Asking the Right Questions When You’re Developing Wildlife Encounters

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, April 20th, 2015

 

SeaWorld Orca Show

The movie Blackfish raised an important issue to the broader public consciousness: what’s right and ethical when you’re designing wildlife encounters focused on education and entertainment? From a design standpoint, there are numerous factors to consider. What are your goals? How can your design prioritize the welfare and experience of animals involved? What kind of physical environment is best for both your human guests and animal residents?

In today’s complex environment, exhibits and attractions that involve animals face serious ethical and regulatory scrutiny – and public reactions are often mixed. Every childlike squeal of delight at seeing a specific animal up close can also be matched with a little voice that doesn’t want to visit a zoo because of animal rights concerns (awareness starts early!). For entertainment designers, this brings up important questions about how a specific exhibit or attraction can – and whether it should – integrate live animals. Here are some of the critical questions to consider.

Zoo Immersion

Do your goals necessitate live animals?

One of the most important elements that recent experiences have taught the design world is to define your goals – and then explore whether live animals are necessary to achieve them. In some cases, the answer is absolutely, like when you’re dealing with a zoo or aquarium. The question then shifts to what constraints and factors need to be in place to allow you to achieve those outcomes in the best way possible.

But in other cases, institutions are finding ways to teach the public about important topics like wildlife, livestock, conservation and more using technology and other forms of hands-on exhibits. Creative design might not completely eliminate the decision to use live animals in an exhibit, but it might reduce the number that you choose to involve.

Immersive Design at Wildlife Attractions

Are we matching underlying concerns with physical enclosure design?

In many cases, the philosophy toward enclosures and animal housing at exhibits is changing for the better. There’s an increasing emphasis on consulting with science experts, wildlife specialists, and veterinarians to determine how a specific space can be created to best meet the needs of its residents. For example, more space, increased privacy, and other benefits are improving the experience of individual animals.

The idea is centered around “immersion design,” which focuses on creating a physical environment that’s as close to natural as possible for the animals. There is also an increasing focus on offering the animals sensory stimulation. Guests benefit from these decisions as well. Satisfaction ratings tend to be higher when guests see animals in more “naturalistic” settings, and it also reinforces the message of seeing animals as part of the broader natural environment instead of in cages. These types of enclosures may ultimately prove to be more effective in terms of teaching conservation values, the interconnectedness of nature, animal appreciation, and offering some entertainment as well.

Could shifting populations help address concerns?

In an interview with National Geographic, zoo historian David Hancocks highlighted an important factor that may shift the balance at zoos in the future. Today, many zoos are focused on the mega fauna in our midst – the proverbial lions, tigers, and bears. But it’s also often these animals that have the greatest difficulty adapting to captivity and have the most demanding needs for space and care. Instead, Hancocks notes that zoos with a commitment to education would be committed to exhibiting a much wider array of animals.

It is, perhaps, a fair leap to say that one trend which may impact what the zoos of the future look like is reducing their mega fauna holdings and focusing on exhibiting smaller animals. This could also help address welfare concerns; a puffer fish is likely less bothered by being in an aquarium than an orca, for example.

Zoo Experiences

What is the role of experiences and exhibits vs. live animal exhibition?

For many, today’s wildlife encounters focus on showcasing a specific animal. Visitors have been primed to expect to see an elephant or a giraffe. The animals are featured in the advertisements, brochures, and zoo signage. But there’s a bigger question underlying wildlife attraction design. What are we trying to teach, and what are the roles of experiences and exhibits vs. live animal design?

Many experiences that are being highlighted in connection with wildlife attractions are interesting but don’t necessarily tie into the mission of these organizations. Ziplining across a zoo, which is becoming increasingly popular, is one example that comes to mind. Conservation-oriented experiences can make a museum or zoo visit unforgettable for a child. Taking an approach to telling the stories of conservation or the tales of a local ecosystem also make a powerful impression. There’s also a question about whether interactive experiences and innovative technology such as Oculus Rift could provide an alternative method of teaching.

Guests are asking harder questions than ever before about the wildlife experiences that they seek out. In response, designers and producers of wildlife attractions need to make important choices – from defining their experiential goals to reimagining the design of animal habitats. While there is no one right answer, bringing animal welfare, ethical questions, and a creative approach to the latest technological and storytelling techniques can all help create amazing animal attractions and simultaneously minimize the negative impact on the animals themselves.

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