Planning of a New Exhibit (Or Marriage of Horticulture with a Petting Zoo)
Debbie Vaughn-Wright (Docent) and Danielle Green (Curator of Horticulture)
Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, GA
Often times, when you think of a petting zoo, it is a no man’s land simply consisting of a corral, a very old ugly brown barn, dust and more dust; not much to look at except lots of children and a few goats or sheep. That is how the old Zoo Atlanta Petting Zoo could have been described; no colorful signage, no exciting sounds.
Many of our docents avoided the old petting zoo because there were not many interpretation opportunities available. The old petting zoo was missing a strong theme or message and only provided a few animals for the children to touch. The landscape was a collection of a few trees for shade and boring outdated plants. When the decision came to build a new petting zoo exhibit area everyone cheered.
Zoo Atlanta wanted to provide an exciting and colorful experience for our guests to enjoy and remember. Planning a new exhibit from the bottom up opened multiple opportunities for many departments to participate in the creation of this exhibit. A construction committee was formed from Birds and Small Animals, Maintenance, Horticulture, Marketing and Education. This committee pulled from years of experience in construction, facilities maintenance, animal care and interpretation to make this exhibit come alive. The Horticulture Department consulted with other zoos, such as the Cleveland Zoo, and researched the Australian Outback landscape to obtain information for the most authentic experience. In the planning process, consideration was given to the layout of the construction area, existing landscape, soil type, drainage, amount of sunlight, pedestrian and vehicular traffic patterns, types of animals and their specific needs, keeper needs, building style, educational messages and graphics, and the overall theme of the exhibit.
The result of this research was the Australian “Outback Station”. Horticulture is usually an “accessory” to an exhibit, but for this project the department played a more integral role in the creation of the Australian Outback Station. The goal of the landscape of this exhibit was designed to transport our guests to the Australian Outback and experience the animals that live there.
The educational theme for our Australian Outback Station is “Animals have fun working and playing in the Australian Outback”. Multiple activities, both static and interactive, can be found through the exhibit. Our target audience is three to seven year olds, plus parents and families. The exhibit is designed to facilitate family learning. The children will learn that caring for animals and the farm is a lot of hard work, but fun too.
Children can interact with the animals on the farm and help to care for our petting yard animals by grooming using brushes provided in the petting zoo. Children can experience working on the farm by using small rakes to clean the yard and interacting with keepers and volunteers. This hands-on experience teaches that domesticated animal’s active lives are filled with work, finding food and play. Finally guests will also learn about the wild animals, who exist outside the farm and who have fun obtaining food and finding a place to live.
The station animals in our new exhibit are Gulf Coast Native Sheep, Nigerian Dwarf Goats and Nubian Goats and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. Wild animals on exhibit are the red kangaroos and Kookaburras (no gum tree though).
With knowledge of the animals to be placed in the new exhibit and the location theme decided, our horticulture department now could design the landscape. The outback has an arid environment that can range from rugged outcrops with fantastic geology to dry flat plains with scrub to huge areas of termite mounds to springs with lush vegetation. The outback also has two distinct seasons wet and dry. Therefore the vegetation must be
able to withstand long periods of draught and some extreme temperatures (100+) between periods of heavy rain.
Atlanta has some of the most densely forested urban areas, as well as some of the highest spring pollen counts
in the country.
Recent years of below average rainfall have altered landscape practices. Precipitation is not always consistent, so consideration was given to accommodate periods of draught. Winters in Atlanta can range from mild to severe, and late frosts are not uncommon.
These two environments are different yet alike in many ways. Much of the exhibit lacks irrigation, so plants were chosen for their drought and heat tolerance. Using a combination of Georgia native plants, Australian and a few exotic plants, we were able to create a diverse and low maintenance landscape. Ornamental grasses and herbaceous perennials add color and texture to the landscape for year-round interest. Table 1
The kangaroo exhibit was created to include rolling hills for height and visual interest, and a dry creek bed with river rock to help facilitate drainage away from the barn. The elevation of the entire kangaroo habitat needed to be raised for viewing from the train, which runs around the children’s zoo. Large boulders were added where the creek bed splits direction. These boulders allow the kangaroos a place to sun themselves and a place for keepers to place browse. Inside this habitat, five (5) trees were installed for shade and interest. River Birch was chosen because of the peeling bark, which resembles Eucalyptus, and for animal toxicity concerns. Small boulders were placed at the base of the trees to deter the kangaroos from digging into the root system and chewing on the bark.
