exhibit design

Successfully concealed tree collar at the cheetah exhibit in the Albuquerque Biopark by Martin

Tree collars wrap tree trunks in an exhibit to prevent animals from climbing out.

At the cheetah exhibit at the ABQ Biopark I saw a successful attempt to conceal an especially large tree collar.
Usually tree collars are made of sheet metal, which is just painted black, green or some generic camouflage color. This can work if the collar is high up and out of view.

But here the collar is in plain sight and it's huge. Someone took the time to paint the metal in a way that mimics the color and pattern of the tree bark, making it disappear. Or, if not disappear, making it less noticeable and less distracting. It worked very well. It looked even better in real life than here in the photos.

Below a photo from the years when I lived in Ohio. Our neighbor tried  to keep the squirrels out of the trees with sheet metal tree collars while we put squirrel feeders up in ours. A good example of how ugly and distracting the metal can be.

Children's Paths: A How to Guide by Martin

A children's path is a secondary path that winds around the main path creating an element of excitement, activity or discovery. It's geared towards children but laid out so that adults can walk along and participate.

For the children's park at the AllwetterZOO in Münster, Germany, we created a few guidelines to help us design this type of path. I've found these rules helpful in later projects.

Rule #1: The children's path follows the main path (Schematic sketch below).

The paths are simplified and straightened for illustrative purpose 
Parents that don't want to take the children's path can stroll along the main path pushing strollers with toddlers or pulling empty carts, while their kids are weaving along the children's path.

Children's  Park; Zoo Münster
A level of control is maintained by making sure that the children's path always ends up back on the main path and ahead of the parent, and by establishing visual connection points between the paths.

Therefore the path never does the following:

It never backtracks, so the child doesn't end up behind the parent, and it doesn't branch off into other areas or jump ahead.

Instead the path always returns to the main route and follows the visitor flow, and it has visual contact points along its route.

It doesn't matter in which direction the visitor flow streams. By making the layout easy to understand and follow we make it it predictable; "Where's our kid?" "Don't worry he'll cross our path in a second". Peace of mind for the adult is the goal here.

Rule # Mark the entrance(s) in a way that signals "Children, this is for you"!

At the Münster Zoo we placed a sign and colorful markers made of twisted locust branches at the entrance to each children's path.

We marked the entrance to each path segment with a willow arch just tall enough for a person in a wheelchair to pass through. Kids could run right under it, but adults had to bend, which brings me to the third rule:

Rule # Scale it down to kid size - but allow adults access as well.
The arches already designate the kid-scale. Next we reduced the width of the path to give it the feel of a foot trail (about three feet wide, just enough for a wheelchair to pass), and we scaled down other elements and spaces. The intended feeling: This is for kids. The photos below illustrate this concept.

Above The handrail is at a perfect height (kid scaled) while adults would have to reach down.

Above The railing into the wolf exhibit is lowered to children's height.

Above The a tree trunk over the path: kids can walk through, adults have to watch out.

Rule #4  Make the path an adventure.

Above  A wobble-bridge

Above Climbing over rocks

Above Climbing over to a hidey hole beyond

Each path segment has its own highlight and multiple attractions that are designed specifically for each animal and location.

To keep the path wheelchair accessible all physically challenging activities can be bypassed.

We also used varying substrates along the paths including bark mulch, sand, wood trunks, and rubber along climbing elements, to set them apart from the main path and to give it a more rugged, adventurous feel.

To add to the sense of adventure the children's path is largely hidden from the main path. At certain highlights and whenever a child faces a challenge there is visual contact with the main path to allow the kid to share the accomplishment: "Mom, look at me!" This also to gives the parent an element of control.
Elements of a children's path: Entrance arches and highlight with visual contact to main path.
Rule #5    Keep the focus on the animal
Keeping the focus on the animal should be the bedrock rule for any designer working in a zoo setting.

The danger is that a children's path with its adventurous offerings can become a distraction and a world in itself.
But if designed correctly it can be a sneaky way to bring the child (and parent) back to the exhibit  again and again resulting in additional viewing opportunities for more discoveries of the animal and its behavior.

