Matter of Design
The Satya Interview with Lee
Lee Ehmke is
the Director of Facilities and Planning at the Bronx Zoo. Formerly an
environmental law practitioner for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund,
Ehmke turned his energies to study environmental design and, in 1988,
joined the Bronx Zoo staff. Ehmke was lead designer and project manager
of the "Congo Gorilla Forest" exhibit, which opened at the
Zoo last year. He also serves as a consultant to parks and zoos abroad.
Ehmke took time out to speak to Satya about his work and some
philosophical zoo issues.
What is the general philosophy behind the design of the exhibits
at the Bronx Zoo?
The general philosophy behind the designshere as in many other
zoosis to create spaces that serve the biological and psychological
needs of the animals. At the same time we understand that zoos are for
people; they introduce people to animals and get them to care about
them. The animals are representatives of habitats and where they live
in the wild.
What efforts are made to provide the animals with a sense of natural
In developing habitats there are two levels. Are we meeting the
needs of the animals? How much room does an animal need? We have to
take into account spatial relationships. Do they need vertical space
to climb? Do they like or dislike water? Are they social or solitary
The educational and interpretive level is for the public and creates
an illusion of spaces being like their natural habitat. The animals
dont necessarily need things to look realmany of their needs
can be satisfied without looking like the real thing. We do a lot of
research on animals in nature to find out what they need. For example,
in the Congo Rainforest exhibit there are 50-plus models of tree species.
If wed put in jungle gyms, it would be essentially the same thing
to the animals.
How does education factor specifically into the exhibits?
Almost everything we do has two educational components. First is
affective. The feeling of the space conveys the message that animals
are part of a habitat. We want people to feel good. The second component
is cognitivewe use every method we can think of. With the development
of multimedia, there are more ways to deliver information, with graphics,
things people can touch and be interactive with.
We keep messages short and to the point. Our emphasis is on children,
many of whom come from the inner city. But demographically, our audience
is mostly adults. We are aware that we have a diverse audience and that
we need to layer information. So theres a primary, simple message
and then people who want to learn more can probe deeper. We dont
want the delivery mechanism to overwhelm people. In Congo, for example,
the graphic signage is kept to a minimum so that you get the feeling
that youre in the forest and it doesnt take away from seeing
A study shows that people spend between 15 to 30 seconds in front of
a display. Of course, people spend more time if there is more than one
species or some activity, and if there are larger spaces people have
to look longer to see the animals
Which animals are the most popular with visitors?
The gorillas of course. Also bears, sea lions and big cats. The
Reptile House is most popular because its located in the center
of the zoo and is the most heavily visited.
What is the one thing that you hope people will walk away with after
looking at a display?
There isnt just one thing that we hope people will think.
"Isnt that animal great or amazing or beautiful!" would
be one thing. We want people to understand that animals and their habitat
are inextricably linked, that you cant have one without the other.
If youre going to have gorillas in the world, you need to have
Could you tell us about the international projects that you are involved
In African urban centers, like Nairobi and Entebbe, very few people
have the ability to experience their native wildlife. They need money
and cars to get to the game reserves and parks. In Nairobi there is
a major park right outside the city. Its like having Yellowstone
National Park right outside New York City, but with almost no public
access to it. There is an orphanage for abandoned animals nearby (kind
of a roadside zoo) which was most popular with Kenyans because of its
location. With the Nairobi Safari Walk, we created opportunities for
people to walk into the park and see animals moving around. There are
classrooms for children to learn about the environment and then see
the animals. We are presenting to what is probably our most important
audience, giving a chance for them to experience and appreciate their
local wildlife. Its the same thing with the Uganda Wildlife Center
in Entebbe, which has been renovated.
Local grassroots support for wildlife conservation happens through awareness.
Most people in Africa havent ever seen a lion, for example; and
for many people, their interaction with wildlife is negative [i.e.,
crop destruction or attacks]. These projects encourage positive interaction
between local residents and their wildlife.
What purpose would you say zoos serve in general?
The basic role is to give people a positive, close-up encounter
with animals, with education and ethics shaping their experience. Some
zoos are overstating their activity with breeding programs. The real
issues are the animals in the wild and the active management of endangered
species. Another role zoos can serve is as a resource for breeding and
research for possible reintroduction to the wild. The science is importantdeveloping
the knowledge base to be used for animal care and conservation. The
reality is that most animals in the wild are in small enclaves surrounded
by people. As a species we have inserted ourselves into every corner
of the planet; our role as stewards is to manage and intervene in a
positive way to make sure that species are maintained in the wild.
What would you say to people who feel that animals shouldnt
be kept captive at all, that no matter what efforts are made, they are
still captive, which is an unnatural existence for wild animals? Do
you sympathize with this point of view?
I sympathize to an extent. You could make an argument for individual
animals. In a well-designed captive environment, an animals life
in a zoo situation is easier and more comfortablefar less stressful,
painful, short and brutish than in the wild. Most animals in the wild
dont die of old age. The idea of "free as a bird" is
a misnomer because all animals are confined by natural restraints [i.e.,
human encroachment, water, desert, etc.].
I have great sympathy for animals that are mistreated and abused. A
small number of zoos are members of the self-regulating AZA [American
Zoo and Aquarium Association]. Most captive animal collections probably
shouldnt exist. I would support legislation to regulate them or
phase them out of existence. It is unfortunate that that brush tars
the good work that many zoos are doing. Ninety nine percent of people
who work in zoos do so because they love animals and they work hard
to alleviate negative conditions.
Do you consider yourself to be an animal advocate?
Sure, thats what we do here. We advocate for animals as a
species rather than as individuals. For example, our biggest concern
would be "Will there be lions in the next 100 years?" rather
than caring for one individual lionlooking at the bigger picture,
a species as a whole.
Do you feel that there are any key issues that people are not "getting"
when they criticize zoos?
Some people dont get the notion that in order to preserve
a species the rights of individual animals may have to be compromised
or secondary. People may not understand how natural habitat works. For
example, managing the population of the white-tailed deer in the Northeast:
should it be through selective culling or moving them to sanctuaries?
One could throw a natural ecosystem out of whack. A lack of scientific
understanding of natural systems can overwhelm their view of the bigger
Do you see any common issues where people who support zoos and people
who disapprove of them can come together?
Were all in groups to support animal rights because we love
animals. This differentiates us from those who dont. Right there
we have a commonality. We share a common sense about how animals should
be treatedresponsibly, with fairness and kindness.
There is common ground, but people can take sides in rhetorical arguments.
I encourage animal rights activists to learn about the ecological and
scientific background; then [they can] evaluate whether a concern for
action hinders or helps animals as a species.
Can you tell us about your involvement with the reintroduction of
the California condor to the wild?
In the late 1970s-80s there were just 27 condors left in the wild.
Zoos decided to bring the condors into captivity in order to breed a
population. Through management and monitoring, they have been successfully
reintroduced into the wild in California and some parts of Coloradotheir
natural habitat. Their tendency to sit on powerlines were killing them
off, and in captivity they were trained by using "mock" powerlines
to teach them that they are "bad."
We are now at the point where we are managing nature and we have to
learn to do it well. The condors are a classic example of a successful
reintroduction program, but typically, there is no "wild"
left to return animals to.
Anything else youd like to convey to our readers?
Come see what we do. You may be surprised. Its still a showplace
for people but with a much broader purpose. Zoos used to be about human
domination and power over animals. Now we are getting people to appreciate
animals on their own terms.