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From Menageries to Masterplans: Linking the Botanical with the Zoological

Volume 1 Number 2 - October 2004

John Arnott

Zoological gardens proliferated in the western world throughout the 19th Century. Many demonstrated what we would today consider inadequate conditions. Shifting public opinion post the 1960’s forced changes to the role of zoo’s that ultimately led them to becoming centres for animal conservation, research, environmental education.

The approach was one of ‘habitat immersion’ through the development of naturalistic exhibits that attempted to simulate or represent the physical and biological elements of an ecosystem. The extension of the naturalistic exhibit has been the move towards the Biopark. The term Biopark refers to an institution which amalgamates the plant curation and display of a botanic garden, the zoology and wildlife display of a zoo and the exhibition of artefacts and objects, together with study and interpretation which one would normally associate with a museum.

This paper discusses the evolution of zoos, and complimentary relationship between zoos and botanic gardens as life science institutions committed to the principals of environmental education with a strong ecological and social emphasis.


Our fascination with wildlife has expressed itself in people keeping animals in captivity for centuries. In 1000 BC, Chinese emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence, which housed a collection of exotic animals in extensive park-like surroundings. The ‘Garden of Intelligence’ reference alludes to the educational potential of zoos even in their earliest form.

These gardens were usually situated in park-like or wooded settings however, it would appear that there was no attempt to integrate the flora and fauna beyond an attractive setting. Indeed it was not until Louis XIV of France deliberately planted trees, shrubs, and flowers around and between the cages of his menagerie to conceal the ugly bars and fences that horticulture began to take on a special role in the zoo. During the French Revolution, botanists at the famous Jardin des Plantes in Paris begrudgingly accepted Louis’ menagerie for safekeeping.  Thus, in 1793, the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes became the first public zoological garden in the western world.  (Moore 1999)

Zoological Gardens proliferated in the western world throughout the 19th Century, often supporting the role of the acclimatisation societies and the introduction of useful domestic and ornamental species. The menageries of the 19th Century demonstrated what we would today consider inadequate conditions. The animal’s natural habitat and behaviour were not fully understood or taken into consideration when exhibits were designed and constructed. As cleaning was the primary concern, enclosures were typically concrete floored and lacked any natural vegetation. Visitors viewed the animals while strolling through landscaped gardens that often consisted of sweeping lawns, ornamental lakes, specimen plants and bedding displays. The emphasis was on leisure and recreation and the novelty of seeing exotic and dangerous animals.

There was however a notable exception with the lavish European landscape approach of Carl Hagenbeck, a German zoologist and animal dealer. In 1902, Hagenbeck revolutionized the approach to zoo exhibit design by building his radically new ‘Tierpark’ (Animal Park) on the outskirts of Hamburg.  His zoo was based on the concept of barless, moated exhibits. Hagenbeck’s innovative style also attempted to display animals in their naturally occurring social groups rather than the more typical ‘postage-stamp’ collections of one or two animals. (Moore 1999). The Hagenbeck approach was perhaps unique and not widely emulated across the world’s zoos. Indeed through the first half of the 20th century the approach of many zoos to exhibit design was purely functional. There were few attempts at creating stimulating enclosures for the captive animals or to develop integrated displays with horticultural or botanical components.


Changing role of zoos

Shifting public opinion during the 1960’s which gained in momentum during the 1970’s and 80’s, forced changes to the role of zoo’s that has ultimately led them to becoming centres for animal conservation, research, environmental education as well as continuing to be major tourist attractions. In line with such developments the zoo industry undertook  something of a metamorphosis in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In Seattle landscape architects Jones and Jones et al reapplied the landscape approach of Hagenbeck to modern zoo designs. John Coe’s ‘Design and Perception: Making the Zoo Experience Real’ remains a watershed in the evolution of the zoo exhibit.  The broad principals associated with this document are still relevant to exhibit design.

The approach was one of ‘habitat immersion’ through the development of naturalistic exhibits, spaces that attempted to simulate or represent the physical and biological elements of an ecosystem. Perhaps the most notable example of an institution which totally embraced the approach was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Under the directorship of David Hancocks, the Desert Museum was years ahead of its time and a model much emulated by zoos and wildlife parks worldwide.

Displaying animals in naturalistic exhibits with a clear focus on habitat representation provides zoos with the opportunity to demonstrate the often-complex interrelationships between plants, animals and their environment.  This allows for the potential for interpretation and public education and provides an exhibit environment to better cater for the range of social, behavioural and psychological needs of different animal species.

It is into this environment that a zoo visitor enters. It is a powerful method of display that highlights the interaction between plants and animals and can alter the perception that visitors have of the animals and plants. 


Studying visitor attitudes

A study in the 1990’s at Melbourne Zoo in Australia highlighted the effect this type of exhibit has on visitors and its ability to engender positive attitudes toward plants and animals.  This research examined visitor perception of Western Lowland Gorillas at Melbourne Zoo in a newly constructed naturalistic exhibit in contrast to the old pit style exhibit (Burton 1990). When school children aged between 10 and 15 were asked what the threats to the gorillas might be in the wild, the common response in the old enclosure was poaching, shooting and hunting. Asked the same question about gorillas in the naturalistic exhibit and the responses were was markedly different. The overwhelming response was that gorillas are threatened by loss of habitat.

A change in the visitor perception of the gorillas themselves was also evident. In the old enclosure the gorillas were referred to as ugly, stupid, angry, aggressive; all negative reactions. When asked about the same individual gorillas in the naturalistic exhibit the changes in responses were quite startling.  They were perceived as being gentle, social and intelligent animals (Burton 1990).

The results of these two studies support the importance and inherent values of immersion. An exhibit display that combines elements of flora, fauna and landscape provides zoo visitors with a genuine opportunity to make quite profound links and clearly demonstrates the educational potential for modern zoos. Broadly speaking naturalistic exhibits and the principals of habitat or landscape immersion are now almost universally considered to be the tools to aid in the delivery of educational objectives for zoos.

In recent times there has been a trend for zoos to incorporate botanic displays into their programs and landscapes. These initiatives have been developed along the same principals as the naturalistic animal exhibit, highlighting issues of habitat, conservation, environmental education and so on. But generally speaking with garden displays a more focused or higher level of botanic integrity and accuracy is possible due in the main to the absence of pressures from the resident animals! Today there is a trend in zoos to actively adopt botanical collections planning and policy to assist in the management of their botanic collections.

The Volcanic Plains Exhibit at Werribee Zoo in South East Australia provides an interesting case study. The Volcanic Plains Exhibit displays over 200 native grassland plant species from this region. Surveys suggest that visitors leaving this display have taken with them a positive impression of the volcanic plains grassland. This habitat once occupied 20,000 square kilometres of Western Victoria and was referred to as ‘Australia Felix – favoured part of Australia’ by Major Thomas Mitchell an early explorer to the region.  Habitat destruction has reduced this ecosystem to less than 1% of its original range. These grassy ecosystems today support 31% of the state of Victoria’s endangered plant species (Lunt, Barlow).  The fragmented remnants often occur on land zoned for industry, housing or other developments and need to compete with these interests for their existence. Grasslands suffer from a poor public perception and are often referred to as being snake infested, weedy fire hazards.  The Volcanic Plains Exhibit puts into context many of these elements and helps to dispel such myths. Issues such as fire can also be tackled through its use as a landscape management tool (Rowe 2004).


Alice Springs Desert Park

The Alice Springs Desert Park in Central Australia is perhaps the best example of a life science institution, which aims to completely integrate botanical elements into its design philosophy and displays. The park was designed to move well beyond the boundaries of traditional zoos, botanic gardens and museums and has adopted a holistic ‘habitat-based and story driven’ approach to display and interpret the Australian desert in its entirety; the landscapes, animals and plants, and their traditional use and management by Aboriginal people. This has been recognised by experts in the field including Sir David Attenborough who claimed ‘There is no museum or wildlife park in the world that could match it’.

The development of the Alice Springs Desert Park heralded the next significant trend in zoo design and interpretation through integrating cultural interpretation into the experience. Strongly associating people and the fundamental relationship humans have with the local and global environment has allowed for interpretation and educational programs to be structured as education for the environment, rather than education about the environment.



The Alice Springs Desert Park can appropriately lay claim to being one of the world’s great bioparks, a term which was first used by Michael Robinson in 1984 when considering the strategic direction for the National Zoological Park in Washington.