At the wolf exhibit at the Children's Park at the Münster Zoo children can see the animals from different vantage points and from different locations - each with a different feel - keeping the viewing experience interesting and fresh.

The photos below show two of the children's path special viewing points.

Wolf observed from a look-out tower

and observed through large cracks between rocks (no glass.)

By changing the viewing point from lower or higher than normal, by adding some activity, or by changing the ambiance, we can keep the viewing experience of the same animal and the same exhibit fresh and exciting.

A children's path offers something specifically for the younger visitor. It is filled with discovery and adventure and can be shared within the group and through the generations.
This can mean more time spent at the zoo, and most importantly (for the children) time spend filled with fun and activity.

The photos in this post are all from the Children's Park at the Zoo Münster in Germany. I designed this exhibit in conjunction with the inhouse zoo team of Johannes Deiting and Dag Encke in 2005.

A Wood Railing by Martin

Recently I came across this photo of a red haired woman homo sapiens and her red haired Irish Setter Canis lupus familiaris standing on red bark mulch and watching a group of red haired orangutans Pongo pygmaeus.

I took these photos at the Allwetterzoo in Münster, Germany.

Many German Zoos allow you to bring your dog on to the grounds -  just as you can bring your dog into most restaurants (Who needs a doggy bag?).

This is what you see if you stand directly at the railing and look into the exhibit.
view from the railing into exhibit
And here you can see what the railing looks like in the winter without so many visitors.
You might have noticed how comfortably the woman with the dog was leaning on the handrail (it's a real tree) and how the glass allowed for easy viewing into the exhibit even from further back .

The glass railing makes it especially easy for children in strollers to look into the exhibit.
This photo shows the railing from the exhibit side. It's good to see how much the visitors enjoy leaning on a real wood handrail.
What makes the railing unusual is that the glass and the handrail aren't in the same plane.
Photo above: the handrail sits in front of the glass pane, keeping the visitors about a foot back from the glass. And keeping sunglasses and babies from falling into the exhibit. It may also help to keep the glass cleaner.
It's about a four meter drop from the top of the railing into the moat. The moat is the playground for the otters.

Real wood feels great to touch and never gets too hot, but it does rot, and I'm not thrilled to see this detail where the wood connects directly with the concrete:
However, this could easily be fixed. And fixed in a way that the branches can be changed as they wear out.

When you scroll through all the photos you'll notice that some of the railings have bark and some are bare. The railings had bark when the exhibit opened, but three years later I visited and they were bare. Depending on the visitors, peeling bark - and throwing it into the exhibit - could be an issue.
However, wood is aesthetically pleasing. This photo shows another railing at the same exhibit. A standard aluminum handrail would have been artificial and distracting here.

The wood handrail keeps the colors and materials in the exhibit to a minimum and the focus on the animals.

The design was done by Rasbach Architekten in Oberhausen, Germany. I worked on this exhibit before I left Germany for the US. You can read more about the exhibit at zoo-lex.org.

Unique underwater cylinder with 360 degree viewing in an African Penguin exhibit by Martin

October 8th is African Penguin Awareness Day.  To celebrate this day I want to share a feature in an African penguin exhibit that brings visitors and penguins closer together: a unique 360 degree all-acrylic crawl-through viewing cylinder. You can experience this crawl-through cylinder at the recently opened Penguin Playhouse at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

wild-design was part of the design team with the architecture firm HHCP and Ripley's Entertainment in-house designers.
That modesty disclaimer out of the way: the tunnel is awesome! It's a one of a kind feature that offers lots of fun for kids (and adults - if they dare). Check it out yourself, or let me show it to you here.

