Something a lot of folks don’t realize is that most of the larger animals in modern zoos such as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo have off-exhibit areas for the animals, as well as viewing areas. They generally come off of their viewing areas at night, so that their exhibits can be cleaned, repaired if necessary and secured each morning before the animals are put back on view to the public.
Also, if an animal needs special attention, it is easier to provide this in a more practical area than it would be in a sprawling exhibit field or pond. Also, I can tell you it helps zoo curators sleep better to know that if a storm rolls through or a tree falls down in the middle of the night, the animals are safe and secure inside rather than out on exhibit.
A well-designed, naturalistic exhibit usually has a door (called a shift door) leading from the exhibit to the overnight quarters. And if it is designed well, visitors cannot see the door from the viewing area. It should be hidden behind a rock, in the recess of a cave or artificial wall. If it isn’t pointed out to you, you don’t even realize it’s there.
In addition to having appropriately designed exhibits, holding areas, and well cared for, healthy animals to put on exhibit, zoos still need to solve one other problem in order to make a successful exhibit. No matter how large an exhibit an animal has, or how lush the vegetation may be, people expect to be able to see the animals.
Studies have shown that zoo visitors expect to see the animals right away. They will only spend a few seconds in front of an exhibit if an animal is not immediately visible. So zoo curators need to find ways to offer the animals shelter and security while keeping the animals visible to the public. That’s not always easy, but there are a number of different strategies to address this issue.
One way is to have multiple animals in a single exhibit. For example, if there are four coyotes in an exhibit it is more likely that at least one or two are visible at any given time. Besides, as people are social creatures, they enjoy seeing larger social groups of other animals, even if those animals are solitary creatures in the wild.
Another way to keep animals in sight at the zoo is to place items they like to use in a spot where people can see them. A heated cave or a swimming pool that is in plain sight is bound to increase the amount of time that visitors can see the animals clearly, because the animals prefer to spend their time in those areas during certain times of the year.
Finally, many naturalistic exhibits have more than one viewing area to provide more than one line of sight into the enclosure. This way animals not visible from one viewpoint may be visible from another. This helps ensure that visitors are not disappointed.
While we take great pains to provide our animals with natural looking exhibits, important items like water, shelter and multiple areas that allow them lots of space, an exhibit is not successful if people do not see the animals when they look in from the outside.
Scott Silver is the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo.