Balancing Act: Achieving Harmony Between Nature and Science at Zoos and Aquariums

In the last decade, technology has changed the way zoos and aquariums interact with guests.  Technology is no longer just about enhancing a guest’s experience during a visit but enhancing that experience before and after a visit as well.
As Vice-President for Planning and Capital Projects at the Denver Zoo, George Pond oversees the technology improvements at the 80-acre zoo, which is home to 4,000 animals.  With more than 1.7 million guests visiting the zoo each year and another 200,000 learning about the zoo via its educational outreach program, Pond knows the importance technology plays in a zoo’s success.

“I have been here for 10 years, and we have been aggressively building for 10 years,” Pond said.  “New exhibitions come with technology advances for not only the animals but for the keepers, staff and guests as well.” For the exhibits, Pond has brought in new hardware and software technology that are instrumental in how the animals are managed at the zoo.

“Our newest exhibit is Asian Tropics, a $50 million dollar exhibit that covers more than 10 acres.  Elephants, rhinos and tapirs rotate throughout six yards. Using the computer programs, the zoo staff can control the 120 gates included in the exhibit allowing the animals to move through the yards and indoors and outdoors,” Pond noted. “With so many areas for them to go, the animals are always on exhibit and visible to the guests and that is what guests want. They want to see the animals in their own environment. It’s so much better for the animals too. They have more room and are more comfortable in their natural habitat.”

Pond has also increased the use of cameras in the zoo, which allow staff to monitor animal behavior or to observe them during the breeding process, and the zoo maintains an AV system with LCD TVs as well at various locations throughout the zoo. He is also working on a phone app that will give information about exhibits and shows.

“We also have kiosks near the main gate, which allows guests to input their e-mail so they can get information not only about the zoo but about conservations projects and tips too,” he said.  “Website and social media improvements have become very important.  They are the main tool for communicating with guests and learning about our guests. They can post their concerns and questions and we respond. Social media is a great way to build relationships with zoo visitors.”

Steve Dorand is senior vice president of design at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, La. His responsibilities include overseeing all design for exhibits in the Institute’s 10 parks and museums that are dedicated to celebrating nature. Under the Audubon Institute umbrella, which is a not-for-profit organization, there is a zoo, aquarium and an insectarium that houses 26,000 bugs.

“Everything is about a multi-sensory experience,” explained Dorand.  “We immerse our guests in the experience. In the insectarium, technology invites them to see, touch and even eat bugs.” Dorand believes that education through entertainment is important for technology-savvy visitors and it is also important because technology gives the bugs better lives too.

“When some people first come to our sites, especially the Insectarium, they have preconceived ideas. For example, they think they hate bugs, but with the help of technology aids from lighting to sound to graphics, they become a part of the experience, and they are often converted from bug haters into bug lovers or at least bug tolerators.  But it’s technology that allows us to deliver the conservation message.”

In the aquarium, LED lights improve the ambiance for the animals and give Dorand and his staff the flexibility to figure out the right spectrum of lights that the animals need to live well. They make the animals the focus of the exhibits so that they remain healthy and comfortable in their surroundings.

“The older lights look like monsters in the exhibits, they take up so much space and are not aesthetically pleasing to visitors either,” he noted.  “We are converting all lights to LED. They put out less heat and are consistent with temperature. In the butterfly garden, the butterflies actually look healthier because of the change of light.  The LED light is less harsh, which makes the butterflies want to move around more.”

Dorand uses DMX control systems to change the color of the light, which for some exhibits mimics the change in the color of the sky from sunrise to sunset. “DMX systems have been around for years. They were used for concerts, theater, etc.  So, we took the technology and integrated them, and we use them throughout exhibits to mix color palettes. We also use the LEDs in our own theaters, including our IMAX theater and stage shows.”

The Audubon Institute will welcome more than 2.5 million visitors this year. The Nature Institute has an in-house TV station with HD systems throughout the facilities, which give guests a more realistic experience.  Also in their technology arsenal are iPads, which the staff uses to access information for guests’ questions. The Audubon Institute has developed social media channels to keep people informed about upcoming events and to engage past visitors too about their experiences.

