Would a Better Zoo Design Have Saved Marius the Giraffe?

Changing attitudes toward animals have led zoo architects to rethink their designs. How do Israeli designers meet the needs of animals and visitors alike?

Many people were horrified by the news earlier this month that a young giraffe was put to death at a Denmark zoo to avoid undesirable mating. The giraffe’s killing by his handlers, and his flesh being fed to lions, aroused a public debate over the living conditions and treatment of zoo animals. In recent years, zoo planners have taken into account changing attitudes toward animals and the need to create comfortable environments for the animals while still maintaining visibility for human visitors.

“The medium is the message,” says Dr. Amalia Terkel as she drives carefully down the paths of the savannah surrounding the zoo at the Ramat Gan Safari. “Here you have a park and around it a city that’s all concrete. In the savannah the animals are free, and we’re the ones who are stuck inside a cage of metal and glass.”

An ostrich rapidly and confidently striding toward us appears to bolster Terkel’s statement when it begins pecking on the front windshield. “This unmediated access is the high point of the visit for children – it’s a little fear, a little excitement,” says Terkel, an experienced zoologist who has been with the Safari since its inception. The “medium” at the Safari, as at other zoos, is composed of fences, walls, trees, rocks, pits and pools – and like the message it seeks to convey, no part of it is genuinely natural, or random.

Around the world, zoos are a favorite design subject for architects, including the firm of Norman Foster, designer of the elephant display at the Copenhagen Zoo that is covered with broad glass domes reminiscent of those at the British Museum, which he also designed. A famous older structure is the penguin pool at the London Zoo, designed in the late 1930s by Berthold Lubetkin, a founder of British modernism.

The idea for the local safari was first proposed in the late 1960s and was built on the site of what was once a small petting zoo in the Ramat Gan National Park. The park director and eventual Safari founder, Zvi Kirmayer, convinced the mayor at the time, Avraham Krinitzi, to allocate 1,000 dunams of the park to build an open zoo.

The first shipment from Africa came in 1968, and within four years, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, lions, Thompson’s gazelles, Grant’s gazelles and various species of antelopes were being housed in a cantina in Eilat, before they were brought to the park, which was inaugurated in 1974. The zoo inside was built a decade later, when the old zoo in Tel Aviv was slated to be closed down.

The planning ideas that shaped the Safari derived from the relatively recent trend of viewing zoos as sites whose purpose is to educate visitors as well as entertain them. This vision is anchored in the bylaws of the Israeli Zoo Association, which was established in 2002 and operates according to the criteria of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. EAZA, which coordinates the breeding programs for the animals in member zoos and monitors everything related to their genetics, not only supported the killing of the giraffe in the Danish zoo, it encouraged it and insisted that the public focus on “the big picture,” which is the preservation of the breeding program.

Four Israeli zoos are affiliated with IZA - the Safari, the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, Gan-Guru Kangaroo Park in Nir David, and Hai-Park in Kiryat Motzkin. There are other zoos in Rishon Letzion, Haifa and Be’er Sheva, and smaller sites like the Tzapari in Tel Aviv, the Monkey Park in the Ben Shemen Forest, the Hamat Gader Crocodile Farm, university zoological gardens and petting zoos.

Shai Doron, director of the Biblical Zoo, is also the director of the IZA and deputy chairman of the EAZA administrative committee. “Unfortunately,” he says, “most zoos don’t work with architects at all. They’re built in patchwork fashion and are a generation behind when it comes to zoo architecture.” The Biblical Zoo, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, was designed by the Miller-Blum architecture firm, the same firm that designed the Safari two decades before that, although a different group of partners was involved then.

Architect Lenny Raviv and his partner at Miller-Blum, landscape architect Iris Tal, were also involved in the initial planning of the Kiryat Motzkin and Haifa zoos, and now are working with the zoo in Be’er Sheva. Raviv says he doesn’t see much difference in working for this particularly colorful clientele versus the two-legged kind, though he does point out one clear difference: “Corners aren’t good for animals. They don’t like them. They don’t exist in nature.”

Zoos change their spots

The planning agenda for zoos is in constant flux, as research progresses and the view of animals as creatures with rights continues to advance. The exact starting point in the history of zoos is hard to pinpoint, but they have evolved from the private menageries of the Chinese emperors and Indian princes, to circuses, to modern public zoos, which were originally an outgrowth of European colonialism and flourished in the 19th century. Among the first was the London Zoo in Regents Park, which opened to the public in 1828. The idea was to bring animals closer to people, but strictly for the purpose of entertainment.

This attitude has changed over the past three decades. “A zoo that doesn’t have a moral dimension of environmental education and animal preservation – shouldn’t call itself a zoo. Those kind of places are just prisons for animals,” says Doron. But even zoo directors who aspire to be as moral as possible know that without the entertainment aspect, visitors will not return, will not put money in the zoo’s coffers, and the whole enterprise will be in trouble.

