Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Interview with a Zoo Designer

I’ve always wondered about how to design a zoo and what you have to do to become a zoo designer. Stacey Tarpley of Designing Zoos is an expert in this area and she agreed to answer a few of our questions about zoo enclosure design. Many thanks to Stacey for sharing her experiences and thoughts on zoo design.

ZT: To begin with could you please give a brief description: who are you and what do you do? What software or tools do you use most frequently?

Stacey: I am a self-titled Zoological Designer at PGAV [Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets, Inc]. I am not an architect, nor a landscape architect, nor an interior designer, nor an interpretive designer; however, I do all of these things. I work with institutions--be it zoos, aquariums, museums, theme parks, resorts--who have live animals in captivity. I concept big ideas for new parks, new regions within a park, new exhibits, and even just new interpretives within an exhibit. I draw by hand, I use Photoshop sometimes, and I put together drawings in AutoCad (although these days, my time spent in AutoCad is far less than when I first started). I spend a lot of time with our clients--the zookeepers, the educators, the administrators, and in-house design teams. We work together as a team to find the best, most creative solution to the design problem at hand.

zoo designer

ZT: Sounds like you do a little bit of everything! How did you get involved with zoo design? What fuels your passion for zoo enclosure design?

This was a self-initiated journey! I realized that I wanted to design zoos and aquariums after a high school trip to the Rio de Janeiro Zoo, which was (is?) an extremely old-school and depressing place--rows upon rows of concrete cages with steel bars holding anything and everything from a tapir to tiger. I was moved to tears and realized I wanted to make sure no animals in captivity were subjected to such conditions. I went to Michigan State University and majored in Zoology with a specialization in Zoos and Aquariums (great program--Go Green!), and met a zoo designer, Tony Bauer, in one of the classes. He got me a summer job at the Binder Park Zoo as a construction leader for the wonderful Africa section there--digging holes by hand, hauling telephone poles through the woods in pairs. Another summer in undergrad, I was lucky enough to spend interning at the Cincinnati Zoo in their exhibits department where I learned how to make artificial vines from epoxy and had my first lesson in rock work. After undergrad, I went to North Carolina State University for a master's degree in landscape architecture. Most of my projects involved zoos, much to the chagrin of my profs! My master's thesis was on the adaptive reuse of the Elephant barn at National Zoo. I was hired by PGAV directly out of grad school, and the rest is history!

ZT: I’m familiar with theme park design but I suspect zoo design presents its own unique challenges. How does zoo design differ from a theme park? How do you design an exhibit centered around a living, breathing creature?

This is probably completely controversial...but the main difference between theme park design (involving animals) and zoo design is the end-goal. Although many theme parks with animals are very supportive and active in conservation and education, the main goal of any theme park is to make money. Zoos (by and large) are non-profit, and although money is essential to existence, the driving force behind the design is generally not revenue driven--its education driven. This is not to say theme parks are evil! It simply means their approach to design has a slightly different slant. Fun, fun, fun is the driver. Guests want fun; we give them fun; they come through the doors. The more people through the doors, the more revenues. That is and has been the theme park mantra forever. But really, there is nothing wrong with that. Zoos and aquariums are slowly coming to realize that, in fact, their main goal is getting people through the doors, too, although their prime incentive is to educate more people, rather than to drive revenues (but, increased attendance is also helpful for their bottom line as well). Because of this, zoos and aquariums are beginning to take cues from theme parks. Exhibits are fully thematic. Many zoos and aquariums have flashy shows. Interaction opportunities with animals are becoming more and more common. Fun things are getting injected into the zoo experience! Look for ziplines, exhibits with rides, elevated food experiences. So, really, there isn't much difference. It’s just understanding where on the scale Education v. Fun each client is most comfortable.

ZT: That makes sense but it must be extremely difficult for a zoo designer to effectively satisfy the needs of the visitors and the animals. I imagine larger exhibits, while maybe better for the animals, make it harder for the paying customers to see them.

