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July 2000
A Matter of Design

The Satya Interview with Lee Ehmke


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 designs—here as in many other zoos—is 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 habitat?
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 animals?

The educational and interpretive level is for the public and creates an illusion of spaces being like their natural habitat. The animals don’t necessarily need things to look real—many 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 we’d 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 cognitive—we 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 there’s a primary, simple message and then people who want to learn more can probe deeper. We don’t 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 you’re in the forest and it doesn’t take away from seeing the animals.

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 it’s 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 isn’t just one thing that we hope people will think. "Isn’t 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 can’t have one without the other. If you’re going to have gorillas in the world, you need to have rainforests.

Could you tell us about the international projects that you are involved with?
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. It’s 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. It’s 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 haven’t 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 important—developing 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 shouldn’t 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 animal’s life in a zoo situation is easier and more comfortable—far less stressful, painful, short and brutish than in the wild. Most animals in the wild don’t 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 shouldn’t 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, that’s 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 lion—looking 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 don’t 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 picture.

Do you see any common issues where people who support zoos and people who disapprove of them can come together?
We’re all in groups to support animal rights because we love animals. This differentiates us from those who don’t. Right there we have a commonality. We share a common sense about how animals should be treated—responsibly, 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 Colorado—their 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 you’d like to convey to our readers?
Come see what we do. You may be surprised. It’s 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.


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