– By Stacey Ludlum, director of zoo and aquarium planning and design
Below is the third and final of three installments of a recent research report. “Enriching the Visitor Experience: PGAV Destinations and Environmental Design,” clearly defines and gives examples of what enrichment is today; how exceptionally well-designed enrichment can greatly benefit the visitor experience; and why enrichment isn’t a luxury in zoo design, but rather an essential starting point. Part one can be found here and two here; and if you’d like more, please visit Designing Zoos – one of the most-read zoo blogs in the industry.
Enrichment as a Design Fundamental
One example of highly successful planning team collaboration is the Glacier Run exhibit recently opened at Louisville Zoo. This exhibit is an innovative, immersive, and engaging experience, incorporating state-of-the-art polar bear and sea lion holding facilities and visible enrichment areas. Thematically inspired by the town of Churchill, Canada (the polar bear capital of the world), the exhibit motivates visitors to take action in support of the conservation of animals and their delicate habitats. The exhibit opened in April 2011 and the expansion for the zone, including a flight cage for Steller’s Sea Eagles, opened in spring 2013.
From the start, enrichment for both animal and guest was a priority. So much so, in fact, the overall design concept was rooted in the ideas of ‘change’ and ‘surprise’ with a goal to create entirely new enrichment techniques. Additionally, the exhibit was intended to enable the involvement of the guest in enrichment activities creating a highly dynamic experience within an escapist storyline that entertained as much as it educated. Beyond that, the team identified several specific implementation goals including a targeted number of enrichment devices per species and a targeted utilization rate to be measured and assessed at regular intervals.
Because the Zoo was able to share its passion for enrichment (including training) with us, we were able to include a wide range of enrichment opportunities in the project. Focusing specifically on the bears, the outdoor habitats, though limited in size, include dig pits, pools and streams, real growing grass, climbing opportunities in the form of rocks and a one-of-a-kind thematic crumbled asphalt road, overhangs for shade, and an irregularly shaped exhibit area offering unique opportunities for hiding and interaction with guests. Additionally, the on-exhibit area for bears is divided into a large outdoor yard as well as an innovative ‘enrichment room’ where bears are able to enjoy keeper-initiated treats like barrels of ice and frozen fish. Also inside this room, the bears can climb into a truck bed set on springs which allows them to bounce guests sitting in the truck cab. The bears are further enriched by the complexity of the transfer system, in that they are required to move up and down stairs and ramps frequently and are even transferred over the heads of guests in a glass-sided chute.
Moreover, the design of the exhibit focused on creating spaces that not only allow efficient keeper-initiated enrichment, but also highlight these opportunities for the guests. In addition to the enrichment room and visible transfer chute with keeper catwalk, keepers can train bears in clear view of the guests through two separate training panels, one in each on-exhibit yard. Also designed into the exhibit is a permanent swing for attachment of various toys and feeders, as well as a system of eye-hook attachment points throughout the exhibit for flexible and creative use by keepers. Unfortunately, the latter was a victim of budget cuts late in the construction process. Additionally, the sea lions’ habitat was designed to incorporate training demonstrations so that training and enrichment is visible to guests.
While it’s too soon to evaluate the exhibit’s effectiveness from an animal point of view, the enriched guest experience is undeniable. Working together, the planning team drew from individual strengths, customized goals and strategized an enrichment program that enabled us to create an enriched environment in which animals are active, keepers are able to work easily, and guests are able to enjoy an ever-surprising and ever-changing exhibit. Using enrichment as a critical design fundamental can produce a wholly unique and exceptional exhibit meeting and exceeding the needs of all involved.