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Let's talk interactive exhibits...

Discussion in 'General Zoo Discussion' started by kc7gr, 15 Nov 2022.

  1. kc7gr

    kc7gr Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    There are, no doubt, many definitions of 'interactive' in this context, so I'll make it clear up front I'm referring to places which allow direct interaction by visitors with their ambassador animals.

    I will freely admit to being biased in this regard, and the same goes for my wife. In general, zoos or oceanariums which have strong interactive programs get higher priority on our 'visit' list than those which lack such.

    With that said, the choice is never simple. There are plenty of places which strike me as 'tourist traps.' Their programs may be billed as "up close and personal" (or words to that effect) while the reality is you may never get closer to the animal(s) involved than a sheet of plexiglass, a fence or similar barrier.

    Granted, there are plenty of animals where barriers are completely appropriate for the safety of all concerned. Hippos, rhinos, most tigers, large bears, etc. However, I've also seen cases where critters as innocuous as ruffed lemurs are separated from their would-be 'human toys' by chain link or plexi.

    Then there are the places where the price for participation in a given experience is ridiculously high, aimed at groups rather than individuals (I'm looking at you, Woodland Park!) Such places often have the type of limited experience mentioned in the paragraph above.

    Let's also consider the perspective of the participant(s). For many people, some form of separation or barrier is absolutely necessary for them to feel safe. Being inches away from a given animal may be more than enough 'thrill' for them, while closer contact may be uncomfortable at best or impractical without running them through some basic handler training. Heck, I've seen people who were afraid of domestic chickens!

    At the opposite end of the graph are those visitors for whom 'close' means exactly that: Either in one's face, as it were, or (in the case of, say, kangaroo joeys) being comfortably cradled in a visitor's arms. These are, people who have had plenty of experience with various animals, domestic and exotic alike, no matter if it was on a farm or as a zoo employee or volunteer or anything in between.

    I would place myself and my wife in this latter category, as I would (I suspect) many of the users of ZooChat. Both of us have been fortunate enough to be blessed with more interactive experiences than I have space to list here. We've also, both, served as volunteers at various zoos and aquatic facilities.

    I have, in the interest of helping my lady and I decide where to go next, created my own spreadsheet which rates zoos and aquariums on the type, quantity and quality of any interactive experiences they offer. One thing I'd like to get, from this thread, is tales from my fellow ZooChatters about the kinds of interactive experiences you've come across. Among the questions I would have are:

    Where was the experience? Which place?
    What did it consist of? Which animals?
    How was it structured? Direct contact, barrier, something else?
    Did it seem enjoyable for all concerned, animal(s) and visitors alike?
    Did it feel 'staged' or scripted? Or was it more free-form? As in 'sh*t happens...'
    What did you, specifically, get out of it?

    Thanks for reading. Discussion (hopefully, both lively and civil) is now open!
     
  2. ZooElephantMan

    ZooElephantMan Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    One zoo that I might recommend for this is the Indianapolis Zoo. I went this summer, and they provide guests with lots of ways to interact with their animals. They have a great program called a “flamingo mingle” where the flamingos are let out of their exhibit and wander between zoo guests. The birds will often approach you to play with your hair or your clothes. The zoo also has a great elephant chat program where, after a short training presentation by a keeper, guests can line up by the enclosure fence and touch one of their elephants on their side. I believe the zoo also has a small behind the scenes interactive experience with their dolphins that you can participate in after their dolphin shows if you pay extra. And of course they have many traditional interactive experiences as well, including many other kinds of keeper chats, a touch tank for sharks, an opportunity to feed budgies, and a kangaroo walkthrough where you can even touch the kangaroos!
     
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  3. Jurek7

    Jurek7 Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    Luckily, zoos in Europe have relatively many walkthru exhibits, and behind-the-scenes tours are offered for free on many occasions. I hope it continues to be so.

    Zoos in South-East Asia have even looser rules. I remember, and loved, an elephant calf in Dusit which could be fed by the public, and then its boy mahout ridden it across the zoo for its night stall.

