Just because it’s cold outside, doesn’t mean that zoos around the country close their doors and send all their animals to hibernate for the winter. Instead, a team of caring keepers, animal experts, and experience designers work hard to ensure that the animals are safe, have opportunities to stay active, and that visitors can still have a great experience.
While we do not have a zoo of our own, we do play an important role in helping zoos (and other outdoor attractions) prepare for this less attended time of year.
Safety First, But Care & Enrichment is a very Close Second
When it comes to preparing animals for winter, zoos rely on teams of care professionals and animal experts who do amazing work to keep the animals safe and comfortable. But, safety and well-being are just one part of making a successful winter transition.
Like humans, different animals have different needs. Some like the cold, while others prefer staying in their warm beds. For these different behaviors, it’s important for keepers, designers, and engineers to work together in order to understand exactly what emotional and physical needs each animal has. They (and we) have to think about their behaviors at various times of the day, which includes how to feed the animals and how their food can be placed so that they forage, like they do in the wild.
Especially during the planning and design of an exhibit, it’s our job to help design enriching experiences for both the animals and for guests of the park, all year-round.
What Enrichment Means
Even if an animal does well in the cold, something we may design for them is a self-actuating sliding door. This type of door is hung from a slightly sloped rail, and gives the animal the choice of whether they want to go outside or stay inside. In the case of bears, they can use their paw to slide open the door and then gravity shuts it behind them, keeping their quarters at a desired temperature.
For animals who have a need to forage, we’ve sometimes included an ice machine that can make a hill of snow on top of fruit or other treats prior to the animals coming on exhibit. Foraging for the treats stimulates natural behaviors and provides a bit of fun for the animals and the observing public. Because zoos can only provide animals so much space, enrichment truly is about giving the animals choices, and developing creative ways to prevent repetition in a limited environment.
For people visiting the zoo, enrichment means providing sensory experiences throughout the grounds. Oftentimes, zoos will create animal displays and festive activities using holiday lights, fire pits, carolers, and winter craft activities for the whole family. Our job as designers is to make sure that the infrastructure is in place to accommodate the seasonal set-up. The overall goal is to enable conservation organizations to keep their guests passionate about supporting animals year-round.
How We Develop Enrichment Ideas
Inspiration for enrichment can come from anywhere. Vice president John Kemper recalls one of his favorite exhibits, dating back to the mid-‘90s, was inspired by a window display created by a Banana Republic clothing store in a mall.
“Banana Republic had positioned a Jeep cut in half, on both sides of the storefront glass, and we said ‘how can we do that, but more immersively with lions?’”
This inspiration led to the Edge of Africa exhibit at Busch Gardens in Florida. John and his team developed new ways for guests to experience lions and hyenas around a Land Rover, where guests can enter the cab while a lion is in the bed of the open topped vehicle. Weaving the glass around and through the vehicle practically guaranteed that even a sleeping large male lion was an intimate and exciting experience! In the same exhibit, PGAV designed a hippo exhibit that is a slice down the middle of a river, using glass to create a massive underwater view for hippos, crocodiles, and fish. The attraction demonstrates how graceful and ballet-like hippos are underwater.
Most ideas, however, come from collaboration with animal care specialists, zoo administrators, and designers working together to think through what each animal needs to thrive and what guests need to stay interested throughout the entire year.
In the end, it’s all about choice for animals and visitors. We want to ensure that no matter what choice is made, everyone and every animal has a great experience, regardless of weather.