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What koalas can teach us about the current state of zoo design

Dr Jake Veasey

Jun 11, 2023

Admittedly, koalas have a reputation for inactivity - and certainly there is a tendency for zoo designers to take that at face value; providing habitats that positively preclude activity, but an afternoon observing wild koalas shows habitat design is failing this species - as it is many more.

On a recent trip to #Australia, myself and some #zoo colleagues went in search of wild koalas in Great Otway National Park just west of Melbourne. As a first-time visitor to Australia, I was stoked to catch glimpses of koalas, silhouetted against the sky, high up at the very top of some tall, slim gum trees, doing usual #koala stuff – digesting eucalyptus leaves and conserving energy! Ironically, our most interesting encounter with a wild koala was immediately prior to our mini bush safari where we saw a koala walking at a surprisingly brisk pace across a car park of all places, avoiding puddles as it moved from one tree to another.

By no means does this brief encounter make me a koala expert, far, far from it, I have no idea for example, why koalas have such big ears relative to their size, but it would be high on my research to do list before designing a habitat for them! Is it a mechanism to detect now extinct predators, or for listening to the calls of typically distant conspecifics? Or both, or something entirely different?! Nevertheless, just a couple of minutes watching a wild koala in a carpark, and a few more looking at them high up in their canopy habitat, and it confirmed a long held suspicion that #zoodesign is failing this iconic Australian species, as it does so for many more species.

Classic image of a wild koala - silhouetted against the sky, high up in the canopy resting.

Even the most casual observer would conclude from that afternoon's encounter, that koalas move from one tree to another in search of food, which involves climbing down from high up in the canopy where the youngest growth is, before walking along the ground, selecting and climbing back up a promising looking tree, to where the tastiest leaves are. Given these appetitive behaviours, and the cognitive processes associated with choosing when to switch trees, which direction to travel in (on the ground), which tree to choose, and then which branch to start feeding on, are so intrinsically linked to their survival, it’s safe to assume, they are highly motivated behaviours and cognitive processes, and as a result, are likely to be necessary for good #animalwelfare. And so, it’s depressing to reflect on how few, if any, zoo koala habitats even attempt to accommodate these basic behavioural and cognitive needs, let alone the behaviours and cognitive processes linked to the size of their ears!

I’ve always found most zoo koala habitats uninspiring – key design considerations seem to be limited to the following points;

  1. bring koalas to visitor eye level (rather than bringing visitors to koala eye-level…, just a thought!)

  2. make it safe and easy for zoo staff to feed koalas the eucalyptus they need

  3. make the habitat easy to clean

  4. stop koalas escaping

  5. provide some Australian theming to create a sense of place for the visitors, if not for the koalas

  6. ensure the koalas are accessible to animal carers at all times

The net result, tends to be an "enclosure" rather than a "habitat", a mere fraction of the size of the carpark we saw a wild koala cross in a matter of seconds. This is most often surrounded by a low fence or glass panels, with a textured concrete floor, and a handful of cut branches a couple of meters or so long. These branches are arranged vertically in metal sockets to represent gum trees, albeit the shortest, most brutally of pruned bonsai gum trees, and attached to these stumps are various devices to hold cut eucalyptus, often with resident koalas infinitely closer to each other than they would routinely be in the wild. If you don't believe me, just run a google image search - I'll spare the blushes and not share any particular zoo images, but look and you'll see its so!

Even road signs suggest there's more to meet the eye about the apparently inactive koala! Image courtesy of Friends of the Koala Inc.

I'm not suggesting these considerations should be ignored, but habitat design shouldn't begin and end with them! It's frustrating and more than a little depressing to see enclosures - lets not dignify them with the title habitat - designed almost entirely for visitor viewing and the easy provisioning of basic physical needs, which fail to meet the most rudimentary cognitive and behavioural needs of the species, particularly as I'm sure they fail the visitor's needs as a result too! I wish I could say this state of affairs was limited to koalas, but it’s not.

In my experience, there is generally expected to be a trade-off between the ease of management and visitor viewing, with the welfare requirements of the animal, and that simply doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, our research has already demonstrated that animals provided greater opportunities to express biologically relevant, motivated behaviours not only have better welfare, but are also less exposed to physical challenges, and provide more engaging experiences to visitors.

But arguably, the biggest constraint on zoo design is how its approached, and dare I say it, by whom. So, lets genuinely flip the script and start the design of habitats, and their integrated animal management programs by systematically establishing the behavioural / cognitive needs of the species, and then, and only then, configuring habitats, management strategies, and the visitor experience around those needs; I have no doubt whatsoever that this approach will yield huge dividends for animals, and for visitors, not to mention helping to future-proof capital investments - just as I have no doubt, it is not yet the foundation of zoo design, as the current crop of emerging habitats can attest.

So when considering a new habitat development project for your zoo, aquarium, wildlife park or sanctuary, before you go and visit other facilities, or talk to someone who'll rework established yet potentially flawed designs, maybe spend some time observing the species in the wild, talking to people that do, and reach out to us.

To find out about our industry leading, evidence-based, peer-reviewed framework to deliver welfare focused habitat and management design, please reach out directly to myself Dr Jake Veasey and follow us to keep up to date with the latest news in welfare-based habitat design and management.

And if you know of a facility that does truly cater to the needs of koalas, please let me know!

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