It’s a constant challenge. Zoo and aquarium design, I believe, is the most difficult of any design discipline due to the fact that we have to balance the needs of 3 user groups, rather than a typical 1 or 2 users. We have to think about both guest and animal, but also the staff (primarily keepers) as they must be able to work efficiently in order to keep the animals healthy and happy and support the guest experience. Everyone on the design team brings their bias to their user group with the client generally representing the animal and keeper, and the designers representing the guest. However, as designers we must be aware that we are actually the representatives of all three. If one outweighs the others in importance, then the exhibit will fail. So much depends on the ability of the staff to do their work and to commit to using an exhibit in a certain way (ie animals may need to be rotated throughout various enclosures; use of enrichment devices; commitment to keeper talks, etc) that we cannot overlook their needs. Obviously the needs of the animals are key--we want them to be active and engaging, and long-lived. And, of course, the guest is the reason the exhibit exists at all. Without guests, zoos would look much, much different. In fact, most of the "prettiness" of exhibits is for the guest, not for the animals. Animals' needs, mental and physiological, can generally be meet in spaces that do not look nice. But, since the guest perception is so important in what we do, we have to ensure that exhibits feel comfortable to us and look lush and natural in order to appear to--from the guest perspective--meet the needs of the animals. And like you pointed out, if we were to only care about the animals' needs, we'd simply fence in a forest and guests would rarely see the animals! So, it's a balancing act of meeting everyone's needs--finding solutions that work for all. And its something that is not a simple black and white...its a lot of trial and error--we learn from every success and failure.

ZT: Wow, that’s a perspective I’ve never thought about before and the majority of zoo visitors probably don’t realize all of the factors that go into zoo exhibit design.  Beyond zoo enclosure design, what’s been the most challenging project you’ve worked on and why?

Any time we are working on a fully new park, it's a challenge. Zoos and theme parks are so complex! Everything affects each other. And, you can't just say, I'll put an exhibit here. We have to look at specifically what kind of exhibit it is, which means we have to research many species all at once. We have to learn the behavior of the animals, benchmark against other exhibits, look into regulations, etc. for many exhibits, not just one or two. That's a challenging juggling act. At the same time, we have to look at visitor circulation, revenue generation, guest support (restrooms, etc) and how all of these tie into service access. Another wholly different challenge is working outside the country. The US, Europe, and Australia are truly light years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of husbandry / exhibitry for captive animals, and anytime we work with an organization whose organizational philosophy about captive animals is so different from our own, it's a great personal, ethical challenge. But we always have to remind ourselves that any improvement, is an improvement.

ZT: Do you have any advice for anyone wishing to pursue a career in zoo design? Anything you wish you had known earlier that you know now?

I always say the same thing: get your degree in zoology, then get a design degree in either architecture or landscape architecture. You have to blaze your own path, create your own curriculum as there are no programs specific to zoo design. Every project that you are able to choose your own topic should be about zoos. Every job shadow or internship should be at a zoo. Learn everything there is to learn about zoos as a whole, not just design. I wish I had realized that I would be doing so much building design (my degree is landscape architecture)--then I'd have taken a few architectural classes or even gotten my architectural degree, too!

ZT: Great advice! I have to ask, do you have a favorite zoo? A favorite animal or exhibit?

This is not just blowing smoke, as they are one of my clients right now, but I am truly impressed by Columbus Zoo. They are far ahead of the curve...they are not afraid to take risks, to learn from other institutions (not only zoos, but theme parks, sanctuaries, etc), and understand what it takes to get the message across to the general public. The zoo itself has some dated exhibits, but generally, it is very modern, thematic, educational (without the heavy text!), and super fun!

zoo exhibit design

I'm partial to the felids. I'm a cat person. And I have to say, the cats have been somewhat overlooked in terms of innovative exhibitry. There are few good ones out there (Disney's Animal Kingdom Tigers is my hands-down favorite exhibit), but generally the big cats (and small ones too!) are ripe for a revamp trend akin to polar bears and elephants.


ZT: Columbus Zoo is my “home zoo” and one of my favorites too! I can’t wait to see what the designers come up with for the Safari Africa expansion - the expectations around here are sky high for this most anticipated attraction. Thanks again to Stacey for giving us a wonderful peek into the world of zoo design. You can read more at her site Designing Zoos.