Additional landscaped areas consist of two (2) islands and an area between the kangaroo exhibit and the main walkway through the exhibit. All of these areas consist of plants that provide seasonal interest via flower, foliage and texture. These plants, some native to Georgia, are sturdy and require low maintenance. Shrubs range from evergreen to deciduous and large to small. These were combined with flowering perennials and ornamental grasses. The look and feel of the plants selected is very important. Wouldn’t plant Kentucky blue grass or rainforest vines and bamboo to illustrate a dry, dusty outback station. Some of the plants chosen mimic those found in Australia, such as Eucalyptus, and others provide similar color and texture. Red mulch was used to provide the landscaped areas with additional color for a stronger impact, and differentiate this area from others in the zoo. Finally, large posts and rope were installed as a barrier between the guest and the landscape.
To add color to the entrance to the exhibit, large farm troughs were chosen as seasonal planters. These troughs reinforce the Australian Outback farm theme and go well with the corrugated metal skin on the barn.
There are also two (2) trees planted in the petting zoo yard. The Sawtooth Oaks were installed to provide additional shade for this area, which can service hundreds of guests a day. These trees required a protection system from the goats. A wooden frame was constructed around the base of the tree and lined with small gauge mesh. As a final touch, vines were planted on the outside of the peeler post fence that separates the exhibit from the train. The vines chosen were Kiwi and Hops. These will grow to cover the fence and produce fruit, which adds to the Outback farm theme.
In the selection of the plants to be used in and around animal exhibits, many questions needed to be addressed.
For example, any plant material inside animal exhibits must first be approved by veterinary staff and be non-toxic to the animals. Also, landscape material should compliment the exhibit, not detract from it. Plant placement should not interfere with viewing opportunities and minimize damage from foot traffic. Naturally, our first concern is for our animals. Therefore, only approved browse plants were chosen for the interior of the exhibits. Any plant material around the exhibits that are known to be toxic were removed or pruned back away from the exhibit.
In addition to plant material, other materials were chosen to illustrate the Australian Outback. Some subtle but very key items were used to illustrate the arid environments of the outback. A key feature in the petting yard is the water tank that provides the message that the outback is very dry, so people have to conserve and store water. A few trees that provide a little shade are the only vegetation present. This illustrates how the farmer or station manager must provide the food and water for the livestock. The substrate chosen for the petting zoo is Decomposed Granite. We chose this instead of the usual granite dust because of its durability and sandy color.
The feeder in the petting zoo was renovated with a corrugated metal roof to match the barn.
Within the kangaroo exhibit, there is a dry streambed and some small boulders placed around the base of the trees to discourage the animals from chewing and digging around the trees. A big feature is the kangaroo fence.
This 8 ft. tall fence illustrates the extremes a station manager may have to go through to protect the livestock and/or farm from wild animals. In real life, the fence would not encircle the wild animals, but for practical purposes, our dingo fence keeps our kangaroos in not out.
A big difference between the petting yard and the kangaroo yard is the grass. In the kangaroo yard contains fescue as the substrate material. Although fescue wo uld not be found in the Australian Outback, this provides a great foraging opportunity for the animals.
Other choices that add to the Outback Station experience include a Peeler Post type fencing around the entire exhibit. This style fence was chosen for more rustic feel. Metal feeder troughs are used as seasonal planters at the entrance of the exhibit. This was a great opportunity to reuse containers already on grounds and illustrate the use of unique containers.
This new exhibit has provided the Horticulture Department an opportunity to introduce some new plant choices and planting styles to educate docents, staff and visitors about the use of plant material to help create a unique environment. This has opened up a whole new dialogue between horticulture department and education department, since people want to know more about the plants.
