Large natural exhibits are good for animal health but if animals are absent visitors can be disappointed. Through good design and animal husbandry strategies utilizing enrichment, a knowledge of animal behavior, exhibit organization and visitor expectations animals can be encouraged to be present at viewing areas, and when animals are not present, a carefully crafted visitor experience can entertain.
I was in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada for the annual CAZA conference a few weeks ago. For the Zoo Day we went to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve which is a unique and beautiful place where native animals of northern Canada roam in large habitats embraced by stunning backdrops of mountains, forests and sky. Most zoos don’t have the special landscape or perhaps the acreage however, zoos can take lessons from the large habitats at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.
To me what was surprising about the visit was how visible and active the animals were in the massive exhibits. The zoo encouraged animals to stay close to visitors using a combination of enrichment and an understanding of animal behavior. First, the zoo used the obvious strategy to place food and enrichment features such as hot rocks and shelter near the viewing area. Secondly, and most instructive, was how they utilized their understanding of the animal’s behavior to motivate animals to spend time near viewing areas. For example, at the male moose habitat he was very close and active because he was in rut and visitors were between him and the female moose, in a different habitat, on the other side of the viewing area. Another example is the muskox exhibit where the viewing area is located near the north facing slope where snow persists the longest and is desired by muskox.
Besides the management of animals, how the zoo and animal exhibits are organized can improve the visitors’ experience when animals are afar. One strategy utilizing animals is to disperse smaller animal exhibit between the large habitats so visitors see animals if no animals are close at the large habitat viewing. Carnivores are good candidates for the smaller exhibits because the containment barrier is expensive. Also the smaller enclosures provide a nice contrast to the vast landscapes where visitors can be enveloped in an intimate habitat.
Another consideration is setting visitor expectations. The experience should be marketed as a more natural experience through nature where animals are not always seen but one where encounters with interesting landscapes and natural features are equally exciting. For example, visitors can walk through beautiful ecosystems with interpretation and fascinating landscape features, simulating a hike. At the Yukon Wildlife Preserve visitors pass through natural wetlands, cliff sides, meadows and woodlands that are the animals homes. Then when animals are encountered there is greater surprise and feel more part of an endless landscape.
The larger exhibits improve animal wellbeing and encourage natural behaviors but also preserves and provides habitat for other wild species living in the ecosystems. Animals in larger habitats don’t have to be seen as small objects moving through the landscape at a great distance. Through good design and animal husbandry animals can be encourage to be present at viewing areas, and when animals are not present, a carefully crafted visitor experience can entertain.