Zoo Design: Build A Habitat – Not An Enclosure

Rick Barongi, a previous long standing chair of the Honors and Awards committee at the AZA, was quoted in Naturalism, Animal Welfare, and the Evolution of Zoo Design (Boyle, K.E, 2017) stating that in order to build a good exhibit, you should build a “habitat” and not just an “enclosure”.

Barongi also suggested that there are three main factors to take into consideration when designing an exhibit; the animal, the visitors and the staff. When taking these three pillars into consideration, where is the line between a ‘habitat’ and an ‘enclosure’?

The Animals

Colchester Zoo, whom have won multiple awards for their exhibit designs, lists a number of important factors to consider for the animals when designing a habitat, such as the animals “behaviour, reproduction, habitat, feeding, and activity.” Returning to Naturalism, Animal Welfare, and the Evolution of Zoo Design, Rich Sartor, a curator at Phoenix Zoo, is quoted stating that an exhibit should be “challenging, interesting, they [the animals] engage with it.”

Habitats should contain enrichments and challenges that the animals would encounter in their natural environments in the wild to ensure good mental health. To build a habitat, you should consider elements that will encourage the natural behaviours and instincts of the animals.

To ensure physical health, the zoo designer should consider matters such as temperature, humidity, space and the animals day/night cycle. The physical abilities of the animal should be met with as little hazard as possible. The security of the exhibit is paramount, not only to protect the animals against pests and predators, but also to prevent the animal from escaping.

Jaguar food enrichment in tree

The Visitors

Exhibits should be visually pleasing to the visitor whilst also offering education regarding the conservation of the animals within. Studies have been conducted to find what aspects of exhibit designs have the highest impact on visitors.

According to Investigating the Influence of Zoo Exhibit Design on Visitor Empathy for Wildlife, a thesis by Grover, E.R (2018)zoo visitors perceived exhibit theming and props and animal habitat to contribute most to their empathy for wildlife.”

They also go on to state that “it may suffice for zoological institutions to focus their exhibit improvements on creating expansive and natural habitats for the animals,”

When exhibits are designed as a habitat, rather than an enclosure, it allows the visitors to feel more connected and empathetic towards the animals inside.

Zoo visitors observing a tiger inside its habitat

It goes without saying that animal visibility plays a huge role in guest happiness. Offering both indoor and outdoor areas can keep both the guests and the animals happy. Exhibit barriers should be taken into consideration to ensure an easy view into the habitat whilst also securing the animals. 

The Staff

Exhibits should be easy for the keepers and maintenance team to keep on top of. Staff safety is paramount when dealing with dangerous animals, careful consideration must be given when designing feeding stations. Sections should be prepared for housing dangerous animals during the cleaning process of the exhibit. Using materials that are easy to rinse down, and installing drainage in indoor areas or pools will allow for a much easier cleaning process for keepers.


Learn More

If you would like to learn how to make your exhibits look more natural and appealing to visitors using our ClearMesh, then feel free to contact us.