As the public’s concern about animal welfare grows, so does its view of the places where wild creatures are easiest to see up-close and live: zoos and aquariums. Will we still be able — or want to — see lions and polar bears on display in the future? And if so, how will that experience change? This week, we’ve asked people who know a lot about those sites to address those questions. Ron L. Kagan, the executive director of the Detroit Zoo, argued Tuesday that animals’ needs will eclipse those of visitors. You can read his piece here.
Today’s take comes from Stacey Ludlum, a senior zoological designer at a St. Louis-based design and architecture firm. You can read more of her writing at her blog, Designing Zoos.
We are at a precipice of a major evolution in zoos as we know them. In recent years, progressive, thought-leading zoos have already begun to lead the transition from a recreation-centered, wholesome fun family experience to what could be described as a conservation experience — one that is also very fun. Although many zoos have long viewed on-site and off-site conservation programs and research as essential to their core, we will be seeing these programs taking on a much higher level of import to the day-to-day workings of zoos.
As visitors, we will see this subtle shift translated into a physical manifestation that prioritizes a higher level of conservation education and awareness. Every experience at the zoo will be created through the lens of teaching visitors about conservation — especially conservation that the zoo itself is leading. We will see the zoo experience as essentially a visitors’ center for a conservation organization: a place where we are immersed in the brand of conservation.
Exactly what does this mean in terms of the design of zoos? Today, most zoos aspire to present a broad diversity of the world’s animals in naturalistic habitats that provide opportunities for animals to make choices in their environments. However, this diversity is limiting in terms of available space and in the depth of education provided to the guests.
Future zoos will be much more selective in their animal collection, choosing species that are especially suited to the climatic conditions, the staff expertise and the individual zoo’s conservation mission. Exhibits will be larger, more varied, provide flexibility for the staff to change environments and social groups and allow a variety of educational interaction opportunities. Guests will be taken deeper into the stories of the animals, how the zoo cares for them and what the zoo is doing on site and in nature to protect them.
Zoos have long been a reflection of the relationship between animals and society, and they have evolved over hundreds of years to become what they are today. Zoos will continue to evolve but will always be a critical aspect of society: places where people and animals meet face to face; places where people fall in love with wildlife.