    My conclusion from American version of 'interactive experiences' is that general zoo rules are too strict. If visitors are strictly forbidden from touching or feeding animals, but after paying $60 it becomes acceptable, then the general rules of the zoo are not justified from animal welfare and are more than a type of rip off. Perhaps general zoo exhibits should allow more interaction with animals and limited feeding should be allowed. Apparently zoo public became more educated and dependable over last decades, and can be more trusted with animals. And zoo exhibitry has evolved, for example to give animals retreat places.
     
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  4. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    While I can understand the sentiment here, the big issue with allowing more interactions, in many cases, is the limited number of staff a zoo can afford to have. While with many animals, I would trust visitors to touch/feed/hold them after getting instruction by and under the supervision of a trained staff member, unfortunately most zoos don't have a plethora of staff waiting around that can allow such opportunities. I would not trust zoo visitors in very many interactive experiences without the monitoring of a zoo staff member or volunteer. Even with something that seems as harmless as a goat, there is a lot that can go wrong, and people are not known to be the smartest all the time. Most zoos can afford to hire a staff member or two to run behind the scenes encounters, provided that those encounters are generating the zoo revenue in return, but to include it in admission would require a rising cost to have even more staff monitoring encounter stations. Ideally, in my opinion, each zoo should have at least one or two interactive/animal ambassador opportunities for the general public (more if you count walk-through aviaries and the like), but much more than that becomes way too logistically challenging.
     
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  5. Jurek7

    Jurek7 Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    Increased visitor numbers should pay for extra staff, especially that an experienced keeper is not needed to watch over visitors. The zoo can also use volunteers or CCTV.

    For me, public interaction is much better than 'ambassador animals' for two reasons. It gives entertainment and education for more people many times, not just to rich few once in the lifetime. Animals in good interactive exhibits can live in social groups on high quality exhibits, unlike 'ambassadors' which are separated singly and live in smallish cages outside the shows. Actually, I feel that 'ambassador animal' is similar for performing or circus animal with different type of tricks.

    Anyway, Western zoos need to do much watching and understanding to match the visitor appeal of top Asian zoos - and adapt Eastern concepts to preserve the wow factor for visitors while raising animal welfare to Western quality.
     
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  6. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    At least in accredited zoos, ambassador animals are not usually separated singly (provided it's a species that is social in the wild). While it once was the case that ambassador animal welfare was an afterthought, and that good exhibits weren't as important for them, this is far from the truth nowadays, and vast strides have been made in improving the quality of life for animal ambassadors. At least for the zoos I'm intimately familiar with, the only real difference between housing for ambassador animals and exhibit animals is aesthetic differences- not anything that animals care about! Accredited, reputable zoos provide just as good welfare and care for animals in their collection, regardless of whether they live on or off exhibit. Furthermore, this idea that the animals do "different tricks" isn't exactly the truth anymore also. While sometimes this may be the case, especially with bird shows and such, many ambassador animals aren't actually doing any sort of trick. A lot of zoos have also been making great strides in making presentation participation voluntary, meaning the animal can "stay home" one day if it wishes to, which is great for animal well-being and feeling of control over its environment. As for when tricks are included, there's quite a bit of evidence, especially for sea lions that training and species-appropriate "tricks" can actually be beneficial for an animal's mental well-being.
     
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  7. kc7gr

    kc7gr Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    (snipped to save space)

    I didn't know about the Flamingo Mingle, but I think it's a great idea. I've actually been to Indianapolis, but it was decades ago. Even then, I was impressed with the place and it sounds like they just keep getting better.

    Thanks for the update.
     
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  8. kc7gr

    kc7gr Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    I do as well! I've not had a chance, as yet, to go overseas (an oversight I plan to correct in my retirement years), but I have been to several water/nature parks in Mexico (notably Xel Ha and Xcaret). One of the things that struck me about the parks is how much more relaxed they were, both in atmosphere and in their offerings, than any comparable oceanariums in the States.

    Wow... I would have loved to have seen that, and experienced it. Not many people even know the word 'mahout,' let alone its history.

    You're preaching to the choir in my case. ;-) One of my dreams, which I doubt I'll see in my current lifetime, is for oceanariums as we know them today (concrete tanks, etc.) to be replaced by open-water/beach type facilities where both visitors and dolphins can come and go as they please.