“We use technology in everything, but we are sensitive about it too.  There is a great age gap between visitors who come to zoos and aquariums. We will have a 10 year old on his iPhone accompanying his grandfather who might not be up on technology. We don’t want to intimidate those who are not sure about it, but we don’t want to lag behind those who embrace it.  It’s a tough balance, but one worth seeking.”

Houston, Texas-based Landry’s Restaurants operates three aquariums in Texas and Colorado. As Director of Biology for the three Aquarium locations in Downtown Houston and Kemah Texas and in Downtown Denver, Colo., Jim Prappas is responsible for the integration of technology into all exhibits and facilities.

“Technology in some form must be present in today’s zoos and aquariums. It’s important to engage guests and involve them in the exhibits and shows.  This is entertainment but this is also about conservation and getting out the message that we can all do a little bit to help the planet.”  At the Downtown Denver Aquarium, more than 500 animals are on exhibit while more than 700 call the Downtown Houston exhibit home.  The Kemah Aquarium is unique in that guests dine around a 50,000 gallon tank that contains everything from sharks to stingrays.

“Technology has become our best friend. Cell phones alone have made our lives here easier not only for communication between the staff, but communicating with our outside support too. For example, instead of calling the veterinarian and describing something that is going on with an animal, I can take a picture and show the vet what is going on,” Prappas explained.  “Communication is key to everything.”

Along with technology upgrades to communication, The Downtown and Kemah aquariums also have upgraded LED lighting, which as Prappas points out is more economical and more comfortable for both the animals and guests.
“The LED lighting is a ‘green’ way of lighting, and they are cost effective too.  The LEDs allow us to dim the lighting in the exhibits and to accent certain areas in the exhibits too.  They are consistent with temperature and this is more comfortable for the animals.” Upgraded pumps and filtration systems are also included in technological upgrades, and these systems allow Prappas and his staff the opportunity to create a healthier environment for the animals.  
“The filtration systems do help us to keep the water as clear as possible, and that allows maximum visibility for our guests. An aquarium is a visual experience above all else, so we want to make sure that visitors get the most out of their visit.  If they are awed by what they see, they will care about what they see, and that is important.”

Like Dorand, Prappas believes that technology has to be handled carefully. “We don’t want to overpower our guests or intimidate them with too much,” Prappas said.  “We want technology to bring about a greater appreciation and a greater learning experience.”

At the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., visitors travel up to an altitude of 6,800 feet to see the more than 700 animals representing 30 endangered species. The zoo is also well known for its reticulated giraffe herd, which is the largest in the world.

“We are high up there,” said Jean Gordon, who with her staff is responsible for the technology and social media improvements at the zoo. “We are only one of nine accredited aviary zoos that do not receive any funding from tax dollars. We get our funding from admissions, donations and grants, so we make improvements over time.” This year, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo hosted more than 574,000 visitors, which is a record for the 146-acre zoo that is located on the side of a mountain and near the Will Rogers shrine.

“We are very aggressive with social media. Since we do not have a big budget to advertise or market the zoo, we rely on social media to get the word out,” Gordon noted.  “We are on Facebook and Twitter and now have implemented a large E-blast program that reaches more than 15,000 people in our database.” The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo also has texting services. When guests come, they text the zoo’s number and the events and demonstrations for the day are texted back.
“It is a great help to the guests because they know in advance what is happening and how to plan their time with us.”

Three hundred thousand guests visit the Little Rock Zoo in Little Rock, Ark., each year.  The 33-acre zoo has more than 725 animals representing more than 200 species and it is the only accredited zoo in Arkansas.  “Technology is becoming more important each year,” said Susan Altrui, the director of development for the zoo.  “Our website and social media have become essential tools to promoting the zoo. Along with Facebook and Twitter, we use Four Square, which gives GPS coordinates to the zoo.  Guests check into Four Square and find specials and promotions waiting for them. When we interact with people before, during and after their visit, we build loyal zoo visitors.”

According to Altrui, more communication improvements are in the final stages.  A phone app will allow cell phone users to see what is going on at the zoo. It will also provide directions to exhibits, shows, concessions and restrooms.  
“We want each guest to have a comfortable and enjoyable visit.  The more satisfied they are, the better the chances are that not only will they return but they will bring other visitors with them.  We live in a world where technology is essential to our everyday life.  We are making daily efforts to provide that high-tech service to our guests.”

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