Spot the ’lot at the Santa Ana Zoo

By: Chris Overdorf, Principal Landscape Architect, ELM

If you have ever seen one, you’ll know that ocelots are really cool cats. They are small, agile, secretive, have adapted incredible night vision to hunt prey, and are active only at night. They hide in thick underbrush or up in trees while they sleep during the day. Their survivability is dependent on not being seen. Due to their natural behaviors, ocelots are a hard species for which to design an engaging zoological exhibit.

Recently ELM was assigned the task of addressing this challenge. On March 6-7th three ELM principals, Steve Lovett, Steve Cechvala and myself (Chris Overdorf), helped the Santa Ana Zoo develop a concept for a new ocelot exhibit that turns their natural behavior into a game for the visitors – Spot the ‘lot.

The first step was an unbiased assessment of the goals the zoo had for the project. One of the techniques we utilize to build consensus and create an efficient process is what we call “wall mapping.” At the onset of the project, even before we step out onto the site, we facilitate a session where project goals, facts, needs, issues and eventually ideas are flushed out from everyone.

After we’ve gone through the process, all participants are allowed to vote on the 10 most critical elements they would like to see in the new master plan. This voting procedure allows the stakeholders to self-prioritize and categorize the most important and essential goals/needs/ideas.

In Santa Ana, the “Top Ten” were:

  1. Design the exhibit to support/be adaptable for multiple/other species
  2. The project gets done!
  3. Captures the imagination of the visitors/needs to be interactive & fun – the WOW! Factor
  4. Has video monitoring for both animal welfare & off-site viewing (Internet)
  5. Has easy visual access for all visitors
  6. Stimulates the animals’ natural behavior
  7. Has a water element in the exhibit
  8. Has keeper-friendly, off-exhibit accommodations
  9. Conservation message is integral to the exhibit
  10. Stay in budget!

Armed with these goals, ELM and the rest of the zoo team got to work analyzing the best site for the exhibit. We ensured the exhibit location could take advantage of as many nearby utilities to keep costs down. We developed contextual strategies to combat the noise issue from nearby Interstate 5. We also paid particular attention to solar aspect and shadowing from the beautiful tree canopy at the zoo.

One of the idea-bursts we had was to make the exhibit as dark and dense as possible. Doing so (in addition to varied feeding times and other animal management ideas) would promote more animal activity than usual during the day. However, this created its own set of issues, specifically how will visitors be able to see the cats?

So, instead of making the exhibit deep and open, we made it shallow, linear, and dense. Instead of sacrificing the animal’s need for hidden places to sleep, we turned it into an activity that reinforced the conservation message. Multiple viewpoints were created that would require visitors to climb into the canopy, be an ocelot researcher with an elevated blind, check a sand table for tracks, or crawl into their own den where they had another potential vantage point to “spot the ‘lot.” On top of this, we were able to develop enough design specificity to develop a detailed cost opinion based on real local materials and construction data.

From goals to site selection to design to cost in two days. Not too bad for only two days of work…