    Where zoos are concerned, you do have a point. From what I've seen and read, Australia Zoo (near Queensland) is far ahead of the curve on animal interactive experiences even if they are mostly pay-to-play. I've often thought, while looking over their web site, it's more a case with them of what animal do you NOT want to interact with!

    Not from what I've seen in the States! Although I have seen SOME improvement, in the past couple of decades, there's still plenty of "stupid juice" to go around.

    It's a slow process. Can zoos in the USA do more to speed things up along those lines? Most certainly! That's one of the biggest reasons I keep such close tabs on who's got good interactive programs.

    Thanks for replying.
     
  9. Jurek7

    Jurek7 Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    My best experiences were in behind the scenes tours which some zoos offer on open days, for friends of zoo societies etc.

    Also in smaller zoos and private collections, where sometimes they let you feed a monkey or hold a leaf-nosed snake etc.

    I never paid for any commercial contact with ambassador bird or mammal, and it would feel wrong for me to buy something like SDWAP animal experiences. Both for the lots of money for a rather brief and basic contact, and for artificial, staged feeling, and for knowing, that many people in the US cannot afford it.

    In Zoochat there is a photo from some animal park in Mexico, where visitors pass by fully grown crocodiles separated only by a knee-high fence. Some Zoochatter commented that it would never be allowed in the U.S. My thought was: it is exactly like alligators in Everglades and other places along the U.S. south coast!

    I remarked before, that American public is very sensible in interaction with wild animals. In American national parks, visitors routinely view large and dangerous animals like alligators, bison, moose or bears at very close distance. And Americans know the rules. In rare occasion when somebody is injured, a reasonable investigation is undertaken who was guilty.

    The problem of American zoos are not occasional stupid visitors but the assumption that zoo bears responsibility for visitor stupidity. Zoos should not hire building crews to install excessive safety barriers but hire lawyers to formulate sensible entrance rules.

    In Asia, elephants are still normal working animals. I ridden an elephant in two national parks. It makes it strange to see that American activists make a fuss about contact with an animal which has been tamed for something like 10 times longer than the USA exists.

    If one added up all interactions found in zoos in Europe (many of them i did not see personally), there would be a lot. One strange thing is that, despite internet theoretically spreading information across the world, experiences in other zoos, especially in other continents, are rarely copied. Penguin parades in Edinburgh or Basel, squirrel monkey feeding in Apeldoorn, Barbary macaque walkthrus and feeding in small parks, walkthru colobus and Japanese macaques, Hamburg selling carrots to feed their elephants, feeding Fallow Deer at some smaller place, walkthrus aviaries with eagles and marabous, walkthru paddocks with diverse deer, antelope, mountain goats and wild boar, a Scandinavian zoo which makes paid interactive experience from entering lynx paddock and feeding it with meat on a stick and so on.

    Actually, more interactions in zoos would be nothing new but rediscovering the usual. For most of history of zoos in the West - which is several centuries - the public could partially interact and feed animals. It changed sometime during the 1960s, mostly with the exhibit trend of imitating visitors spying wild animals in the wilderness (which were wild animals from the 1960s, that is running away from man for fear of being hunted).
     
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  10. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    These occurrences are no longer rare. Not in the USA, not merely by American citizens. With the popularity of Instagram wildlife has become just another backdrop for a certain segment of the population worldwide and idiots are ending up in hospital or dead.
    List of selfie-related injuries and deaths - Wikipedia
    Who was guilty doesn't really affect the narrative. The media heralds the incident not the legal consequences months or years after the fact.

    In the USA, as you indicate, lawyers are quick to contact a visitor who has been merely nicked by a splinter and encouraged to sue the zoo
    https://www.jurewitz.com/articles/brief-legal-overview-zoo-injuries/
    Can I Sue a Zoo for Personal Injuries? - Injury Lawyer Daytona Beach
    These lawsuits cost zoos a great deal of money in legal fees as well as horrendous publicity. Better entrance rules won't change that unless every visitor is required to sign a waiver prior to entering the zoo. Even then, the zoo is not completely protected.
    Can You Sue Even If You Signed a Waiver? - Otorowski Morrow and Golden, PLLC
    Do Liability Waivers Hold Up in Court? - Penney & Associates
     
    Last edited: 16 Nov 2022
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  11. Aardwolf

    Aardwolf Well-Known Member

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    My take away? The payment limits the number of visitors interacting with the animal, which can be for the animal's welfare. A sloth may tolerate one or two visitors a day getting up in its personal space and offering it a treat. It may not tolerate huge numbers of people doing the same. Having some way to cap the number of visitors having these interactions - and making sure that they are happening in a controlled setting - helps safeguard the animal's welfare.
     
