Regardless of whether it’s a refresh to an existing space like River Otter Falls or a brand new exhibit, wrapping up a major construction project is a monumental moment at the Aquarium.
But getting from initial research to final ribbon cutting can be a years-long endeavor.
The path to creating a new habitat for animals at the Aquarium starts with creating a design plan through a hand-in-hand partnership between husbandry experts and an exhibit concept specialist. This week, Senior Interpretive Graphics and Exhibit Designer Jeff Worley and Director of Forests and Animal Behavior Dave Collins discussed the factors that influenced their approach to designing Lemur Forest, which opens on March 1.
Q: How does a typical exhibit’s design begin? What’s the first step, and where does it go from there?
DC: Very early on, Jeff will do some conceptual sketches, basically large color thumbnails, to give a sense of the spirit of the space. That’s usually very early in the process. We frequently use those to garner support for an idea. Sometimes, the final exhibit resembles those. Sometimes, it takes a left turn somewhere and we get other features in. That’s sort of the beginning of it.
Looking back at a couple of exhibits we’ve done lately, like River Otter Falls and Alligator Bayou and now this, Jeff and I really tag-team it. Jeff brings expertise in the technical design, and I provide more of the animal-need basis. Then, we blend those.
Since we started working with physical models, it has helped us out with the three-dimensionality of the exhibit. With the otters, Jeff came up with this great program where you could build the design out of blocks on the computer. That really helped us to look at things like elevation.
I’d be looking at, “How steep can we make it so the otters can still use it?” while Jeff was looking at it from a purely conceptual basis of, “How does that look, proportionately?” We applied that same approach to the lemur model.
JW: With this exhibit, we looked at all kinds of potential spaces, from the Butterfly Garden to where the lava rock orchid wall is now. Then, we started looking at, “But how is this going to work for the animals?” We want this to be the best habitat for the animals, so we just moved on toward the north end of the building. We looked at the space near where the Freshwater Stingrays were and realized, “This is really ideal.”
Q: What are your respective top priorities? What’s most important to each of you, in terms of the final design?
JW: For me, it’s all about the authentic look of the space, whether the animals will feel at home there and how the guests will react when they see it. It’s more of a visual thing for me.
DC: That always gives me a good head start when you’re working with a designer who already has the animals’ best interests at heart. That makes it easy on me. A lot of my concerns also bring in the nuts and bolts aspects.
Jeff mentioned that we had started looking at the south end of Tropical Cove, but there were some physical constraints of using the space, specifically setbacks required by USDA. We couldn’t allow guests to get too close to these animals, so by the time we got through building in those spatial needs, we didn’t have any space for the animals. We had to shop around to find other places where we could meet those needs while also giving the animals space.
My priority is creating an exhibit where the animals have not only room but also a diversity of space — the height and complexity of space — to let them exhibit their natural behaviors. That’s not only important for the public but for their own enrichment, so they can live a complete life. The more these animals are behaving naturally, the more the guests can see the animals as they naturally are. That helps us to reach that goal of really connecting the visitor with the animal.
JW: One of the other things I’m constantly thinking about is the visitor space: How is the visitor going to interact in this space that we give them? That includes things like traffic flow, congestion, how easy it is to see the animals? That’s a high-priority item, to create an exhibit where the animals are visible all the time.
Q: Jeff, what is it like to design and exhibit within the constraints of USDA regulations and requirements about visitor safety? Does that complicate your job?
JW: It’s just something we always have to keep in mind. For this exhibit, it was a five-foot barrier that we had to keep between our guests and the netting. Because we decided to put it on the north side of the building, we had the Freshwater Stingray exhibit there. That was a natural barrier that already existed, so that made it a little easier for us.
Now, when we took up Macaw Island, we had to keep in mind when we reworked the rock work to hold our guests back a little bit from the netting. It’s not a difficult thing to do; it just puts some constraints on your design a little bit.
DC: The fact that we had Freshwater Rays was one of two things that made this design work. The other thing was the proximity to the north deck that provided an ideal place to build the lemurs’ holding area. One of the things when we were designing on the south end is that we were trying to squeeze lemur holding into the area that is the butterfly receiving room, and there was just nowhere near enough space, especially when you see the current lemur holding area we have now.
Q: What were some specific elements that were incorporated into Lemur Forest that were based on things you learned or saw during visits to lemur exhibits at other zoos and aquariums?
DC: One of my biggest take-home messages from all the site visits and research I did was that a successful exhibit really had to give you a lot of versatility. Because lemurs are such social animals, you need to be able to deal with them on an individual basis. If someone isn’t getting along, you need to be able to separate them. You have to be able to have the ability to do that. If you don’t have the physical space, then negative interactions will continue, and you aren’t able to mitigate those.
Within the physical space, we also wanted to create significant diversity, since we’re dealing with two species. The Ring-tails are one of the most terrestrial lemur species, and the Red-ruffs are one of the most arboreal, tree-loving species. We could take advantage of the extreme elevation we have at the north end of the building, so we have perches that are more than 30 feet above our guests, whereas the southern end of the exhibit is very low. That gives us the whole range of habitat types.
We also designed in a mostly hidden shift door that allows us to run the entire exhibit as one large space by opening up that door. If all the animals are interacting well, they can make use of the entire space. But if we do need to keep groups separated, we can close the door and manage groups separately. We designed it so we can actually move groups in and off exhibit without going through another space. That’s part of the variability we have. We can always give an animal their own space and not have to move somebody else through it.
JW: We’ve also got 200 linear feet of vines that we can move around. We can attach them in different areas to create some diversity. Then, we have heat lamps, of course. They love the sun, so under these shelves of rock, there’s built-in heat, so they can get in and warm up.
DC: Ring-tails are really known for that. With their southern roots, they do love to bask in the sun. We temperature-control Tropical Cove — it’s usually in the 70s — but you’re talking about an animal that likes to live in Madagascar’s dry, spiny forests, and they’re looking for maybe 90 or 95 and some nice bright sun.
Adding those heated spaces is a good example of something we did to meet the animals needs and make them happy and healthy, but also to try to use it in such a way that it enhances the visitors’ view. We located those in really prime viewing locations. We’re optimistic that they’ll use them and demonstrate that basking behavior right in front of guests.
A lot of times, we ask, “What does the animal need to be happy?” and then ask, “OK, now where can we put that to make the guest happy watching them be happy?” [Laughs.]
JW: I think that’s what’s so great about Dave and I working together from the design point of view with the animal welfare point of view. Together, we can make sure those things happen.
Q: At this point, the design process through to final construction has been a multi-year process. What are your thoughts looking at the near-final product? How close do you feel you’ve come to achieving your ideal vision for this space?
DC: Right now, I’m anxious to see what kind of review we get from the lemurs. That’s what it all comes down to. We have all our ideas, our notions, about how we can incorporate these different things, but the proof is in the pudding. We’ll see how they use it.
JW: I’m really happy with how it turned out — I think it looks great — but Dave is right, the question is “How will the lemurs will behave inside the exhibit?” That’s always the exciting part for me, see them go in the first time and see how they like it.