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.
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.
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.
I was lucky to attend (and present at) The International Zoo Design Conference held in Poland in 2017. Many speakers from around the world talked about their experiences designing habitats or theorizing on the future of zoos and aquariums. While the majority of attendees were from Europe, folks from South America, Africa, and many countries in Asia presented their unique points of view. Although the theme was "Designing for Enrichment," four much deeper lessons held with me for continued thought and on-going discussion for the continued evolution of zoos and aquariums around the world. In this article originally posted to Blooloop.com, I explain those four take-aways:
Euro & American Zoos are Cousins, branching from the same ancestor like an evolutionary tree.
Dynamism as a new goal and design inspiration in everything habitat related.
Rethink the measure and definition of success for species in captivity.
Guests require that zoos care for the their animals as priority one, but often do not understand what good animal care is.
Take a look, and let me know your thoughts!
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 DZ.com, but to my blog at Blooloop.com 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...
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 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.
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 rival 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 well 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 less 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.
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.
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 “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).
Get yourself to England to check out both of these incredible zoos!
I’m writing this piece in the fifth hour of the fourteen hour flight to the U.S. from Beijing. I’ve already watched two movies, had a couple glasses of wine, and did some work. I’m reflecting on my whirlwind trip in Ordos, Inner Mongolia for the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens’ (CAZG) 2nd annual conference, where although I was only there for 24 hours, I presented twice for a total of 5 hours. While these stats are quite impressive, the most impressive thing about this trip was the evolution that I am seeing in Chinese zoos and aquariums.
I’ve been coming to China for 8 years, for projects and for exploration of the potential market for zoo designers here. Although PGAV has been fairly consistently engaged in project work in this massive country over the last decade, most of that has been related to theme parks. The sudden and intense growth of the middle class has created a thirst for leisure activities, and while museums, water parks, historic cities, natural areas, and theme parks have been highly targeted for updates and new projects, the desire for modern, innovative zoos has lagged behind. In my opinion, this is directly related to the state of Chinese society’s relationship to animals and nature: the persistent desire for tiger and rhino parts for traditional medicines; exploitation of baby animals, especially tiger cubs, for photos at zoos; the market for ivory as status symbols; the levels of pollution in the water and air.
But recently, the Chinese government has dedicated itself to reversing these trends: last year’s historic ivory ban, the continued dedication to the Paris climate accord, and the highly visible campaigns to educate Chinese citizens against the use of animal parts in medicine (as partnerships with organizations like WWF). I’ve even seen a difference over the years in small things that we take for granted in the U.S.: recycling in airports; signs asking people not to waste paper to save the trees; marketing campaigns for cities like Ordos that highlight how green the city is; encouraging the use of reusable water bottles with clean water stations at airports.
Even though I was only able to spend a day with the Chinese zoo association, I was elated to see the level of advancement in only the two to three years that I’ve been working with them. As I spoke to the crowd about creating spaces that respond to the nature of animals, not to coerce them, to allow them to make decisions on their own even if that decision means your visitors don’t get to see them easily or on each and every visit, I saw heads nodding. A delegate coming to my aid when another challenged my assertion that extra spaces like flexible yards and enrichment rooms are worth the effort and cost. The zoo that proudly shared their designs with me for three new projects--the incredible difference between the designs that had been completed only two years ago, and the ones completed within the month. The level of investment in aspects dedicated exclusively to welfare. The new center for conservation and education.
The CAZG itself is advancing. The conference attendance nearly doubled in one year—only its second year. The Association has created a department dedicated exclusively to design, hiring two full-time designers to aid government-run zoos in improvements. They spent over five years creating a set of design regulations, released this year, that blow our APHIS regs out of the water.They are hungry for knowledge, and thirsty for implementation.
All of this means that the evolution of Chinese zoos will continue to advance at a break-neck speed. And that’s a wonderful thing. The typical city zoos that are pervasive throughout the country are as deplorable as you can imagine. Undersized and rusted cages. Limited education focus, if any at all. Lack of enrichment or even natural substrates. Private facilities have and will continue to be at the forefront of innovation due to bigger budgets, but there are a few shining examples of upcoming change at public institutions such as Nanjing Hongshan Forest Zoo and Beijing Zoo.As long as the government continues to infuse capital into these organizations—and hopefully continue to increase that level, Chinese zoos will soon be as modern as those in the West. And, perhaps even more importantly (and as has been true throughout history), the improvements in zoos will be a reflection of the changing relationship of the Chinese people with the natural world.
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.
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.
I’ve always been nervous about meeting new people. Socializing is not my natural state. I hated Santa--coming into our grandparents’ house, demanding me to sit on his lap. I’d run and hide under the dining room table when I heard that jolly ho-ho-ho. My stomach does flops thinking, not about the presentation to 300 people, but of the awkward mingling with conference attendees and fellow speakers before and after. I avoid parties where I don’t know at least three people closely (I gladly host them, happy in the knowledge I can always escape into hosting duties such as serving food or MCing a game). Spending three weeks on a frigid Indian mountainside in December with a handful of strangers who mostly speak languages other than my own was quite possibly the scariest thing I’ve ever attempted.
This post is about leaving your comfort zone. A critical element of personal development—and more importantly, of becoming the best designer you can possibly be.
That morning arriving to Leh, after thirty hours of travel and four flights, I was not ready to sit and drink tea with five strangers—in a country I’ve never been. We made small talk about how the flights were and where we are from. We weren’t sure what kind of tea to drink. What is Masala? Is it with goat’s milk like my friend warned me of? How much caffeine does it have? Do I need sugar??? I didn’t know who actually spoke English and therefore could handle me asking them a question, and who would look at me panicked not understanding what the tall blonde American lady is demanding! I was tired, cranky, but also excited to finally be here. To finally be on the hunt for the elusive snow leopard.