Table 1. Zoo Atlanta Outback Station Plant List
|Common Name||Scientific Name||Origin||Plant Highlights|
|River Birch||Betula nigra||Eastern North America||Interesting bark, Browse|
|Sawtooth Oak||Quercus acutissima||Japan, Korea, China||Fast growing, Browse|
|Podocarpus||Podocarpus macrophyllus ‘Maki’||Japan, Southern China||Foliage texture|
|Yeddo Hawthorn||Raphiolepis umbellata ‘Minor’||Japan, Korea||Drought tolerant|
|Pittosporum||Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegata’||Japan, Korea, China||Drought tolerant|
|Spanish Lavender||Lavandula stoechas||SW Europe, Greece||Silver foliage, Australian product|
|Rosemary||Rosmarinus officinalis||S Europe, Asia minor|
|Scotch Broom||Cytisus scoparius ‘Burkwoodii’||Central and S Europe||Flower, Texture|
|Chastetree||Vitex rotundifolia||Asia to Australia||Eucalyptus look-alike|
|Dwarf Bottlebrush||Callistemon citrinus ‘Little John’||Australia||Australian native|
|Pineapple Guava||Feijoa sellowiana||S Brazil, Uraguay||Interesting flower, Drought tolerant|
|Japanese Kerria||Kerria japonica ‘Golden Guinea’||Central & W China||Foliage texture, Winter interest|
|Winter Honeysuckle||Lonicera fragrantissima||E China||Fragrance, Eucalyptus look-alike|
|Silver Dollar Gum||Eucalyptus polyanthemus||Australia||Australian native|
|Silver Dollar Tree||Eucalyptus cinerea||Australia||Australian native|
|Scarlet Curls Willow||Salix matsudana ‘Scarlet Curls’||China, NE Asia||Winter interest, Browse|
|Dusty Zenobia||Zenobia pulverulenta||SE North America||Native, Silver foliage|
|Red Pussy Willow||Salix chaenomeloides||Japan||Winter interest|
|Evergreen Blueberry||Vaccinium darwoodii||Hybrid||Silver foliage|
|Kiwi Vine||Actinidia arguta ‘Issai’||Japan, Korea||Fast grower, fruit|
|Hops||Humulus lupulus’Nugget’||Europe, W Asia||Fast grower, fruit|
|Hops||Humulus lupulus’Aureus’||Europe, W Asia||Fast grower, fruit|
|Cheddar Pink Firewitch||Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’||Europe||Silver foliage|
|Guara Whirling||Butterflies||Guara lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’||SE North America|
|White Snakeroot||Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’||E North America||Foliage color|
|Rattlesnake Master||Eryngium yuccifolium||North America||Silver foliage, Texture|
|Flat Sea Holly||Eryngium planum||North America||Flower|
|Blanket Flower||Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Goblin’||Hybrid||Drought tolerant|
|Crocosmia||Crocosmia x crocomiiflora ‘Lucifer’||Hybrid||Silver foliage, Drought tolerant|
|Russian Sage||Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Filagran’||Afghanistan, Tibet||Flower, Texture|
|Red Hot Poker||Kniphofia uvaria ‘Flamenco’||South Africa||Foliage color|
|Painter’s Palette||Tovara virginiana ‘Variegata’||E North America, Japan|
|Canna Lily Australia||Canna ‘Australia’||Hybrid||Flower, Foliage color|
|Golden Globes / Lysmachia||Lysmachia pocumbens ‘Golden Globes’||Australia, S Africa, S America||Flower color, Growth Habit / Australian native, Flower color,|
|Blue Fanflower||Scaveola aemula||Australia||Growth Habit|
|Persian Shield||Strobilanthes dyerianus||SE Asia||Foliage color|
|Leatherleaf Sedge||Carex buchanii||New Zealand||Foliage color, Winter interest|
|Weeping Love Grass||Eragrostis curvula||S Africa||Interest|
|Blue Love Grass||Eragrostis elliottii||SE North America||Foliage color, Winter interest|
|Feather Reed Grass||Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ Hybrid||Flower|
|Pink Muhly Grass||Muhlenbergia capillaris||North America||Native, Texture, Winter interest|
|Mexican Feather Grass||Nassella tenuissima||SW North America, Mexico||Texture|
|Snowy Wood Rush||Luzula nivea||Europe||Texture|
|Silver Sedge||Carex platyphylla||North America||Foliage color|