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  12. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    When feeding is involved, this adds even more onto the welfare benefits of limiting it. The number of visitors to a zoo that would feed an animal for free may lead to the animals over-eating or having access to too much food.
     
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  13. Jurek7

    Jurek7 Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    About publicity I am not so sure, since scandals can sell very well. I am not prepared to discuss the U.S. legal system. However, you are not required to sign a waiver when entering Yellowstone, so a way can be found.

    In European countries, a slightly similar situation happened about 20 years ago, when some court determined that owner of the land is responsible for clearing snow and ice from footpaths, and theoretically for damage from a falling tree. It simply ended with clusters of little signs 'this path is not cleaned and can be snowy or slippery in cold weather' and 'branches in this forest may fall down'.

    There are other ways to limit it, for example closing the walkthru part and letting visitors view from the outside.

    I will remain firmly in the camp that free encounters are better, because they reach and educate more people, and broader spectrum of the society.

    There is also additional side of interaction with animals - it builds support of a zoo in a way which paid package does not. European zoos usually have strong support of citizens, 'friends of the zoo' societies which support the zoo, act as volunteers etc. But no such sentiment exists towards highly commercial venues.
     
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  14. Aardwolf

    Aardwolf Well-Known Member

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    I have done impromptu, personalized, "Hey, you guys wanna come back and meet an ____" encounters for visitors who have shown a particular interest in an animal, especially on days that are very, very slow and I don't have to worry about attracting a crowd. Those are always completely unscheduled and driven in part by when I know the animal will be ok with such an encounter - I couldn't reliably put those on a schedule. On the other hand, at a previous zoo I worked at I started a paid encounter program for some species, and in doing so raised hundreds of dollars to send to our field conservation partners abroad that we wouldn't have otherwise had, so there's something to be said about raising cash when and where you can for good causes.
     
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  15. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    'friends of the zoo' societies are in no way a purely European phenomena. Many, if not most, reputable US zoos also have some sort of a support system of this nature. A few examples:
    Roger Williams Park Zoo: Rhode Island Zoological Society - Roger Williams Park Zoo
    Rosamond Gifford Zoo: Friends of the Zoo - Rosamond Gifford Zoo
    Columbus Zoo: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium - Friends of the Columbus Zoo
    Como Park Zoo: Membership - Como Friends
     
  16. kc7gr

    kc7gr Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    Just as one size cannot fit all in the world of computers and tech, I think the same would apply to zoo interactive programs.

    Jurek7 -- I absolutely agree that 'free' interaction can help build a very loyal customer base. However, Neil makes an excellent point about the risk of overfeeding, if public feeding is allowed. Another consideration, along those lines, is making sure visitors are (at bare minimum) using hand sanitizer before and after the feed. This helps to protect health on both sides of the fence.

    As for paid-for interactive experiences: I don't have a problem with them as long as they're not rigidly scripted, or used simply as staged photo ops AND as long as they're affordable and scheduled in such a way that the animals are not overloaded.

    Some examples are in order: The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, before they moved to their new location, had an outstanding lemur experience available at a very affordable $10/person. You got at least 15 minutes in the enclosure (a bit more if it was a slow day), with the lemurs free to interact with the visitors however they wanted to. Yes, you had a running commentary from the keeper on lemur facts, but you were free to put your attention entirely towards the critters if you needed to.

    Unfortunately, the experience changed quite a bit after their move. You still get 15 minutes, but the price more than doubled to $25/person and the number of lemurs in the enclosure dropped by half.

    As an opposite example, that of the kind of 'staged/scripted' experience I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, I need look no further than the alleged dolphin swim program at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove. At least $150/person, you barely get ten minutes in-water, as a group, and they stick tightly to a corny script that wouldn't be out of place at a cheap carnival sideshow. Don't get me started on the pre-experience "briefing" or the post-experience hard-sell sales pitch for grossly overpriced souvenirs.

    The weird part is D-Cove got their interactive aviary perfect! Still expensive, yes, but the fee includes everything else in the park, except the dolphins, and all-you-can-eat/drink.

    How they could get one side so right and the other so wrong is utterly beyond me.

    In any case, I think there's a place in the world for both free and paid interactives. I also think US-based zoos could do a LOT better in both areas.
     
  17. Great Argus

    Great Argus Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    Not hardly. Over and over there are incidents of people approaching large animals too closely, despite all the cautionary signs and warnings. They are often cityfolk unused to animals or idiots trying to get a closer picture/vlog. Also many Americans love ignoring rules, experience that all the time.

    Ah, not exactly. Parents not watching their children has ended in the death of multiple animals and unfortunately a couple kids too. The zoo has to bear the brunt of having to kill an animal and the resulting bad press because someone wasn't watching their kid properly. The zoos have to be the responsible ones because the public isn't. Quite a few zoos have some interesting banned items lists...

    Our activists are rather vicious about elephants, logic means nothing. They want their way and anything contrary is either dismissed or fought. More than one angry discussion has occurred on this site due to actions taken by activists involving elephants.

    100% agree. They also can develop sterotypies of begging and/or pacing waiting for food in addition to health problems. There are multiple older studies showing that mammals that were fed by the public spent much of their time soliciting food and used very little of their exhibits. Lots of food and low exercise quickly leads to health issues in many animals, displayed very prominently by the number of overweight cats and dogs seen on the internet. Additionally if visitors are allowed to toss food into exhibits, the chances of something unhealthy/toxic being snuck into the zoo and fed to an animal becomes much higher.

    Much harder to successfully sue the National Park Service for your own stupidity than a private entity. Very different circumstances, and frankly people ought to have enough common sense to not do silly things.

    While true, there's a lot of problems that have already been discussed. Having enough staff to be able to do regular free presentations does cost quite a bit. Popularity of such programs can put a lot of stress on animals if it is an upclose deal. It can cause frustration if something prevents the program from proceeding as normal (or if they expect you to wait for them, despite being told "be there by x time").
     
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  18. JVM

    JVM Well-Known Member 10+ year member

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    I'm surprised it hasn't come up yet, hopefully because zoochatters are all too smart to feel the need to mention, but a huge factor in ceasing visitor animal feeding was that in the old days, visitors were often encouraged to feed animals things like peanuts or marshmallows. As proper animal nutrition started to become more and more of a focus for zoos, and turned out to be integral to welfare and breeding for numerous species, there was an obvious incentive to remove these other factors from complicating matters. Marshmallows are not part of the natural diet of the polar bear, even if they enjoy them! Now many animals receive feed that is not only nutritious but often unique to individual health needs.
     
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  19. Great Argus

    Great Argus Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    Cough

    Also worth noting raw peanuts are perfectly fine for many animals as a treat - I'm not aware of any animals that peanuts are toxic to offhand. Plenty of people put them out for the birds and squirrels, with other species gladly taking them too. Indeed I have seen peanuts mentioned as enrichment/rewards in AZA literature for appropriate species. Feeding too many would likely to be the only real problem, by an over zealous public.
    Marshmallows on the other hand definitely are not an acceptable treat, along with other sugary foods.

    Most of the conversation here has revolved around feeding under observation of a keeper anyway, not just throwing food as used to be common practice. Though you are correct in its being a reason for ending the practice, with inappropriate foods frequently being offered.
     
  20. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    Back when I'd help with animal care for the education department at a local zoo, peanuts were a common Enrichment item for our chinchillas. Not sure who would recieve them for exhibit animals, but I'm sure they were used with at least something.

    Note back in the old days, the zoos themselves also fed animals an unhealthy diet. The biggest part of animal diets would often be bread, for anything from elephants and bears to monkeys and ducks. Of course today we know bread isn't a healthy dietary component for any animals, but back then it was the staple for most herbivores and omnivores.

    As for food being fed by visitors, while I'm sure marshmallows were sometimes fed, a much bigger problem was non-food items being fed to animals. Plenty of zoos actually lost animals (usually deer or waterfowl) due to them injesting plastic or other types of trash that were being fed by visitors.
     
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