Awash by the sights and sounds of a tropical rainforest or arid desert vistas, today’s zoos and aquariums are more immersive than ever before. Thanks to creative design, mixed-species habitats are engineered with a sense of balance—something all attractions can incorporate into future expansions.
In the wilds of Africa, animals like antelopes, rhinos, and elephants live together, roaming grasslands. Zoo Atlanta wanted to replicate that setting in its “African Savanna” habitat. The new multispecies exhibit, which opens this summer, provides a habitat for zebras, giraffes, and ostriches in a themed environment.
“Animals thrive in conditions when they can interact with other species,” explains Jennifer Mickelberg, Ph.D., vice president of collections and conservation at Zoo Atlanta. “Mixed-species habitats are something zoos have been striving to do; we’ve come a long way since single-species menageries in the 1970s.”
Creative mixed-species exhibits, found in aquariums and aviaries, also benefit human visitors, according to David Rice, corporate architect with the San Diego Zoo in California.
“It’s about adding interest; it’s adding layers,” he says. “These different zones add landscape and heighten your awareness.”
Room to Roam
Bringing animal species together and replicating interactions that might happen in the wild provide enrichment for both animals and visitors. The remodeled “African Savanna” habitat is part of a $50 million renovation at Zoo Atlanta. The footprint of the multispecies exhibit remains the same, but switching up the terrain provides more space to roam.
“You have to think about how the animals use their space in the wild and provide opportunities for them to display their natural habits,” Mickelberg explains.
The aviaries at the Denver Zoo allow visitors to observe both tree-nesting and ground-nesting birds in the same habitat, while other mixed-use habitats house kangaroos with emus and gerenuks with ground hornbills.
Like for guests who visit attractions, planners never want an animal’s world to be too static, explains Brian Aucone, senior vice president of animal care and conservation at the Denver Zoo.
“Moving from a single-species to a mixed-species environment adds a level of stimulus and complexity to their environment that is great for their mental health,” Aucone says. Housing the tufted deer and Japanese red-crowned cranes together in the “Asian Highlands” exhibit allowed the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo to combine two species that would coexist in the wild, notes animal curator Travis Vineyard.
“Creating these dynamic environments is good for animal welfare,” Vineyard explains. Room to roam can also be good for increased revenue that helps to further a zoo’s mission.
“When we do planning, we make decisions where revenue centers are located, how they will be dispersed, and how they will be integrated into the overall texture of the habitat,” Rice says. Large animals have a history of attracting crowds, he says.
“One of the nicer revenue points is associated with the elephants. They’re big animals in a big open space,” Rice says. Therefore, he believes it makes sense to place food and beverage locations and retail centers in higher traffic areas and pathway intersections but offers a warning.
“You never want all your revenue opportunities stacked up next to each other,” Rice suggests.
Animal Rotation Also Stimulates Humans
Keeping animals and humans moving is the idea behind rotational exhibits. Since not all species are suited to live together, like predators, some zoos will rotate species between different habitats at different times. While the animals benefit from switching enriching environments, human visitors may be puzzled by their favorite animal’s move.
“It can be confusing to see the lions in a habitat at one visit and hyenas in the same habitat on their next visit,” admits Aucone with the Denver Zoo.
To prevent guests from becoming bewildered, the zoo takes measures like those found at a theme park. Docents at the Denver Zoo actively interact with visitors at the mixed-species habitats. The zoo also created signs to explain the rotation concept.
In the “Predator Ridge” exhibit at the Denver Zoo, packs of spotted hyenas, African wild dogs, and African lions rotate through different habitats several times each week. The setup has proven stimulating for the animals.
“You can see them sniffing and scent marking,” Aucone says.
Each of the four mixed-species habitats at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo was designed around a central building to help facilitate animal care and rotate select animals. Rice says he believes these support facilities are essential to providing quality care to animals, while also caring for guests’ needs. Providing access to water, electric, and gas utility lines is important, along with safe vehicular traffic.
“Somebody needs to deliver the hot dog buns,” Rice says. “We’re separating the roads from the pedestrians because we want guests to be immersed in these habitats.”
Introductions and Additions
Creating a new successful habitat for multiple species is not without its challenges.
At Zoo Atlanta, the introduction process involves allowing animals separate access to explore the space, then slow introductions while separated by barriers, and short periods of combined access to the habitat before official integration. The Denver Zoo tests fecal samples for stress hormones to ensure animals are adjusting to the setting.
“We never set hard deadlines for when it needs to happen,” Zoo Atlanta’s Mickelberg explains. “We let animals guide the process.”
Rice knows there’s times animals won’t be visible and suggests adding other features that can captivate guests.
“There may be an associated exhibit like a bird aviary next to a gorilla exhibit, so if you don’t see the gorillas, you can see the birds,” he says. Other interpretive opportunities include adding waterfalls and sculpture. A sculpture of life-size gorillas at Rice’s facility has become a popular photo spot.
Mickelberg says she believes creating mixed-species habitats might also help zoos and aquariums achieve their conservation missions.
“Animal welfare is our No. 1 priority,” she says. “Many animals in our care are threatened by extinction. Most people will never get to the African savanna. Mixed-species habitats can give them the experience of what it might be like to see these animals in the wild, and, hopefully, that will inspire them to take action to save them.”
Little Spaces Take Big Plans
San Diego Zoo designs the next-generation zoo
This spring, the San Diego Zoo in southern California began construction on the new Sanford Children’s Zoo within its gates, set to open in 2022.
David Rice, corporate architect with the San Diego Zoo, designed the new 2-acre area to serve as a showcase for diverse habitats, along with providing adventurous and playful opportunities for young visitors. Four different biomes, or what Rice calls “loops,” include a design theory that will benefit parents.
“There’s what I call the front door. It identifies this is a children’s zoo, and then there is an entry hall,” he says.
The “front door” serves as the entry and exit—there’s only one way in and one way out, allowing parents the peace of mind that their child can roam without getting lost. A giant granite globe floating on water will serve as a central meeting place.
“If their kids are old enough, parents can sit in the entry plaza, and the kids can explore the loops. All roads lead back to that big globe, so parents can relax there,” Rice explains.
He’s designed a revenue center adjacent to the entry hall. A new food and beverage location can feed families or allow parents to grab a coffee and sit for a moment.
A desert, tropical forest, marsh, and temperate habitat will make up the four loops that utilize a network of bridges, boardwalks, and observation decks passing through a reptile house, invertebrate collections, and smaller animals.
“We’ve done what we could to add in extra layers, like ambient and natural sound to provide another sense. This way the guest is seeing and hearing,” Rice says. A new honeybee hive experience will include smells aimed at heightening the senses.
“Research says that you develop your empathy for nature in the first seven years of your life,” Rice says. “If children do not have any kind of a natural experience, they won’t learn to value the importance of preserving nature and animals in the wild.”
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based journalist who covers operational topics in the attractions industry for Funworld.
Funworld Managing Editor Scott Fais contributed to this story.