The educational aspects that zoos engage in are naturally similar. They combine subjects like ecology, the environment and animal care, in an attempt to undo the stigma that zoos are a place just for children. At the Safari, for example, they are working extensively on environmental issues and the implications of globalization on animal habitats. At the Biblical Zoo they’re collecting run-off, producing electricity and also quality compost that can be bought at the zoo gift store. The Hai-Park in Kiryat Motzkin has been hosting students from the area for educational activities aimed at preventing animal abuse, says Osnat Maoz-Yanko of the park’s education department.

Along with the change in approach, zoos have changed their spots: The displays based on a taxonomical division (animals being arranged in cages according to types and species) have been replaced by bio-geographical displays, or regional ecological niches featuring the relevant flora. This is a way to teach, for example, why the fur of the tiger, which lives in a habitat of bamboo stalks and high grasses, is striped rather than spotted.

But these displays also bring their own set of challenges. “On the one hand,” says Doron Tam, director of the Safari’s department of beasts of prey, “if you don’t show the tiger in the right environment, you won’t understand how this environment works. But if you just ‘cut and paste’ an ecological niche and put the animals there, you won’t see them, because they’re camouflaged: In the wild, they aren’t on display for all to see.”

The new wing at the Safari is the most significant building project there in recent years, and it’s being erected in an area that used to house administrative offices. Its title is “Last Chance to See” (a nod to a book of that name co-authored by Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine, describing their travels through Madagascar in search of endangered species), and it was designed by zoologists Tam and Terkel and Dutch architect (and zoologist) Erik van Fleet. Its main attraction will be the display of Komodo dragons – huge lizards described in meticulous and astonishing detail in Adams’ book.

All the animals in the organized zoos were born in captivity and not captured in the wild, and they adopt behaviors to fit the displays, including depression and aggression. Animals kept in cages that are too small from them typically pace back and forth. “When the chimpanzees at the Safari first moved out of the cages to the yard they would run and before they reached the end they would turn around, as if nothing had changed,” says Terkel. She says it took a whole year until this behavior stopped.

But some zoo enclosures also appear to give pleasure to the animals. On an island in the middle of the waterfowl lake at the Biblical Zoo live three black-handed spider monkeys – three males from a harsh background that left them emotionally and socially scarred. Their habitat may be limited but it has no fences, and even Pancho, who was harassed in a cage at a zoo in Mexico, seems to be enjoying himself as he leaps along the ropes to the central mast opposite the visitors’ bridge, plunges down and grabs another rope with his tail at the last moment, to the delight of onlookers.

The habitats in such enclosures present many challenges - such as which species can live together (the new wing of the Safari will be home to deer, monkeys and fish-eating crocodiles), what kind of climate protection they need (some animals need heated rooms at night, others are fine with huts), and the flora in the display must also be suitable. (The aim is to reflect that of the countries of origin, but not to be so accurate that the animals would want to eat it.) Exotic flora adapts fairly easily to the local soil, and trees from Madagascar, Australia and South America acclimate well in the displays.

Noah’s Ark in Jerusalem

The matter of barriers between the animals and people is a whole issue unto itself, and it’s often hard to tell which creatures need protecting and which need restraining – the zoo inhabitants or the zoo visitors. The first separations that were made when animals were brought out of cages were trenches, which have the advantage of negating the need for fences, and thus lowering the tension and stress on the animals. But a disadvantage is the large distance created between the viewers and the animals, which can be dozens of meters. The new separations are made with glass panes or nets. There are also displays where the visitor enters a common space with the animals, such as with the lemurs in Kiryat Motzkin. And the animal handlers cite another advantage of glass – it blocks the smell.

Animals often put their captors’ wits to the test, and repeatedly try to escape. In Kiryat Motzkin, they’ve learned to deter the meerkats and porcupines, which used to burrow their way out, by pouring a strip of cement one meter deep. At the Safari, a female chimpanzee and its cub once escaped. They were found the next day, swinging on a tall tree over the petting corner. This is one reason the tall concrete walls around the chimpanzee enclosure have no decoration or plants on them – they can use them to climb out.

But the biggest problem, all the zoos agree, are humans. At the Hai-Park they’re still mourning Jafar, the park’s giraffe, who choked to death on plastic bags tossed to him by zoo visitors a year and a half ago. Just a few weeks ago, his replacement arrived – a 6-week-old female giraffe, which was warmly adopted by Olga, the giraffe widow. Another tragedy occurred when a visitor infected a marmoset with the herpes virus through some food scraps that he tossed to it. The foreign virus quickly spread among the marmoset family and killed them all within a few days.

No display design can totally counteract the problematic behavior of zoo visitors. After the animal deaths, signs were put up throughout the zoo explicitly prohibiting feeding the animals – to no avail. “We have workers posted in trouble spots, there are a million signs, but even when you tell some people, ‘Don’t do it,’ they just don’t listen,” says Maoz-Yanko. “As long as there’s no fine, I have no legal way to punish people.”

Emil Salman