Architecture for Animals

In case you may have been living under a rock, this past month a controversy was sparked about a little boy who fell into a gorilla pit at a zoo. The controversy covered everything from a lack of parental overlook, to animal cruelty, to proper buildings/structures to house and observe animals. Again, as you probably already know, the gorilla was tragically shot and killed as a means to save the young boy’s life. This is one of those social situations that, no matter what happened, was not going to have a good outcome. Could architecture have played a role in avoiding such a tragedy?

Being part of the architecture profession, this made me wonder a number of things: how did a child end up in an enclosure that housed such a dangerous animal? Who was the space designed for, the user (which is ultimately the animal), or the visitor (the human)? Is the end means of architecture solely for a human experience, or should it encompass the aspect of life in general?

In watching the chilling video, as well as reading a number of witness accounts, it became very obvious the space lacked the design to properly house the animal; it was designed mainly for the visitor, albeit poorly since a child was able to gain access to an area which was supposed to be inaccessible. After the incident, the zoo director stated that “the child was being dragged around…his head banging on concrete.” Watching the video, it was apparent the gorilla was in a confined man-made structure with materials totally distant to its natural habitat. Why was there even a concrete floor for the gorilla to drag something on? Would we, as architects, EVER design something for a human as foreign and impractical as this? (Think of an architect designing a dirt floor in your house!)

I loved going to zoos as a kid. Most notably, the Boston Aquarium and the National Zoo in D.C. Thinking back on those experiences, while I was having a great time running around and seeing all the animals, I now recall visions of ever so obvious man-made structures, with sad animals pacing in the middle. They are essentially glorified jails. One of the saddest cases of this occurrence is the polar bear. The polar bear’s natural habitat is the ring around the Arctic Circle. But who is going to visit a zoo in the Arctic? The next best thing (in our minds), is to bring them here, and try our best to recreate their environment. The failings of this notion become apparent when one does a quick google image search of polar bears in a zoo. Images of withered bears whose fur is turning brown instead of white makes one wonder if it’s even worth the time, effort, money, and the sacrifice of the bear’s quality of life to have such an attraction.

Now, I am not naive enough to propose the notion that the zoos being built should be Jurassic Park-esque. But, as a designer, I know there has to be a better solution than faux stone floors surrounded by concrete walls with images of the jungle or icebergs painted on them. There has to be a solution that has a better play between creating an environment where animals can thrive, and also be studied or protected. Finally, in a world where sustainability and environmentally conscious building practices are being pushed harder and harder, who or what are we ultimately designing for? Hopefully, it’s not solely with the human in mind.