSoto, upon his steed), but the tank was crystal clear and nicely designed.  Because of the proximity to the plaza, the viewing windows did have some glare, but the Museum minimized this with tasteful shade curtains.

On the upper level, guests can watch the manatees munch on lettuce and maybe catch one of the four daily aquarist talks.  During these, Snooty shows off by nearly crawling out of the tank for a piece of sweet potato or carrot.  He's lived his entire life in captivity and seems quite pleased to be hand-fed.  In fact, his keeper explained, he will only eat food from the keepers--he refuses to graze in the tank like his cohorts.

Currently, Snooty shares his home with two male adolescents who are temporarily housed at the Museum.  Both are rescue animals and have very limited interaction with the aquarium staff whose intent is to return them to the wild once they reach their optimum weight of 800 pounds.  Each boy has about 100 pounds more to gain.

The manatee exhibit is themed as a marina, complete with docks and a mural.  Its nothing special, but better than expected, and it seems the animals have plenty of space and choice--an off-exhibit pool is accessible to them.

Beyond the manatees, the aquarium literally has four small home-sized tanks with both fresh and saltwater critters.  One tank is open topped and overflows to a lower tank with limited touch opportunities with sea stars and urchins.  Additionally, there is a large and quite beautiful diorama with a hammerhead shark, fish, a mother manatee and her baby.

The Museum is at least an hour's experience without the planetarium show.  I did enjoy my visit, and could see myself returning to explore more of the local history.  The Museum is filled with information on lots of well designed interpretive panel found throughout.  One day, when I'm looking for a good read on Bradenton, I'll be sure to come back.  And Snooty, at 64, is still pretty cute.

South Florida Museum has plans for expansion in the coming years, and are gearing up for a capital campaign.  Follow us for updates!