The Biopark approach is the logical extension of naturalistic exhibits for zoos and natural history institutions worldwide. In essence, the biopark refers to an institution which amalgamates the plant curation, exhibition and display of a botanic garden, the zoology and wildlife display of a zoo or wildlife park and the exhibition of artefacts and objects, together with study and interpretation which one would normally associate with a museum.

The biopark approach was discussed in detail in a parallel session of the World Botanic Gardens Congress in Barcelona earlier this year. Mark Richardson (Director, Asia and Middle East Program BGCI), who was instrumental in setting up the Alice Springs Desert Park, facilitated the session.

The session discussed the differences between zoos and botanic gardens but importantly it explored and highlighted the synergies and the complementary relationship between the institutions.

The key discussion points from this session were:

  • the amalgamation of botanic gardens and zoological displays which are based on ecological principals are a logical progression to effective natural history displays
  • there is a need to encourage common work and activities between zoological and botanical staff to achieve good links
  •  the work that the botanical/horticultural staff of many zoos are currently doing demonstrates that zoos are already contributing to the goals of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the registration of zoos for the International Agenda should be encouraged
  • there are many common links between the educational programs associated with zoos to the work that botanic gardens are facilitating

Perhaps zoos, with their charismatic animals that serve to fascinate and inspire, their strong ecological emphasis and underpinning focus on wildlife habitats, have an enhanced opportunity to deliver clear environmental messages to a broad cross section of the community.

Equally, botanic gardens are increasingly delivering an ecological message through plant displays, exhibits, and collections, discussing the fundamental relationship between plants and people and have broadened their interpretation and education programs to discuss interdependency, ecosystems, and conservation.
The biopark model may well be the ideal, but for many established institutions an impossibility. However the shared principals of environmental education with a strong ecological and social emphasis, ensures an enduring and complementary relationship between zoos and botanic gardens.


Les Jardins Zoologiques ont proliféré dans le monde occidental pendant le 19eme siècle. Un grand nombre fournissait des conditions d’élevage que l’on considèrerai comme inadéquates aujourd’hui. L’évolution de l’opinion publique depuis les années 1960 a obligé à revoir le rôle des zoos et les a finalement conduits à devenir des centres pour la conservation des animaux, la recherche et l’Education à l’Environnement.

Une des approches fut celle de « l’immersion dans l’habitat », par le développement de reconstitutions de milieux naturels qui tentaient de simuler ou de représenter les éléments physiques et biologiques d’un écosystème. Par extension, les reconstitutions naturelles ont évoluées vers la notion de Bioparcs. Le terme de Bioparc se réfère à une institution qui amalgame la présentation de végétaux, comme dans un jardin botanique, la présentation d’animaux sauvages, comme dans un zoo, et la présentation d’objets et de fac-similés avec les notions d’étude et d’interprétation qui sont normalement associées aux musées.

Cet article traite de l’évolution des zoos et les relations complémentaires entre les zoos et les jardins botaniques comme institutions de sciences de la vie, attachées aux principes de l’Education à l’Environnement avec un fort accent mis sur l’écologie et le social.


Los zoológicos proliferaron en los países de occidente durante el siglo XIX. Muchos de ellos mostraban lo que hoy en día consideramos condiciones inadecuadas. El cambio externado por la opinión pública a partir de los 60’s obligó a los zoológicos a cambiar sus objetivos transformándolos en centros de conservación e investigación animal y de educación ambiental.

Una de las aproximaciones de este cambio fue la de “simulación del habitat” mediante el desarrollo de exhibiciones naturalistas que imitan o representan los elementos físicos y biológicos de un ecosistema. La extensión de la exhibición naturalista es lo que ha promovido el desarrollo del Bioparque. El término Bioparque se refiere a una institución que integra la curación de plantas de un jardín botánico, los aspectos zoológicos y de vida silvestre de un zoológico y  la exhibición de artefactos y objetos, junto con la investigación e interpretación asociada normalmente a museos.

Este artículo se centra en la discusión de la evolución de los zoológicos, y la relación complementaria entre zoológicos y jardines botánicos como instituciones científicas vivas comprometidas con los principios de la educación ambiental con un fuerte componente ecológico y social.

John Arnott is the Curator of Geelong Botanic Gardens, PO Box 104, Geelong 3220, Australia.  Tel: (03) 5227 0387.  Fax: 0408408157. Email: