Why can't you see the animals at Woodland Park Zoo?

Photo by Andrew_N / Flickr

By Jennifer Wing

Have you ever been to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and had a difficult time seeing the animals through all of the trees and plants? Well, it’s supposed to be that way. It’s all by design.

The naturalistic animal exhibit was born in Seattle at Woodland Park Zoo nearly 30 years ago.

The gorilla exhibit was the first display made of sterile concrete and iron to be transformed into a lush environment full of dirt, grass and trees, similar to where gorillas would be found in Africa.

Monica Lake, a project manager at the Woodland Park Zoo, recently watched a silverback gorilla sitting in the sun, carefully inspecting a stick. He was a little hard to spot, tucked behind some grass.

“We’re looking up a stream in a valley. The plants are blooming. There are fallen trees and moss on the rocks. It looks as if you are looking up into the valley. I imagine this is in Africa,” she explained.


The man behind the design

Photos courtesy of Woodland Park ZooWhen this exhibit was first built, it was considered radical.

The person responsible for it is David Hancocks. In the early 1970’s, Hancocks was a newly minted architect in England when he got an opportunity to design exhibits for the London Zoo.

Up until then, he said, “I didn’t know anything about zoos growing up. I had never been to a zoo before.”

His connection to nature was the time he spent in the woods and bogs in the English countryside. To him, the foxes and hedgehogs were inextricably tied to the meadows and the trees. One could not exist without the other. So when he first saw a gorilla on exhibit in London he was repulsed and intrigued at the same time.

“He was in a cage. It had a flat concrete floor and was the size of a one car garage. He lived in that space for 24 years and had never touched or seen a living creature during that time,” Hancocks said.

He tried to get the London zoo to at least add a few plants to the exhibits, but failed to change any minds. “They just said this is nonsense.”

Zoo keepers did not want rare animals getting sick. They wanted easy ways to keep the animals clean and it was important to satisfy the public’s interest by keeping the exotic creatures on view.

Frustrated by these attitudes, Hancocks followed an opportunity to come to Seattle. At Woodland Park Zoo, his ideas were well received and he became the zoo’s director. 

With the help of some visionary landscape architects and ecologists, Hancocks proved his earlier critics wrong. And what you see at the zoo today is because of him.


Penguins and waves

The Humboldt penguin exhibit is a good example of his vision living on into the future. The 17,000 square foot exhibit looks remarkably like a rocky beach on one of the Galapagos Islands.

Project Manager, Monica Lake, points to a wave that cycles through the large tank. The penguins like to play in it, but it’s also part of housekeeping because it pushes the water through filters. The wave comes from the side, rather than directly onto the beach. It’s a detail that was debated for hours. Lake and her team concluded the wave is both functional and authentic.

“We talked about how is that possible? If the beach is here, how come the rocks are there? We discussed how there are some lagoons where the wave comes around and fills up that inner beach,” Lake said.


Elephant controversy

Exhibits like this are one of the reasons why Woodland Park Zoo gets at least one phone-call a week from other zoos around the world wanting to replicate what’s happening here. Despite the zoo’s success, David Hancocks says it’s far from a perfect place. One of the reasons why he left his job as zoo director in the mid 1980’s was his failure to remove elephants from the institution.

Hancocks says that even the most natural setting in the world won’t make zoos a healthy place for some of the larger animals such as elephants. He says there simply isn’t enough room.

“When I did the master plan, I asked them not to include the elephants. So today, the elephants are not supposed to be there.” 

Hancocks wants them moved to a sanctuary where they would have hundreds of acres to roam and be social. The zoo stands behind how it takes care of its three elephants and says it’s important to keep these animals so that the public will have the opportunity to see them up close, which might care more about conserving the species.

But Hancocks predicts that just as concrete cages and bars gave way to dirt and grass for the gorillas, we will soon be seeing more zoos make the choice not to have any elephants at all.


Acting like ‘birds and bees’

Meanwhile, back at the penguin exhibit, they appear to be very, very happy. One sign that animals are thriving in a zoo is whether they are acting in ways they would in the wild.

Here, the penguins appear to be doing what Humboldt penguins do in the Galapagos this time of year: they mate. So far there are six new chicks and counting.