The Future Of Zoos Is Being Nice To The Animals–Not Making It Easy To Watch Them

Zoo exhibits are being redesigned for the animals’ physical and psychological well-being. As the trend continues, zoos may one day be unrecognizable.


For a decade, Winky and Wanda were the Detroit Zoo’s only Asian elephants. In the summer months they would kick around in the dirt of their limited outdoor enclosure. During Detroit’s long winters, they were confined indoors, their soft feet rarely leaving the hard concrete.


Then in 2004, during the early stages of a 20-year renovation plan, the Detroit Zoo made a difficult decision that was unusual at the time: Zoo officials decided to give up their prized elephants for the animals’ own good. “The resources we would need to do what elephants would require here just didn’t make sense,” says Scott Carter, the zoo’s chief life sciences officer. Off went Winky and Wanda—two of the zoo’s top attractions–to a wildlife sanctuary in California.

Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar

Zoos have come a long way from the unregulated concrete cages typical of early examples of modern zoos, especially as researchers come to understand more about the mental and physical needs of captive animals. Though the Detroit Zoo’s decision to find its elephants a new home is extreme, many zoos today are putting concerns about the well-being and happiness of their animals more front and center than in the past. This is reshaping how zoos are designed and, in some cases, drastically changing how the public views animals and what they experience during their visit.

“We have taken animals into captivity, we are making the decisions they should be making themselves–things like how they get their food and how they spend their time,” Carter says. “And now we are returning some of that decision making to them.”

Being a zoo designer is a job that reaches across fields. Many are trained architects, engineers, or landscape architects, but they are not usually biologists, so they’ll collaborate with keepers, ecologists, and specialists on exhibit designs. They take into account everything from the personality of the individual animals to the “story arc” as a visitor walks through an exhibit. The designers also have to make sure exhibits meet the USDA’s safety and welfare standards, which are required of all institutions that have animals on display, and the more stringent guidelines from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which detail exhibit specifications for accredited zoos and set the tone of modern zoo keeping philosophy. “These projects are very complex, so it helps to be able to apply these different disciplines seamlessly,” says Mario Campos, a partner at Jones & Jones, an architecture firm based in Seattle.

As zoo keeping philosophy changes to focus less exclusively on the experience of visitors, designers are creating new innovations that better suit the animals. They are giving polar bears more control of their environments to echo their natural behaviors, for example, allowing them to forage for their food in a series of drawers. Tigers and wolves are getting more space to roam, and monkeys are now living in troops with just the right number of individuals.

Elephants at the Detroit Zoo ca. 2004Flickr user The Last Cookie

What’s most important is removing animals’ stressors, but it’s not always easy to tell when an animal isn’t happy, says Julia Hanuliakova, a principal at Zoo Design, Inc. in Seattle. Since zoo animals can’t communicate verbally, keepers monitor their behavior for signs of distress and measure the amount of stress hormones in blood and excrement. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint just why an animal is stressed, and once an exhibit is built, keepers and designers can modify it only so much. Hanuliakova, like many designers, draws heavily upon past exhibit designs for particular species, working with behaviorists, scientists, and keepers to address stressful elements. “We need to make sure that we do better than last time,” she says.

The fundamental problem is more basic, however. Many stressors are directly at odds with the elements that make an exhibit enjoyable for visitors. For example, over the past decade, keepers have realized that almost all animals are stressed when they are always in the public eye. Animals constantly on display are robbed of their privacy, without the freedom to sleep or defecate undisturbed. “It’s not a great exhibit if the animal’s not there, but its psychological well-being depends on getting out of the public gaze,” says Marc Bekoff, an animal beahvior specialist and former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Other design elements that would ensure animals’ well-being are simply too costly for zoos to put in place, as was the case with Detroit’s elephants for which even 20 acres of space wouldn’t be enough. These are tough choices to make for a zoo, both as an institution focused on conservation, and as a business. “They are getting rid of money makers,” Bekoff says.

Flickr user belgianchocolate

Most experts agree that zoo design will continue to take more of the animal’s well-being into account—a shift from the focus on the human visitors for which zoos were created in the first place. “I believe that as a culture we want to be more responsible to nature and individual animals, so our zoos will reflect that,” Detroit’s Carter says. For Detroit—and many other zoos—that will likely mean bigger spaces and fewer species.

Some more progressive zoos will move more towards a sanctuary model, giving animals a lot of space to roam in less of a traditional exhibit. Others might start to only take in animals that are adapted to the local climate, Bekoff says. That means that only places like Detroit would house polar bears, not San Diego.

Courtesy Detroit Zoo

But as zoo regulatory organizations like the USDA and the AZA enforce stricter standards, some institutions may be unable to keep up the balancing act between the high costs of keeping animals happy with a good visitor experience. They may be forced to give up their big moneymakers or become a sanctuary just to stay afloat.

Though zoos have been considered conservation institutions for the past few decades, they will become more important as more habitats disappear, harboring species that may someday be reintroduced to the wild. But most zoo designers and administrators don’t want visitor experience to suffer as a result. Hanuliakova mentioned experiments with one-way glass so that animals can’t see that the public is watching them. Some zoos, such as the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, are starting to explore a virtual component, offering videoconferences for students to get to know its manatees.

Experts agree that zoos will continue to exist for many years to come and even though they may change in design and structure, their mission will remain the same. Says Don Moore, a senior scientist with the AZA: “If we’re going to have animals in zoos, we have to do the best we can do for those animals. But that doesn’t matter unless we can educate the public about the plight of these animals in the wild.”

About the author

Alex is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. She has contributed to Popular Science, The Atlantic, Motherboard, The Verge, and Audubon Magazine