Safety by design: How zoo enclosures are evolving

Witness: Child joked about going in enclosure
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Story highlights

  • Zoo animal exhibits have evolved from cages to natural-looking habitats
  • Designers must find the balance between safety and visitor experience

(CNN)"Keeping animals in, and people out."

It is a mantra that is fundamental to designing exhibits at zoos the world over, where enclosures must be safe environments for both animals and visitors.
    But how this translates into real-world designs is not always clear cut, as the recent breach at the Cincinnati Zoo attests. Zoo officials there shot dead a western lowland gorilla to save a 3-year-old boy who managed to slip into the animal's enclosure Saturday.
    Rob Vernon, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which accredits facilities, said the Cincinnati Zoo was "absolutely" a respected facility that had produced few issues in its history.
    The zoo has been accredited without interruption since 1978, most recently in 2014, and earlier this year received an award for maintaining its accreditation for a quarter century, he said.

    Design evolution

    Standards and zoo design have evolved together, says George Houthoff, CEO and co-owner of Houthoff Zoo Design.
    He saw his company rebuild the gorilla exhibit at Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands after the escape of Bokito, a silverback who wounded four people in 2007.
    He says that the industry has evolved in leaps and bounds in recent years, but, especially in some countries, there is still a long way to go to ensure complete safety.
    "Zoos have developed from concrete boxes with steel bars to natural looking habitat immersion environments... (but) worldwide there are still a lot of exhibits in zoos that are potentially dangerous for children."
    Former zookeeper Amanda O'Donoughue, a self-described gorilla lover, noted on Facebook that the gravitation to more natural enclosures with seamless views "is great until little children begin falling into exhibits, which of course can happen to anyone, especially in a crowded zoo-like setting."
    Zookeepers always kept a welded mesh barrier between themselves and the "gentle giants" because the incredibly strong creatures could cause serious harm even when lacking the intent, O'Donoughue said in her post, which has been shared more than 1 million times.
    "I can't point fingers at anyone in this situation, but we need to really evaluate the safety of the animal enclosures from the visitor side," the Tallahassee woman wrote. "Not impeding that view is a tough one, but there should be no way that someone can find themselves inside of an animal's exhibit."

    Complex, stimulating -- and safe

    Animal welfare needs to go hand in hand with visitor experience and safety, says Patrick Janikowski, principal of PJA Architects. One of the first considerations, he says, is how much space the animals have.
    If space allows, moats -- like at the gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati -- are used to keep a safe distance between the animals and visitors and give the animals a more "natural" environment. If space is more limited, heavy mesh or glass enclosures can give a similar experience.
    The gorilla species survival plan, which provides guidelines to 51 zoos, says there is "no golden rule" for the size of gorilla enclosures, and as experts learn about optimally housing apes, "exhibit designs evolve, and hopefully improve over time."
    "Gorillas should be housed in large, complex, environmentally enriched enclosures. Outdoor access should be provided to all gorillas whether on exhibit or off exhibit," it says. "Visual barriers, access to privacy, climbing apparatus, vegetation, nesting material, and manipulable objects are important in reducing stress, social conflict and boredom."
    What zoo designers, keepers and management are ultimately trying to achieve, Janikowski says, is to give "optimum space for the animal, optimum viewing for the guest and some type of interaction while keeping everyone safe.
    "That's really the goal."

    Children: Unpredictable variable

    But even with complete adherence to standards, accidents happen.
    "I have four kids. I know what its like to herd cats and try to keep your eye on all of them. It doesn't take long if someone wants to see. That's the thing with little kids... they're down low -- they're always looking around curiously," Janikowski says.
    Jeff Corwin: 'The zoo is not your babysitter'
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    "That's what (the child who fell into the Cincinnati gorilla enclosure) was doing -- he wanted to see a magnificent animal ... it's hard to blame anyone."
    Houthoff agrees that the human factor is an unknown, but the onus still lies with zoos to ensure safety remains paramount.
    "Kids are kids," Houthoff says. "Of course you have to keep an eye on them (but) I think it's the zoos' responsibility to ensure the safety of their visitors. That means making absolutely sure that exhibits are childproof."
    "What happened in Cincinnati should be a reminder for all zoo staff to keep evaluating the safety of their exhibits, specifically from a small child's perspective."
    Cincinnati's gorilla enclosure has been inspected in the past, but now it will need to be inspected "through the lens of a 3-year-old," the AZA's Vernon said. While it appears zoo officials handled this incident appropriately, he said, the AZA will likely require modifications to the exhibit.
    "You don't anticipate something like this happening, or it wouldn't occur," Vernon said.