'Animals and their habitat are inseparable'

JON CHARLES COE, a landscape architect in Coe Lee Robinson Roesch Inc, USA, was instrumental in turning around the Atlanta zoo from a badly-managed one to one of the best in the US. In the process, he and his colleagues evolved a new concept of 'zoo design' which brings the animals closer to their natural habitat. He was recently invited by the Coimbatore zoo authorities to help design their proposed zoo. Rustam Vania spoke to him about the future of 'benevolent' animal incarcerations and their relevance in educating lay persons:

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

What do you think are the emerging trends in the field of zoo design?
Earlier, zoos were human-dominated. They were not only run by people for people, but also presented animals in settings dominated by humans. For a decade and half, zoos have copied each other, and the model for a new zoo is an old zoo. Today, we ask our clients what they want their visitors to understand from a visit to their zoo.

The primary message that you get from most zoos is the most obvious one -- that animals live in zoos. The question that follows is that if the animals are happy and healthy in zoos, why do we need to protect national parks? I would, therefore, like to substitute the common perception with the message that animals and their habitat are inseparable.

How does the zoo design help in getting this message across?
We design exhibits that take you out of a zoological garden, which is a human-made garden with animals in it, and put you into the wild -- in the animals' world -- as a guest. This has a profound effect on learning. Humans behave very differently as guests. Besides, humans pay attention to dominance in society. If you put people in the wild they are not dominant any more. They are subordinate. So they act in a proper manner. If we display the animals in such a way that the people intuitively feel that the animals are dominant, the people are much more apt to learn.

Could you give some specific examples about how you will try to incorporate this concept into zoo landscaping?
This is a simple case of manipulating human behaviour and has nothing to do with the animal per se. It can be any object. Much of your design has to take into account human behaviour as well as animal behaviour. If we want people to understand, we have to present animals in a proper manner and this puts the animal in a dominant position. For example, if I see a caged tiger, I am dominant. But, if I am walking through the forest at night, who is dominant? The tiger may even be in a cage, but if I cannot see the cage, I do not know the barrier exists. Then the tiger is dominant.

People always throw things at animals that are put on display. Now the zoo can be seen as a theatre or a stage, which is cleverly built to serve one important purpose -- to give people the message that the forest and the tiger are inseparable. And if the humans respect the forest and the tiger, they are also welcome in that forest.

So, in a sense, you are integrating the habitat with the display of animals, with the view that the habitat is as important as the animals...
Absolutely. The tiger helps people appreciate the habitat. They will come to see the tiger, but while they are there, they will learn about the biodiversity of the reserve: why it is important and why the tiger is an important part of it. There is one school of thought that believes that with enough technology and research we can solve all animal or human needs. But I believe that we know virtually nothing about what tigers or humans need.

If we admit our ignorance, the logical thing to do is to give the tiger what it had for millions of years. So, the same naturalistic exhibit that is encountered in the wilderness benefits the people, benefits the tiger, and makes visits to the zoo a lot more fun. This can be of significance in North America, where 140 million people go to the zoos every year -- more than the number of people who go to watch professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey combined.

How are you incorporating educational awareness into the design?
We are trying to talk less about teaching and more about learning. There are many ways people learn and I think the most effective way is the way the children learn, which is from experience. If the emotional experience is exciting, people want to learn, if the emotional experience is boring they couldn't care less. We often say that even the most beautiful educational panel mounted in front of the cage is of no use, as nobody reads it. It contradicts what they are looking at. The panel says that the tiger, which the people see inside the cage, comes from a rainforest. This does not make any sense to the people.

But if we see the tiger in the forest, we can probably understand that tigers can come from rainforests. Then you can get on to talking about the role of the tiger, the cage, the rain forest, etc. Once you touch people's hearts, you can give them information and let them decide about the future of tigers. How practical an idea is this?
For a long time, zoos, even American ones, took animals from the wilderness and did not put them back. Then we came along. Because we are landscape architects, when we are asked to do zoo exhibits, we just as naturally go and find out the sort of places tigers live in. Everyone said we could not do it -- the zoo will be unsafe, the tigers will escape and they will fall sick. But it worked. The tigers were healthier than before and started reproducing. Within 10 years, these zoos surpassed all the big zoos, with respect to the quality of their exhibits, quality of breeding and, in some cases, the research that was going on.

What role can the zoos play in a world of rapidly-depleting habitat and species?
The zoos have to involve themselves in captive propagation of endangered species and preservation of biodiversity. The research that you can do in a zoo you cannot do in the field, just as the work in the field cannot be done in a zoo. In the Coimbatore zoo, Indian and American scientists have come to exchange ideas, which are being used in the design of the new zoo. Species propagation is very important, particularly when local species can be found nearby.

But zoos can house only a small per cent of the endangered species. Therefore, it is more important to stress on education. The biggest contribution that zoos can make is contributing to the awareness of the primary consumers, who can change their lifestyles. Even at a distance, my lifestyle in the US affects your lifestyle here in India, and your management of wildlife here affects my quality of life there. The most important trend in zoo management is the change from being consumers of animals to producers of animals, the change of focus to captive breeding. In future, the emphasis will be on education.

What will be your contribution to the Coimbatore zoo?
The people in Coimbatore, who have been working and developing this zoo sought guidance about the emerging trends. They already know what is happening in India, which is very important. I want to emphasise that I do not have answers that I can transplant here. I would never attempt to do that. But I have ideas that may be useful. I was invited to share my ideas and help them develop a strategy for the zoo.

What was your initial impression of the plans?
I think their plan is excellent. The idea of developing a zoological park to appreciate the rich biodiversity of the Nilgiri highlands is wonderful. I think there is no need to look any further. You have lions, tigers, elephants, leopards, gaurs and all kinds of deer, reptiles, etc. You do not need any more to tell an exciting story. Besides, the message has a greater impact because of the close connection. I believe that the zoo in Coimbatore could surpass even American zoos.

In a sense, create a new model...?
Yes, to set a standard for India and the world. What is possible here is the integration of wildlife and conservation, in a manner that appreciates the value of tribal culture and preserves it. We are not trying to keep people out of these places, but are trying to find a balance.

If the tribal people want, they could be invited to participate by projecting their views about the wilderness. They can teach us about medicinal plants and about the animals, since they are such keen observers. This can be a living experiment and one can be a part of it.

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