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Excerpts from an interview with Becca Hanson, zoo designer
Becca Hanson is a partner at Studio Hanson Roberts, a landscape design firm specializing in connecting visitors to living collections. They have worked with zoos, botanical gardens, and similar institutions worldwide, including designing the Humboldt penguin exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo. Currently, they are the designers of our soon-to open Banyan Wilds: Malayan tiger and sloth bear exhibits.
Woodland Park Zoo: Tell us a little about your firm, and what you do there.
Becca Hanson: The studio is composed of myself, my husband, and six staff. Most of us are landscape architects, and we do zoo design work, which also includes aquariums – really, any work that brings people, animals and the natural environment together.
WPZ: To have a career in your field, what sort of education is needed, and what sort of things should someone enjoy?
BH: The things you really need to enjoy are animals and people, and to have a good solid love for the natural environment. For me, I started out in architecture, then realized it bored me to tears! (Laughs) So I left architecture and moved over into landscape architecture. I graduated with a professional degree in that, with a minor in plant community ecology. From there, I went on to work for a firm in Seattle, Jones and Jones, that had done the master plan for Woodland Park Zoo many years ago. Through that, I was introduced to zoo design, which I never knew existed as any kind of profession, and I fell in love with it! I fell in love with the people, because anyone who is involved with live animals and zoos has a deep, deep passion for the living world. And that is always satisfying to work with – there is never a bad moment when you’re working with those people, and with animals, and trying to do what’s best for those animals. And for education – I’ve learned a lot about educational philosophy, and social psychology, how to work with people, and move people, and get them to change their behaviors. But, also, I love just being able to create habitats that have animal welfare as their goal.
WPZ: Tell us a little more about how animal welfare is integrated into zoo design.
BH: It’s an exciting time to be a zoo designer, because the whole science of animal welfare is kicking into high gear, with a lot of good scientific work being done on what happiness really is. What do animals need in their lives? This came out of the United Kingdom in the 1960s, with the concept of the “five freedoms.” This was legislation that was passed there that dealt with farm animals and the farming industry. It was looking at what animals need to live rich and fulfilling lives, even though we’re using them -- such as using chickens to produce eggs. One of those things is to have enough space to do those behaviors that come naturally to them, like running to the end of the pasture, interacting with others, that sort of thing. Then in my profession, you add in the design framework, the physical spaces we all need to live rich and fulfilling lives. It’s very exciting!
WPZ: Tell us about the current project you’re working on for WPZ.
BH: The current project focuses on Malayan tigers and Asian sloth bears, two of my favorite animals. What we have been doing is taking a look at how you take the existing structures, which were built in the late 1940s and early 50s, and adapt those into better facilities for the animals. We’ve adapted the original night holding spaces, and we’ve also completely changed the outdoor exhibits… We’ve also layered in behavioral enrichment opportunities, things that help the animals express their natural behaviors. That behavioral freedom then gives the animals psychological security within the space, and allows people to see those natural behaviors being expressed. So it’s going to be pretty exciting when it’s built!
WPZ: What’s your favorite part of your job?
BH: My very favorite part is at the end, when the habitat is built, and the keepers are ready to introduce those animals into the new habitat. I love to be there, and watch those animals go into the habitat and start to interact with it. Will they use those design features we’ve built in? For example, on the penguin exhibit, we had long discussions about the penguins’ behavior – how steep an incline would they walk up, how far can they jump? And they did it! The penguins went right in there, and they did exactly what we expected, they swam in just the ways we expected, and they leaped out of the water doing porpoising behaviors in the areas we had designed for them to be able to do just that. And it was so much fun to see them expressing those wonderful behaviors! And then, when the animals are all settled in, they’re happy in their new habitat, you let the kids come see them. And watch as they make that connection, and see the beauty, and the physical joy of those animals. You can see each side being content, and calm, and happy in each other’s presence. Everything else in the design process just leads up to that moment.