Vertical Living Hits Zoos

Tigers need space, too!

For years, zoos have been trending from distinct exhibits to larger, safari-style setups, and the new model of overhead pathways are a major part of this transition to more flexible habitats.

Connective "trails," somewhat inspired by the Swiss animal behaviorist and zoo reformer Heini Hediger (who died in 1992), are also a necessity these days. It's difficult for zoos to expand—especially in urban areas, Terry Maple, professor of animal behavior at Florida Atlantic University tells the Wall Street Journal. The result is good for everyone: Animals are happier, visitors get amped up to see them happier (and they return more often), and zoos make money as attendance rises.

So if you head to the Philadelphia Zoo, you'll see primates such as monkeys and lemurs crawling through mesh tubes above your head. At the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida, tigers traverse the zoo in enclosed pathways, also overhead, before descending into their separate habitats.

What's most fabulous about this trend is that it simply lets animals roam. For many animals, especially larger mammals, wandering through territory is an essential part of their behavior—they need to be able to make their way from one environment to another, and the routes they take are just as important as the destination.

Zoos do their best to replicate an animal's natural habitat—but roaming all over the place isn't, for obvious reasons, feasible. Yet the more animals can act as they would in the wild, the happier and healthier they will be.

That said, zoos are set up for people: Walkways, bathrooms, exhibits, and concessions are all designed to create pleasant routes for visitors to wander in. Animals are stuck in their cages. And no matter how much those cages resemble a wild habitat, they are still cages. Animals are stuck there.

Thank goodness zoo designers are finally changing things up. Just as cities (long ago) realized they have to build vertically, zoo designers have begun to do the same. Animals now have their private routes in and out of more varied environments. For animals that typically spend more time in trees, those netted paths are about as close as you can get to letting them swing around among the branches. Also important: Animals get more control over their position relative to people and other animals. This is key because most animals, especially predators (say, big cats in the Jacksonville and Philadelphia Zoos), like to survey their surroundings. And now they can. All of this creates serendipity, too. Say you're walking to the Dippin' Dots stand, and all of a sudden an elephant tramples by above you. How cool is that?

From a design perspective, the trend creates new elements that may or may not be to our taste, but which are geared to helping out the animals. The Denver Zoo's elephant bridge has the old-timey look of a covered bridge in Vermont or Pennsylvania. And the Jacksonville Zoo uses a replica of a strangler fig, a muscular vine that wraps around trees, as the model for its big cat crossing.

[H/T Wall Street Journal]

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4 Comments

  • A different, but related, approach involves "layering" different species' habitats, with an awareness of animal behavior keeping animals in check.

    For instance, at the Adelaide Zoo (Australia), monkeys are allowed to inhabit trees overhanging many incompatible species' enclosures (including human areas). Zoo designers knew these monkeys never like to "drop" more than six feet, keeping them safe but without fences.

    Combining habitats with compatible species, like monkeys with Tapirs, is another way to multiply the amount of room available to animals.

  • saurabhinhyd

    Why not create a zoo where animals can roam free, instead of restricting them to a pre-decided route., and humans walk in a secure tube? Just like in the Underwater World in Singapore.

  • Great reply @SAURABHINHYD. I would go even a step further and say all zoos should be closed and banned. The only reason to ever keep an animal in captivity is for rehabilitation or if that animal cannot survive on its own in the wild. "Design or build a better zoo" is oxymoronic.