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Building Safer Zoos: Balancing Visitor Convenience with Comfort of Animals

Building Safer Zoos: Balancing Visitor Convenience with Comfort of Animals

Zoos play a critical role in educating the public about wildlife, and fostering support for policies that protect endangered species and habitats. Designing safe zoos that allow safe access to animals while also providing them with a sound quality of life is imperative to allow these institutions to accomplish their mission.


When building exhibits, zoos must balance the desire of visitors to see animals in a naturalistic habitat, with safety and issues related to the needs of the animals housed. Facilities must take great care in designing exhibits, including their selection of zoo exhibit hardware, including zoo doors for exhibits.

Zoo Attendance Stats

Creating a zoo experience that is informative and safe for visitors and that also meets the developmental and life quality needs for animals is vitally important. Zoos provide the only opportunity many people get to see and interact with many animal species, including those that are endangered. This opportunity often bolsters visitors’ support for legislation and programs aimed at protecting these species and their environments.

According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, more than 175 million people visit zoos each year. That’s more people than attend NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB games combined. Zoos draw a diverse group of visitors – the largest demographic visiting zoos are mothers with children.

A survey conducted by the AZA found that 93 percent of respondents said their families enjoy seeing animals up close at zoos and aquariums. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said that they feel better about companies that support wildlife conservation at zoos and aquariums, and 66 percent said they are more likely to do business with these companies.

Zoos remain incredibly popular with the public, provide an invaluable teaching tool, and encourage greater public advocacy for wildlife issues. The better zoos accommodate visitors and animals, the greater their impact will be.

Building Safe Zoo Exhibits

The Animal Welfare Act governs how zoos in the United States are operated, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums also provides helpful support for zoos, including guidance concerning employee, animal, and guest safety.

In years past, many zoo animals were kept in tightly confined environments or cages. As understanding of animal needs and concern for their welfare has increased, criteria for zoo environments has changed. More care is given today to creating natural environments for animals that regard their need for space, their lifestyle in the wild, and the need for socialization among some animals, such as primates.

Specifics of zoo exhibit design will depend greatly on the type of animal the exhibit houses. The needs of a penguin will vary greatly from those of a lion or tiger. There are some universals in exhibit design and creation of a secure means of ingress and egress from exhibits.

Zoo doors must be designed to accommodate the safety needs of animals, zoo staff, and visitors. Zoo exhibit doors must have no sharp or unfinished edges that can harm staff or animals. The doors must also be tamper proof any attempt by the animals to open them. Zoo doors must be secure from accidental or intentional access by zoo visitors.

Zoo doors must be able to withstand harsh environments, regular wear and tear, and frequent cleaning. Zoo exhibit hardware frequently has a protective coating, such as powder coatings used in hoofed stock and primate exhibits, zinc plating, or stainless steel for environments where they may come in contact with salt water.

Some commonly used door designs for zoo exhibit hardware include swinging zoo door systems and sliding door systems. A good swinging door system will be heavy enough to provide safety and security, but easy for keepers to manage, requiring little force on their part to operate. Selection of proper hinges and ball or disc bearings is critical to a proper swinging zoo door.

With regard to sliding door systems, horizontal sliding doors must be matched with the right size hangers and tracks to withstand frequent use. These doors should operate smoothly and work with little physical effort on the part of zoo staff. Mechanical assistance devices such as remote crank operators can help zoo staff operate doors that may be heavy or otherwise difficult to use. Gears and other mechanisms used in these doors must be enclosed to prevent damage by animals, and to prevent corrosion and damage from debris.

Special zoo doors aren’t only used in animal exhibits. They are also used in veterinary areas where animals may be taken for treatment as well as quarantine centers. Facilities managers should keep safety and utility in mind when selecting doors for these portions of the zoo.

Technology & Zoo Management

Zoos and zoo exhibits will continue to evolve as new technology offers better methods for managing facilities and as demand for more animal-friendly enclosures increases. Experts suggest that exhibits should be designed for a 10-year life span as needs and available technology will make exhibits obsolete in this period of time. Designing facilities with disassembly and recycling in mind will help reduce costs.

Some current directions zoo exhibits are taking include invisible barriers created with special nettings, and increased use of tension steel wire and electric fences. Computer-aided design programs are helping exhibit designers create more naturalistic animal exhibits that maintain animal welfare and visitor safety, while also giving visitors a good look at wildlife in realistic environments.

The green movement is also having an impact on zoos. In Europe, more zoos are embracing water-recycling and technologies that emit less carbon dioxide emissions.

Zoos seeking sturdy, quality doors and other zoo exhibit hardware should consider Richards Wilcox Hardware. In business for more than a century, Richards-Wilcox has built a reputation for manufacturing quality specialty hardware for slide, swing, and slide-fold doors for a variety of industries, including zoos. Richards-Wilcox has provided zoo exhibit hardware for top zoos, including the Toledo Zoo, Chicago Zoological Society, Cincinnati Zoo, and more. Facilities managers seeking dependable zoo doors and animal handling hardware can trust Richards-Wilcox Hardware to meet the needs of their facilities.