Several days later, after “adjusting” to the elevation of Leh (around 11,000’) and after spending a day together birding around the Himalayan foothills surrounding the town, we loaded up the SUV with our gear to hit the mountains. We headed to our camp in Hozing Valley. Situated among mountain ridges between 12,000 and 13,000’, our base camp consisted of three small sleeping tents (one for each of us), and two larger mess-style canvas tents—one serving as kitchen, one as the dining room. The dining tent had a propane heater; the kitchen had a cook and a cook’s assistant. We had a simple pit-toilet outhouse—a hole in the floor. We had no running water, no heat in our sleeping tents. It was December, and it was cold. Very cold. The coldest night was about -35 F.
The days were filled with hiking nearly vertical slopes among boulders and on gravelly sheep-made paths, to sit in the sun on ridges overlooking the valley. We’d sit for hours, scanning the rocky cliffs with binoculars and spotting scopes. We’d layer up for the frigid morning walks starting at sun up—before the sun passed over the ridges, when accidental water spills turned instantly into icicles. Some mornings--the coldest mornings, I’d be wrapped up so thick, my shadow looked like an astronaut: two wool base layers, two pairs of snow pants on my legs; a wicking shirt, two wool base layers, a fleece vest, a fleece jacket, a down jacket, and a ski jacket on top; a scarf; two hats (one a beanie, and one a thick, (faux) fur-lined Nordic thing); three pairs of socks; a pair of wool gloves beneath a thick set of mittens. At 10:30am, the sun came up over the ridge--its warmth allowed us to remove layers, and caused our feet to sweat as we trekked up several hundred feet of steep slope in astronaut gear. Then, when the sun found its way behind the ridges again at 3:30pm, our toes began to numb as our sweat-soaked socks and boots literally froze.
It was fun. I definitely lost 5 pounds.
But the reward was delivered on the third day: a snow leopard! The build-up to the sighting was screenplay perfection. Our trackers spotted a blue sheep (the snow leopard’s favorite prey), dead on the ridge above our camp. They inspected the frozen carcass and found no obvious signs of trauma, just a dribble of blood at the corner of his mouth. Certainly within the realm of possibility of a snow leopard kill. Later, a local reported snow leopard tracks on the road leading to our camp. Trackers dispersed across the valley, scanning the rocky ledges and cliffs with spotting scopes. We sat quietly scanning, until one of the trackers came running down a steep hillside, and delivered the news: a snow leopard.
His (we assumed he was a male, although no one could confirm) kill was located just 150 yards from our camp—a very, very lucky chance occurrence. We watched him for four days, as he stayed to feed on the frozen carcass, fully within view. During that time, we watched patiently as he slept in the sun. And slept in the sun. And slept in the shade! And slept in the sun. Someone always had their eye on the lens, watching. And when he shifted position, we’d yell, “Head up!” and everyone ran to the scopes. He stretched like a housecat, and curled his long tail around him, using it as a pillow. We’d squeal and coo, like children. We’d celebrate every evening with a toast of cheap brandy, before heading to bed at 8pm. We became compatriots in battle, bound by one, big, fluffy kitty cat.
The trip was 12 days in the Himalayas, split between two locales. We stayed at our tented camp for eight, adjusting the itinerary due to seeing the leopard. We also stayed at a homestay for the balance, where the accommodations were slightly more luxurious, but still with limited heat, and no indoor plumbing. At the end of the trip, we said good-bye to the local guides and staff (five of them), and the couple from Spain (who were the only paying tourists other than me) departed. My tour guide, Marta, and I headed onto Talla and Bandhavgarh to search for tigers. The accommodations there were absolutely luxurious with toilets and showers, a real bed, and a space heater. And the climate was balmy at 55-65 F. We had an amazing day and a half exploring Bandhavgarh Tiger Preserve, where 65 tigers reside in 172 square miles. Chances of seeing tigers is slightly better than seeing snow leopards in Leh, yet we saw only one, and only for five minutes.
Even so, my trip was blessed with wildlife. Everyone we talked to spoke of how lucky we were. Most people see a snow leopard on our itinerary, but they are usually much, much further away, and for only a few minutes. We saw two (the second was just a brief interlude—a more typical tourist experience), and we saw a tiger.
I like to think this luck was a reward for my bravery. For not cancelling the trip when I couldn’t find a travel partner. For not chickening out--knowing that I get cold very easily and don’t like curry (especially now!). And it reminds me that good things generally come from sticking your neck out.
For many years, my annual reviews at PGAV consistently pointed to one major downfall of my performance: not being assertive enough. I realized in India—as I pondered if I really knew how to identify frostbite—that I had become quite assertive. I ‘stopped asking for permission, and started asking for forgiveness.’ And many times I failed, but many more times, I didn’t. It was more than not failing. It was succeeding. Taking chances and not waiting for the “perfect time” has changed my trajectory in my professional life. I always think about design from the options that we haven’t yet tried. I explore the crazy ideas that seem, on first glance, unrealistic. I don’t back away just because there is a potential negative—because there might also be a bigger positive you don’t yet see. However, it doesn’t mean we waste time going in never-ending circles. I’ve become strong enough and brave enough to make decisions based on logic, reasoning, and a little gut—and run with them.
And you should too. Step out into the cold, or into a room full of strangers, every once in a while. Speak up. Take action. Take a chance… and maybe you, too, will be blessed with big cats.