Zoos are turning toward natural habitat exhibits

By Stefanie Frith The Asociated Press
Tuesday July 02, 2002

SAN DIEGO — A funny thing happens when you put an animal in a more natural setting. It acts naturally. 

When the San Diego Zoo used this advertising campaign a few years back to promote a new tiger exhibit, they led a nationwide zoo trend. 

Only now though, are zoos around the country are receiving the time, money and space to complete the projects that began more than 25 years ago. 

And San Diego is once again adding to the trend with another habitat, this time for the monkeys. They plan to finish the project by 2003, thanks to some recent grants and private donations. 

“Zoos in places like Baltimore and of course San Diego are putting mixed species in natural habitats,” said Jane Ballentine, spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. “No longer are people seeing a jaguar in an iron cage. Now zoos show that he can climb trees and sleep up there.” 

In the last couple years, zoos in El Paso, Texas, Denver and San Francisco have received millions of dollars from voter-approved bond measures. Officials said this money is going toward placing their animals in natural habitats. 

“In 1995 we opened a new Asian section,” said El Paso Zoo spokesman Hector Montes. “This new bond issue will help build a section for African animals and will approximately double the size of the zoo.” A new marine mammal exhibit is also underway. 

Denver Zoo spokeswoman Angela Baier said a $62.5 million bond was passed in 1999, helping the zoo to raise part of a $125 million plan to start work on natural habitats. 

“We have many natural habitat exhibits already but we plan to revitalize all the exhibits and make them more lush and more naturalistic,” Baier said. “The exhibits will look like predator and prey are together, but they will actually be separated” by moats and walls and glass. 

Richard Lattis, the senior vice president at the Bronx Zoo in New York, said his zoo is always looking for ways to evolve. Tiger Mountain will open in 2003. 

“When we opened (in the late 1800s), there weren’t natural habitat exhibits,” said Lattis, who also is the director of living institutions for the Wildlife Conservation Society that oversees the zoos and aquarium in New York. “But over the years we have been moving toward fewer species in more natural settings. Most zoos are.” 

The move toward more natural habitats for zoo animals actually started in the late 1970s after researchers such as Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees and other animals live as families, not alone as researchers once believed. 

And where it was once thought that being able to hose down cement cells was best for the animal, researchers found it healthier for them to be placed in settings that simulated the African savannah, mountains and jungles. 

Alan Sironen, a mammal curator at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, said the Internet has also spurred this change. 

“People can search (the Internet) about these animals and see an animal at a watering hole in Africa,” he said. “So they want to see that at zoos, too. They don’t want to see them in cages.” 

San Diego Zoo spokesman Ted Molter agreed, adding that when he was growing up, his classmates made fun of him for knowing the 19 different kinds of penguins. 

“These days though, it’s not surprising that kids would know something like that,” Molter said, strolling proudly through the zoo. “With the Internet, kids can really make that connection. So it’s important that we are helping to educate even further at the zoo.” 

The move into natural habitats is also helping animals to reproduce and decrease boredom, said Patrick Janikowski, a Seattle architect who helped design Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom, the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and the Los Angeles Zoo. 

“There has been a decrease in pacing,” Janikowski said. “And a mixed species environment adds to the enrichment of the animal’s life. Every zoo would like to do natural habitats. It’s money that is the problem.” 

Jon Coe, a zoo architect in Philadelphia who worked on natural habitats at zoos in Philadelphia, Detroit, and South Carolina, said he has seen the habitats change animal behavior. 

“The gorillas in the exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo had chronic diarrhea but once they were moved, that went away and their coats got better,” Coe said. 

Zoo experts acknowledge some drawbacks to natural habitats. For example, the more foliage, rocks and caves in exhibits, the more places there are for animals to hide. 

“The other is that tigers really like playing with balls. So do you give them a ball after you have spent all this money on their natural environment?” Lattis said. “But really, we are just looking at whatever we can do for the animal.” So zoos have compromised with the animals, designing toys that look like logs and rocks. 

Molter agreed, as he watched families scramble to spot two tiger cubs hiding behind a rock. 

“Sometimes, the animals want to get away and that’s good for them,” he said, his voice drowned out by the sound of waterfalls from a nearby exhibit. “They feel safe this way and that’s better for their mental and physical being.” 

In the meantime, a cub popped his head above the rock and the crowd laughed and cheered. 

“I think they know how good they have it,” Molter said. 

But it wasn’t clear if he was talking about the animals, or the people.