Two penguins swimming over the all acrylic cylinder
This crawl-through cylinder is unique because there is no flat horizontal glass floor in the round tube. Usually walk-through or crawl-through cylinders have a flat floor. This absence of glass - and any other support structure - creates amazing transparency, as you can see on the photos. Only diving gets you closer to the animals.
Below is a photo looking back to the entry. I picked a couple photos without visitors to show you how transparent the tunnel is.
The acrylic floor feels softer and warmer than glass, which makes it better for crawling on, and because the floor is chemically bonded it doesn't have any joints i.e. there's no silicon edge along the glass seam. It is completely smooth and allows you to slouch down the wall towards the floor.
Kids slouching in tunnel
A few other details make this tunnel unique, but before I get to them, let me show you how this cylinder fits into the visitors' path through the exhibit.
If you follow the main visitor route, indicated by the orange arrow, you first encounter a large viewing panel, curved at one end and crowned by three large monitors at the other. Once you turn the corner to continue through the penguin exhibit, you can branch off into the crawl-through cylinder; marked here by a small red arrow.

I took this short clip from the main window. First you see the above water view into the exhibit then the camera dips down below the water level pointing towards the crawl-through cylinder.
Here the underwater view as a photo:
The bright reflection on the cylinder is not visible from inside it
Most adults won't see the cylinder from here because their eye level is too far above water level, while kids eyes are usually right around the water's surface. The path slopes slightly down to increase the water depth and allows adults a better view into the pool.
When they turn the corner visitors can leave the main visitor path and enter into the crawl-through cylinder thereby entering a secondary path. Mostly children do it; and this is where they can explore, have an adventure on their own, but still interact with the adults on the main path.

The interaction between the child and adult happens when a kid pops up in the vertical cylinder at the end of the crawl-through cylinder and, of course, they get a great close up view of penguins.
Children popping up in the middle of the exhibit next to penguins
Parents taking photos of their kids in the pop-up cylinder (orange arrow)
From a different angle during a keeper talk
From the pop-up cylinder the kids continue through another underwater viewing tunnel.
Children crawling along another penguin viewing tunnel

Kids looking at penguins above them
This second crawl-through tunnel is a candy-cane shaped acrylic panel that offers a 90-degree view to the pool. It is located on the penguin's fastest route between their nesting ground and the pool, therefore sightings of overhead penguin crossings are common. Here you can see what the children above are looking at:

The bird above is ready to hop out and is standing in about 2.5 inches (6cm) of water.
When the wave machine is off, as during the keeper talk, the water is so calm that you can watch the talk from underneath the water.
Children watching the keeper talk from underwater
Penguins standing on acrylic panel

The children's path ends here and merges with the main path.

I will continue this narrative and why this tunnel is unique with more details in a follow-up post.

Meanwhile, and in celebration of African Penguin Awareness Day, I'd like to promote a couple of links that fit the occasion.

At the WAZA website (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) you can find out what zoos and aquariums are doing to help African Penguins.

In South Africa, the penguin's native habitat, SANCOOB is helping these birds with a multitude of projects in close coordination with zoos and aquariums around the world. SANCOOB stands for Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.
The life-story of Mrs. Althea Louise Burman Westphal, co-founder of SANCCOB, makes a great read.

Celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day by Martin

Today, September 3rd, is International Vulture Awareness Day. What a great idea to celebrate these (partially) critically endangered birds with a day of their own!
Zoos, bird parks, rehabilitation centers, rescue stations and vulture lovers around the world are doing their part to raise awareness.
What can I do to mark this day?
I can show you how vultures are presented to the public in zoos.

I've never designed a vulture exhibit, so I decided to search my photo archives for examples of exhibits and I compiled my findings in this blog entry. The example exhibits shown below are from around the world emphasizing the "International" aspect of  the International Vulture Awareness Day.
Large aviaries are the most prevalent, sometimes with a walk-through path for the visitor. I also found an open top exhibit with barrier moats.

The first example is from a zoo in Southern Germany presenting a commission of Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus).

Visitor view from close up.
The visitor path winds up the hill giving you another view of the exhibit from a higher vantage point.
In this photo I found the birds hard to see and I therefore marked them with arrows below.

There are five birds in the photo. Clicking the photo will enlarge it.

