Training Butterflies for Interactions


During the AZA 2012 poster session, I came across an intriguing group describing how they've successfully trained butterflies for interactions.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In actuality, "training" is somewhat a misnomer for butterflies; more accurately, they are habituated for handling, and manipulated into long basking periods (by understanding the natural physiology and behavior of the insects). Woodman, Kim and Kassinger have seen the benefits of these increased and prolonged interactions through guest enjoyment, but also by leveraging the experience for revenue potential:  the consistency of behavior allows for guaranteed photo ops.

Learn more about their project and how you can create your own program by reading their full paper here: Butterfly Experiences by Woodman, Kim & Kassinger

Giraffe Feeding Beneficial to Animals


Recently, I was engaged in a friendly debate about the merits (or faults) of a giraffe feeding experience.  One of the issues that came up was whether or not the experience negatively affected the animals.  As it turns out, a student at my alma mater, Michigan State University, was wondering the very same thing. His research, documented via poster for the AZA Conference Poster Session, indicates giraffe feeding programs act as a form of enrichment for the animals, and are therefore beneficial.  His preliminary results follow:




August Animal of the Month: Manatee


Oh, the lovely sea cow.  Once believed to call to sailors, as would a mermaid or, say, a siren, this slow moving, blubbery beauty of the order Sirenia was our focus in August.  A favored friend of Florida, the West Indian Manatee is now endangered and relatively rare in captivity.  Learn all about this sweet creature here.

ATTENTION: This will be the last Animal of the Month that will be posted to the blog.  In the future, I will send out the fact sheet via email.  If you are interested in receiving them, please contact me.

DZ visits Zoo Miami!


Admittedly, I hadn't heard much about Zoo Miami previous to my visit last week.  And because of that, my expectations were quite low.  Boy was I surprised!

The Zoo is thoughtfully laid out in a bow-tie or figure 8, with the entry and exit occurring from a central 'tail' at the intersection of the 8.  I like this basic configuration as it benefits both the guests, in terms of easy wayfinding, and the zoo, in possible revenue generation.  By placing the Zoo's main dining location at the central intersection, guests pass by at least twice daily, and possibly up to 4x.

The main dining area is surrounded by a large play area with water play, as well as lovely views to a natural lake.  Both water play and water views are an essential part of the Zoo's identity--and set it apart from many I've visited.  Many opportunities for sprays and mists are found throughout the Zoo, which I am imagine are essential in the tropical locale.

Although the history of the Zoo spans to the mid-1950s, the physical zoo we now know opened in the early 1980s.  One of the largest zoos in the country, Zoo Miami boasts over 320 developed acres with an additional 400 acres untouched.  Its a large zoo, and in 2.5 sweaty hours, I only saw the northern loop.

Because the zoo is relatively young, its original design has remained basically intact.  Following the trends in exhibitry of the late 1970s to the early 80s, the zoo is experienced, by and large, via a wide main path (the figure 8 mentioned previously).  Along this path, exhibits are stacked providing prototypical long unobstructed viewing associated with that time.  However, since then the exhibits have mostly been updated (EDIT: Exhibits were in fact designed this way originally!) to remove the back fences providing beautiful long, uninterrupted views, sometimes into adjacent exhibits.  This is especially effective in the rhino exhibit, where elephants can be seen roaming in the distance.

Zoo Miami recently underwent a master plan with the resultant Amazon & Beyond  exhibit opening in December, 2008.  This exhibit, designed by Jones & Jones and EDSA, encompasses several habitat types and features a multitude of species including jaguars, giant river otters, monkeys, birds, and reptiles.  The exhibit is over 27 acres, cost $50 million, and includes both indoor and outdoor exhibit experiences.  The exhibit is overall well done, but did leave the impression that, as with most projects, the initial design was over-ambitious and over budget--causing some unfortunate, and questionable, cuts.

For example, the small animal exhibits were abundant.  In fact, each habitat type must have been supported by at least 6 small, or jewel, exhibits as well as several bird exhibits.  However, these exhibits felt almost aquarium-like--flat walls with signage above a square viewing window.  These exhibits, shamefully, did not draw me in, and after about the 8th jewel case, I started walking by them completely, eyes glazed over.  I would've suggested a cut to the species list in favor of a more thematic guest experience, drawing in the guests to a few featured exhibits rather than the repetitive cases.

I would like to point out a cool little design at the jaguar exhibit, where between two outdoor yards, the cats are able to transfer over head.  The jaguars also had a nice pool with a semi-underwater viewing window.  Unfortunately for me, they weren't on exhibit while I was there.

The giant river otter exhibit was also nicely designed with both overwater and semi-underwater viewing.  Of course, it didn't hurt that they'd just been fed when I arrived, so were characteristically energetic and entertaining.

The zoo has a lot of space for growth.  So much so that the long walks between exhibits became cumbersome and tiring, despite the beautiful tropical landscape and non-exhibit hidden gems, like thematically inspired sculpture.  However, I commend Zoo Miami for taking advantage of this possible detriment by providing various forms of transport for a small fee.  My favorite was the Safari Cycles--vehicles reminiscent of Model T cars requiring the riders to power by pedal.  The zoo also has a Monorail--which I didn't see in use, and tram tours.

Overall, a very nice experience and one that apparently many Miami tourists miss.  With annual attendance slowly nearing the 1 million mark, Zoo Miami certainly has the opportunity for growth within its market with targeted strategies directed at the South Beach set.  Perhaps the upcoming Florida: Mission Everglades exhibit will increase awareness of the zoo, allowing them to break free of their stigma as a local attraction--as I do believe they could double their attendance with the experience they currently offer.

