For 90 years, the Tulsa Zoo has provided public education and fun to families. Home to amazing, wild creatures, the zoo aims to create world class exhibits that showcase these animals and immerse visitors in unique and sometimes foreign experiences.
Though exciting, creating world class animal exhibits is not easy. The fascinating and complex process that goes into planning these attractions takes intense commitment.
So, how does the zoo do it?
When embarking on a new exhibit, there are specific steps that need to be taken. First is to determine the goals of the exhibit.
“You first have to figure out what the target is of your exhibit. What is your theme,” explains Scott Shope, vice president of facilities and construction at Tulsa Zoo.
The new Lost Kingdom exhibit complex, for example, was designed to provide immersive, year-round viewing opportunities where zoo visitors can feel like they have walked into the wilds of Asia, says Monica Ericson, development director at the Tulsa Zoo.
“It’s about the guest experience. We want people to feel transported to the habitats where these animals live. They fall in love with our animals, and then they want to do something to help,” Ericson says. “We have animals representing 60 critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable species at the zoo, so it’s important for guests to understand how they can make an impact.”
With a zoo as diverse as Tulsa’s, this customization is a big undertaking.
Just how big is the Tulsa Zoo? The zoo has 400 species and more than 3,000 animals in total on 84 acres, according to the Tulsa Zoo.
As plans for an exhibit progress, the zoo looks at what space they are wanting to use and how it can be used to its fullest extent for three things: giving the animal what it needs, helping guests to be immersed in an authentic experience, and creating facilities that work for the zoo staff.
“Everything that we do out here at the zoo, especially with exhibitory, has a trifecta,” says Shope. “And that trifecta is the animals, the staff, and the guests. Anything that we do on any aspect of that affects those other two, no matter how minute or how major. They’re all affected by any decision that we make in that exhibit.”
One of the most important steps in creating a world-class zoo exhibit is incorporating immersion.
“We know, ultimately, that we are in a zoo in the middle of Tulsa,” says Shope. “We’re not in Africa, we’re not in Asia, but how do we bring a little bit of that environment to this area? How do we do that? We do that with thematic elements.”
For example, Lost Kingdom includes extensive concrete work and lighting to replicate ancient Asian ruins. Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Himalayan temples in Nepal served as inspiration for the structure, colors and textures. By providing a habitat similar to where these species are found in the wild, zoo guests can gain a greater appreciation for the animals.
The animals themselves benefit from the dynamic habitats. Deep pools allow the tigers and Komodo dragons to swim, red pandas or binturongs perch upon climbing structures, and snow leopards scale a 3-story-high mountainside with perching ledges. Afternoon shade or heated rocks are integrated into the exhibit, to encourage animals to remain within view. Indoor and outdoor spaces for visitors and animals allow year-round viewing and comfort, regardless of weather.
Training areas are an integral part of the Lost Kingdom exhibit. Demonstration areas provide zoo guests an opportunity to watch zookeepers work with the animals, demonstrating the positive reinforcement training necessary for the best in animal care. The Lost Kingdom exhibit provides flexibility in animal husbandry, allowing zookeepers to care for the animals safely and effectively.
“Lost Kingdom is the new normal for the Tulsa Zoo,” says Ericson. “We are designing and building world-class animal exhibits for the betterment of our animals, zoo guests and staff.”
“Like any long-term design, the future of the Tulsa Zoo is guided by a master plan. Made possible by a donation from the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, this 20-master plan provides for long-term improvements to exhibits and facilities,” Ericson says.
“Following the successful opening of Lost Kingdom, the zoo is looking ahead to the African Wilds: Carnivores exhibit. Funding for new zoo exhibits comes from a combination of fundraising and public support. The Tulsa Zoo, which is owned by the City of Tulsa and operated through a management agreement by nonprofit Tulsa Zoo Management Inc., is committed to matching all public dollars with privately raised funds – so far the zoo has been raising about three private dollars for each public dollar invested,” Ericson says.
One exciting way to help support the Tulsa Zoo is to attend this year's WALTZ on the Wild Side, a black-tie-optional gala. In its 28th year, WALTZ on the Wild Side helps fund the development of new world-class exhibits.
The gala is your chance to support these world-class exhibits while celebrating the Tulsa Zoo's 90th birthday and partying the night away. Purchase your tickets online today.