The Griffon vulture aviary as seen from a distance.

click on sign to enlarge
The sign gives the visitors basic facts about the birds. It also informs them that the birds once roamed these lands.
European zoos have played and are playing a vital role in reintroducing several vulture species into southern Europe. But, I can't remember any zoo that I visited in Europe bragging with large signage about it, in fact, I feel they are a bit too shy about their good work.

The next photos are from one of the vulture exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park near Escondido in California. Fittingly, the park exhibits the California Condor (gymnogyps californianus).

 I like the transparency of the net fencing - and: what a great vista!
This photo shows the exhibit from further back. The visitor deck is raised, allowing visitors to be closer to birds that are perched higher up.
A detail of  the California Condor exhibit at San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Above a view into the exhibit as seen from the visitor deck. The birds have tree snags, water, and animal skeletons.
Sign at the visitor deck
The California Condor is one of the zoo's success stories when it comes to breeding and reintroducing animals into their native habitat; to quote from the San Diego Zoo's website:

The San Diego Zoo Global is a leading partner in the efforts to save the California condor. In 1982, 22 birds remained in the wild. At that time, the San Diego Zoo was given permission to begin the first zoological propagation program for California condors. The program also involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo. Thanks to the conservation breeding program, within 25 years the population of California condors grew to more than 300 birds.

You can read the full article here: http://www.sandiegozoo.org/conservation/animals/birds/three_decades_of_the_condor/
And another interesting article from their web site:

Crossing the Pacific to Japan, I found photos I took of a vulture exhibit at the Tama Zoo near Tokyo. The exhibit is quite large and round in shape allowing for the birds to fly in a circular pattern.
A turkey vulture circling around the tree at the center of the exhibit at the Tama Zoo.
A photo from a different angle.
The tree snag in the center is packed with five different species of birds of prey, not just vultures:
Mixed birds of prey exhibit at the Tama Zoo, Japan.

Below is a photo of the most colorful vulture, a king vulture (Sarcorhamphus papa) on display at the National Aviary . The National Aviary, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, isn't funded or run by the U.S. government, like the National Zoo in Washington D.C.is. Given that they have quite an exotic bird collection the epithet "National" is something of a misnomer on that end too. The king vulture's name, however, is dead on:
At this exhibit the barrier of choice between visitor and vultures is glass, allowing for net-free photos.

There is some edifice behind the exhibit, which is thankfully hidden from view by the wood wall. The lush and tropical planting fits to the exotic character of the birds and to their preferred habitat of tropical lowland forests.

Besides taking net-free photos, glass allows you to get very close to the animal. The photo below is from a vulture exhibit at the Amersfoort Zoo in Holland.
Here the same photo un-cropped:
The transparency of this glass barrier works particularly well here because the visitor is in a dark, shaded place that doesn't create reflection onto the glass pane. In fact it worked so perfectly in places that I can imagine visitors occasionally running into the glass (and birds might too).
The theming and the placement of the glass further helped to disguise and conceal the barrier, as you can see in this photo:
Below, a different view of the same exhibit.
Carcasses are scattered on the floor:
A glass barrier needs to be clean and free of reflection for it to serve its purpose. Fortunately, both can be controlled. A designer will go to great lengths to prevent reflection in most circumstances. Clean glass might be largely a management issue, but the designer can help by making cleaning the glass easier and thereby likelier through easy accessibility. Despite the fact that there was quite a lot of glass in this exhibit, it was spanking clean the day I was there. The photo below shows how reflection creates distraction along the visitor sight-line.

