Back to Nature

October 2018

By Kate Silver

Zoos and Aquariums Immerse Visitors in Local Nature

When you think of a zoo and you think of a nature center, two very different images probably come to mind. But what if you blended those concepts? What if a zoo, beyond the crowd-pleasing giraffes and regal big cats, also has spaces immersed in local flora and fauna, where visitors could learn about—and even hike among—animals in their own backyard?

Ace Torre, president of Torre Design Consortium, Ltd., an architecture, landscape architecture and graphic design firm in New Orleans, La., and an Association of Zoos and Aquariums commercial member that creates zoological master planning and exhibit designs, said that more organizations that include AZA members, local non-profits and governmental agencies are working to immerse visitors in their natural surroundings.

“Historically, various facilities competed against each other. You had a nature center, you had a zoo, you had a wildlife refuge, as opposed to a coordinated effort of one being an extension to the other,” he said.

Now, AZA-accredited facilities are blending the local flora and fauna into their facilities and taking guest out to explore the wonders of their local environments.

Making Guests a Part of the Landscape

When The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens was founded nearly 50 years ago, golf courses, subdivisions and resorts were taking over the surrounding Coachella Valley of Palm Desert, Calif. In building a desert-themed zoo and garden, the founder’s goal was to protect and preserve the land so that future visitors could experience the desert as it had always been. “Without the habitats, you aren't going to have any place for the plants or animals,” said Allen Monroe, president and chief executive officer of The Living Desert.

The Living Desert is home to desert animals from around the world. But in addition to the exhibits with giraffes and cheetahs and camels, the Zoo offers visitors opportunities to hike through the craggy landscape of the Colorado desert for a full immersion. There are three different hiking loops that range from wide, gravel paths to steep trails with rock scrambling. Walkers and hikers can smell the desert plants and watch roadrunners chase lizards, while reading interpretive signs that share insights about the geology, animals and history of the area.

Monroe said that the hiking trails carry out the Zoo’s mission of desert conservation through preservation, education and appreciation by making guests a part of the landscape. “Most zoo experiences are passive. You're walking on a concrete pathway and you're strolling by a habitat that you look at, but you aren’t a part of,” he said. “These kinds of natural preserves get people out into nature. It makes it much more intimate, and there are no barriers between you and the experience.”

Working With Community Partners

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, is practically inseparable from the natural resources around it. The facility, which consists of three buildings and a dredge boat, perches on a stretch of the Mississippi River that doubles as a wildlife refuge. It’s the perfect launching point to educate visitors on the many species living in the Mississippi River, inform them about the river’s impact on other waterways and involve them in the Aquarium’s conservation efforts, said Jared McGovern, senior education manager at the Aquarium.

One of those endeavors revolves around fresh water mussels, in particular, an endangered mussel called the Higgins’ eye pearly mussel, which live together at river’s bottom. There, they form a physical structure with their shells that becomes its own ecosystem: algae grow on the shells and attracts insects, which attract fish, some of which breed on the mussel beds.

Their population has suffered from over-harvesting, pollution, sediment and other man-made threats. The Aquarium, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Genoa National Fish Hatchery and Iowa Department of Natural Resources, is working to raise freshwater mussels, and area high school students are helping by designing propagation systems for the mollusks. “They’re learning about invasive species. They’re learning about landscape design and best management practices within watersheds. They’re learning about diversity and dichotomy, water quality and chemistry, as well as the natural history of an animal that is not that charismatic megafauna that most people think of, like a giraffe or a panda or a rhino that you see in the news all the time,” said McGovern. “It’s an animal that looks like a rock.” Since 2010, more than 60,000 juvenile mussels have been recovered from cages at the harbor and released into rivers across the Midwest. 

By involving students and visitors in this effort, McGovern hopes to make a lasting impact. “If you get them into the field and you get them into the resource and they’re actively participating in these resource initiatives, that’s when you get to enact behavioral changes in people,” he said. “They start to actually take action in their community and they see firsthand the successes of some of the things many like-minded individuals, many conservationists in our area are doing.”

Using Natural Geology

The Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., frequently draws in visitors who’ve been hiking desert trails around the region. And when they see the Zoo’s bighorn sheep exhibit, it takes them right back to those hikes.

“They say this looks exactly like what I saw, the bighorn sheep out in the wild,” said Bert Castro, president and chief executive officer of the Zoo. That’s because natural beauty is a part of the Phoenix Zoo. To see the bighorn sheep, visitors walk about a quarter-mile through native, natural desert landscape. Before them, two natural buttes that formed millions of years ago rise about 80 feet in the air, right within the exhibit, creating a native playground. “The sheep are climbing the buttes so it’s naturally keeping their feet and hooves trimmed, it’s giving them great exercise, they’ve got tremendous space,” said Castro.

The desert setting is good for their health and welfare, and that’s what visitors want to see these days, said Castro. “The whole idea of seeing animals in cold cages is just not acceptable, and zoos have really evolved since those days. Standards are higher now.” He adds that by taking advantage of its resources, the Zoo saved money it may have otherwise spent on creating an elaborate setting. Plus, it’s a chance to educate people about its conservation efforts with an animal that lives right there in its own community. “It’s like watching them in the wild.” 

Devising Active Experiences

Dotted with forests, lakes and wetlands, a trip to the Minnesota Zoo is, literally, a stroll through nature. Recently, Zoo Director John Frawley saw the potential to connect people even more to that natural world. The Zoo, which is 500 acres and adjacent to a 2,000-acre park, put out a request for proposals and is exploring how to give visitors a more immersive experience at the facility. Frawley tosses out a few ideas: campsites, cabins, rock climbing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, ziplines and ropes courses. Whatever they do, Frawley said it will be “uniquely zoo.” A hike at the Zoo, for example, will be different than a hike at a park, he said. “Maybe at the half mile mark, somebody meets a porcupine, and maybe at the mile mark you meet a beaver. You know, they are nature’s engineers of our wetlands.”

Frawley said the new focus is a way to build upon the traditional zoo business model by appealing to new demographics and creating new products and partnerships (he gives the examples of outdoor clothing companies and natural food products), which also opens up opportunities for revenue

One day, zoos could even have an impact on the health of visitors, said Frawley. They could offer a pathway to physical activity and an antidote to stress, away from our many screens. “I think there’s going to be a big effort and a really big need to have fun ways to connect with nature, and I think zoos could play a big role in that.”

Stacey Ludlum, director of zoo, aquarium planning and design with AZA commercial member PGAV Destinations, gets excited when she thinks about the future of zoo and aquarium design. That’s because she believes that zoos and aquariums have the power to be, what she calls, “the spiritual center of conservation.” They can be a resource where people go when they want to get involved in conservation efforts, or they can be a place of recreation, where guests can hike and talk to a naturalist about the surrounding ecology. In making those small changes, facilities have the power to appeal to a broader audience and make a greater impact. “I feel like if we engage people in a more meaningful way, in a different way related to these local species, that we’re going to see a bigger interest.” 

And that’s something that can change lives—both human, and animal.

Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.



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