June Animal of the Month: Meerkat


PGAV's Zoo Design Specialty Development Team is back in gear with fresh faces and new Animal of the Month fact sheets.  I'm already behind on posting them, so here is Meerkat from a couple of months ago.

The meerkat (not meer-kitty) is a social species from the deserts of Africa.  Much like human society, each meerkat takes on a role, a career you might say, from babysitter to sentinel.  Learn more about these rambunctious non-rodents here.

July Animal of the Month: Bottlenose Dolphins

They could be the happiest animals on the planet, or the most mischievous...Either way, they are the focus of the Zoo Design Animal of the Month fact sheet.

We were inspired by our incredible field trip to the Georgia Aquarium this week where we met with some awesome folks and very talented dolphins, the stars of the Aquarium's new "Dolphin Tales" show.

More to come on our field trip, but for now, just sit back and 'soak in' the good stuff about dolphins.

Dolphin SDT AotM July


June Animal of the Month: African Lions!

Panthera leo!  Who doesn't love the king of beasts?  According to PGAV's nation-wide poll, no one!  Big Cats have recently been identified by zoo-goers as their favorite animals at the zoo, and by a wide, wide margin.  Because of this, we wanted to share some interesting facts about one of America's most beloved critter! Infosheet here: Lion SDT AotM June

April Animal of the Month: Tigers

I think we're catching up to the calendar.  Expect May's fact sheet next week. But in April, we investigated the most endangered of the big cats...everyone's favorite...the striped ghost...Tigers!  Our fact sheet focuses on Bengals, but is applicable to Amurs as well.

As always, enjoy!

For the fact sheet, click here:  Tiger SDT AotM April

How Animal Behavior Drives Zoo Design

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

"Part Five: Behavior" from Wild Mammals in Captivity

Dolphins, "We've been trying to tell you for yeeeaaarrrsss now..."

Last week, the PGAV Zoo Design Specialty Development Team met to discuss enrichment.  As prep for this discussion, we read a few short articles, including this one from Jon Coe.  In it, he asserts that the purpose of enrichment is to provide animals with Competence, Choice and Collaboration. Competence, according to Coe, is the ability to perform natural behaviors at a level that which, if when returned to the wild, the animal would be able to sustain itself.

Choice is the basic fundamental of enrichment, in my eyes.  Just like us, animals in captivity are happier when  able to assert some level of control over their lives.  Providing animals with choices, like micro-climate or socio-behavioral options, as well as more advanced choices, like problem solving, will enhance their lives incalculably.

And finally, we arrive at Collaboration.  This concept was something I hadn't really considered until reading Coe's article, but the idea is fairly straight-forward.  Some enrichment allows a relationship between keeper and animal that would not otherwise occur; the keeper and animal work together, or the animal relies on the trainer in order to achieve something.  Training as enrichment is the obvious example here.

I mention all of this because of a video clip one of the SDT members shared with us last week.  Beyond being absolutely mind-blowing (but also, not really!), it truly supported the idea of Collaborative enrichment AND Choice.  Fast forward to 7:45.



Watch the full episode. See more NOVA scienceNOW.

Help Out a Zoo...Amazon Wishlists

Enrichment is a daily task for zoos.  Whether hiding treats in a primate exhibit, building meat filled paper mache pumpkins for anxious tigers, or replacing tires hanging from chains in the rhino enclosure, enrichment is a key part of every keeper's day.

And a unwelcome cost to every zoo's budget.

But now supportive guests can help their favorite zoos lessen the burden of this necessary expense by purchasing items on Amazon.com!

I'm not sure how long zoos have been taking advantage of this service (as a loyal Amazon customer, I'm a little embarrassed that I am just now realizing this option exists!), but its an easy way for them to acquire much needed items, whether enrichment related or just general needs.

You want to help out?  Well, here's how:

Visit Amazon.com, and click on Gifts & Wishlists near the top.  Then click 'Wishlists'.  This will take you to a search screen.  Just enter the name of the zoo you'd like to help (or just enter 'zoo' and scroll to find yours), and the wishlist will appear.  Currently, there are about 20 zoos taking advantage of this service.


Bear Behavior Captured!

A biologist studying bears for the past decade has captured hundreds of hours of grizzly bear behavior in Glacier National Park.  This information is key to good bear exhibit design, as it allows us to understand the natural needs and instincts of these massive creatures. 

Click here for video and article

Apparently, grizzly bears spend a lot of time rubbing their backs and heads on things, much like cats.  This behavior is believed to be related to scent marking.  Obviously, providing places for bears to do this in captivity will allow more natural behaviors to occur in front of the public, which is always entertaining and enlightening. 

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John Ball Zoo's New Lion Exhibit

John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opened a new $4 million lion exhibit, Lions of Lake Manyara, on June 14th.  After several years without lions, the zoo has brought them back due to public demand for the beloved cats.  Three lions, two female, one male, are now living in the large enclosure designed by Jones & Jones.    Artificial Tree at New ExhibitTaking lion behavior into consideration, the designers incorporated elements not normally seen in lion exhibits.  Large areas of grass, natural trees and climbing rocks are seen throughout, plus a 30 foot tall artificial tree for climbing and lounging.  The tree will be cooled and heated, as well as some of the rocks.

Historically, large cat exhibits have lacked interest and elements appealing to cats.  Use of verticality for all types of cats is essential, and since most cats are daytime sleepers, providing unique perching and sleeping areas is key for both the cats and the visitors.  With the opening of Philadelphia Zoo's Big Cat Falls last year, hopefully, this trend for revamping cat exhibits will catch on nationwide. 

Congratulations to all involved!

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