Reflection on glass barrier
This is not to say that this was a design gaffe - on the contrary, the exhibit worked great from the visitors' point of view - but the photo allows me to show rather then to tell about one of the downsides of glass: reflection.
The other disadvantage of glass is a psychological aspect: although visually pleasing, glass creates quite a disconnect from the animal even if one stands nose to nose with the animal. I experienced this once with a tiger and once with a gorilla. In both cases I saw the animals through the glass as a visitor ;there were just inches between me and the animals, and then I stepped behind the scene with a keeper to see the back holding area where cages and chutes consisted of metal bars. When the animals came up, I took notice and stepped back.
It was scary and impressive; the animals appeared stronger, bigger, and wilder - gone was the cuddly kitty, instead I was faced with a wild tiger. This transformation happened in my head, the animals were the same, whether behind glass or behind bars, and quite uninterested in me. Anybody that has gone to a zoo with a public training wall at a tiger exhibit where you can come close to the animal knows what I am talking about.
The bottom line of this digression, as the photos from Amersfoort Zoo show, glass is a great barrier but it has its shortcomings.

Back to International Vulture Awareness Day and how these birds are displayed in zoos:

The Living Desert Museum in Southern California has a walk through aviary which allows you to see the birds with no barrier between you and them.
The sign reads "PLEASE STAY ON PATH"
There is a little stone bench in the lower right corner of the photo. How much closer can you get to these animals?
Above: A black turkey vulture (Coragyps atratus) looking down at me where I'm standing on the visitor path.

A completely different concept in displaying vultures is the open top exhibit in the next example. This exhibit is situated in the African Woods section of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The birds are confined by a ha-ha and some wire fencing, both mostly hidden from public view. The photos here are about ten years old; by now the exhibited species might have changed - if not the exhibit itself.
At the time of my visit they had Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) on display. The downside of this type of exhibit is that you need to clip the birds' feathers to keep them from taking off; and another potential disadvantage is that other birds can enter the enclosure, which might lead to fighting or to high blood pressure in the vet department.
In the photo above the Griffon vultures have company from one heron and two turkey vultures.
Since it is quite common to see several vulture species around one carcass I guess it just got more educational  - but how to do you explain Old World and New World vultures in one exhibit? Does the visitor even care? For the visitor the enclosure becomes more colorful and more active...
I remember the display as beautiful and effective from my visitor vantage point. What made it even more interesting was that I could see antelopes behind the exhibit; it was one spectacular habitat display. I wish I had a photo of  the vultures with the antelopes in the background; instead I found a photo I took in Kenya that reminded me of this exhibit:
A venue of vultures in front of a herd of wildebeests.
When it comes to zoo design: Let nature be the guide.

Summing up: I was impressed by the diversity of displays with which zoos raise appreciation for vultures. Creating aviaries large enough for these birds to fly takes up a lot of land and I was wondering, couldn't you make the most of the real estate by adding ground dwelling animals to the display?
I did a search for mixed vulture exhibits and found two amazing exhibits at ZooLex.org
The first one is located at Nordhorn Zoo in northern Germany where they mix Griffon vultures with an Ibex herd (Capra ibex).
Mixed species exhibit at Nordhorn Zoo. ©Wolfgang Salzert, 2005
Visitors can enter the exhibit and view the birds from behind a railing. Here is a link to more photos and a thorough description of the exhibit:

The Nature and Animal Park Goldau, in Switzerland, mixes bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) with snow hares (Lepus timidus). How cool can you get?
Snow hare ©Tierpark Goldau, 2005. Photo from ZooLex.org
Bearded vulture exhibit at Goldau ©Monika Fiby, 2005. Photo from ZooLex.org
More photos of this exhibit and a lot of useful information (cost and size of the exhibit, etc.) can be found at:  http://www.zoolex.org/zoolexcgi/view.py?id=788

Finally, two links I highly recommended for further reading.
Peter Dickenson writes about the dangers vultures are facing in the wild:
The founders of the International Vulture Awareness Day put a site up where you can find out what zoos and other organizations are doing to celebrate this day. Sign up and participate at:

For this blog entry I wanted to know what a group of vultures is called. Here is what I found:
"Wake, committee, or venue"  from wikipedia.org
"Wast, committee, meal, vortex, venue and even wake"   from wiki.answers.com
"Vultures circling in the air are a Kettle" from vulturesociety.homestead.com
Vulture illustration by Laura Hamilton