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  • Category: Design
  • Written by Damson
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From Cage to Biotope

An overview of the evolution of zoo exhibits

Masoala Rainforest in Zürich Zoo (photo: elajos)The design of an animal exhibit is extremely important for zoos in many aspects. Naturally, it is important to provide suitable conditions for the animals, and to create an exhibit with which we can ensure to send the zoo’s message to visitors. This is the reason why many types of zoo exhibits have formed in recent decades.

In the 19th century the main goal of zoos was only to present animals to visitors. Accordingly, the design of the cages was very simple, primarily using iron bars and concrete walls. The main criteria were visible animals and strong security.

 At the beginning ofJohann Geyer: Das Innere einer Tierbude, 1835 (source: Wikipedia) the 20th century a new point of view started to spread, which lasts to this day. The goal with the new enclosures was to show animals as if visitors were walking in nature. The main purpose of these exhibits was to present animals as if they were in their natural habitat, and to make visitors feel they were in nature.

African Panorama in Hagenbeck Zoo, Hamburg (source: Wikipedia)The first example of these new exhibitions was the African panorama in Hamburg-Stellingen, built in 1907 and designed by Carl Hagenbeck. In this exhibition visitors can see animals as if they were free and many species – e.g. waterfowls, zebras, lions – live together at the foot of a rocky mountain. In fact, animal enclosures are bordered by dry moats and artificial rocks. In the first decades of the 20th century many zoos adopted this design, some of the best-known of these are the Great Rocks in Paris-Vincennes and Budapest.

Great Rock in Vincennes Zoo, Paris (source: Wikipedia) Great Rock in Budapest Zoo (photo: Damson)

Coyote in Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (source: Wikipedia)In the middle of the 20th century these panorama enclosures were not enough to achieve the impression of a trip to nature. In 1952 the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum opened in Arizona, US. It was the first time that landscape elements of the animals’ natural habitats were used to present ecosystems to visitors. It was relatively easy to form as they combined the native fauna with a botanical garden.

Many zoos use items of natural landscapes to try to achieve an impression of walking in nature. For example many Australian exhibits are covered by red sand, or African enclosures contain artificial termite mounds. These elements can also be used as enrichment items.

Australian Exhibit with red sand in Hluboka Zoo (photo: Damson) Australian Exhibit with artificial termite mounds in Jihlava Zoo (photo: Damson)

The first fully artificial biotope was created in Burgers Zoo, Arnhem, the Netherlands. The Burgers Bush is a 1,5 ha (3,7 acre) tropical hall. Most animals live freely in this artificial rainforest, others are shown in other natural biotopes. Burgers Zoo built the next biodome too: Burgers Desert, a 0,75 ha (1,8 acre) North American desert biotope exhibit opened in 1994. Many other zoos followed – and follow these days too – the path of Burgers Zoo, for example Zurich Zoo with the 1,1 ha (2,7 acre) Masoala Rainforest, Leipzig Zoo with the 1,6 ha (3,9 acre) Gondwanaland or Omaha Zoo with the 2,8 ha (7 acre) Desert Dome.

Burgers' Bush in Burgers' Zoo, Arnhem (photo: Christian) Burgers' Bush in Burgers' Zoo, Arnhem (photo: Christian)
Burgers' Bush in Burgers' Zoo, Arnhem (photo: Christian) Burgers' Bush in Burgers' Zoo, Arnhem (photo: Christian)
Burgers' Desert in Burgers' Zoo, Arnhem (photo: Thicius) Burgers' Desert in Burgers' Zoo, Arnhem (photo: Thicius)
Masoala Rainforest in Zürich Zoo (photo: elajos) Masoala Rainforest in Zürich Zoo (photo: elajos)
Gondwanaland in Leipzig Zoo (photo: elajos) Gondwanaland in Leipzig Zoo (photo: elajos)
Gondwanaland in Leipzig Zoo (photo: elajos) Gondwanaland in Leipzig Zoo (photo: elajos)

It is certain that in the near future more biodomes will be constructed in zoos all around the world, as these exhibits can provide nature experiences. Visitors’ needs are larger for these experiences in the 21st century, zoos also have a larger need for such exhibits as these can demonstrate the roles of all living creatures in the ecosystems, therefore they can pass on the massage of conservation to visitors.

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