Animal exhibits – Open kitchen concept to convey the message

Behind the scenes.

As partner of Lionhouse and architect working in the zoo sector I sometimes get the chance to see the staff only areas of a zoo in use; a glimpse behind the scenes, hidden for the ‘ordinary’ visitor.

A few months ago I visited the facilities of Stichting AAP in Almere, The Netherlands. This organisation provide care and shelter to exotic animals which have suffered severe abuse or neglect.

Stichting AAP

Stichting AAP – daily routine

Unlike zoos, Stichting AAP are not a visitor attraction. Their main objectives are the basic needs of the rescued animals. The holding quarters are therefore practical and efficient, without any unnecessary frills to please the public.

They do, however, try to involve the public in their work by offering guided tours behind the scenes. My host led me along the offices, the quarantine building and veterinary unit, the different animal houses and outdoor enclosures.

As he explained the process of rehabilitation of the rescued animals and showed me the daily routine of the staff – feeding, cleaning, observation etc. – it surprised me how fascinated I always get by the unadorned truth of these ‘behind the scene’-experiences, the authenticity of it.

That got me thinking.

Immersive zoo design

Most of today’s zoos have taken the direction of theming and true-to-nature looking exhibits in order to immerse the audience in exotic worlds, to stimulate their appreciation of the animal kingdom and to convey the message of conservation. While the same may also be achieved by giving the public the chance to experience the daily reality of animal husbandry.

So, should zoos open up kitchen as contribution to the message?

From the point of view of thematic or environment immersion the paradigm is to hide elements that disturb the illusion of nature; structures such as stables, off-exhibit housing and other animal and/or keeper facilities. At Lionhouse Architects we have therefore become accustomed to let our designs blend into the surroundings.

During a recent visit to a Dutch zoo a staff member confessed that, at first, one was reluctant to let the visitors step out of the ‘story’ that was created. Even though during winter most of the animals were in their stables and out of sight of the spectator. After all, deciding to provide the opportunity to see the animals meant having to reveal their ordinary accommodations, the unadorned truth.
However, once the zoo did decide to allow the public behind the scenes on cold winter days, the reactions were very positive.
People were enthusiastic to experience what it entails to care for wild animals.

Open kitchen zoo design

And since we now live in a time where people are once again looking for purity and authenticity, a time of ‘How it’s made’, ‘Grow your own’ and ‘Do it yourself’, this is not altogether surprising.

Perhaps you have seen Animal Planet’s new docuseries THE ZOO. This series gives viewers a first-ever look at the day-to-day happenings behind the scenes at The Bronx Zoo and the important work being done to conserve wildlife. It has become required viewing for the team at Lionhouse.

And although this is not quite the same as physically open up kitchen for the visitors present, the popularity of this series does underline the interest among the public to see what goes on in a zoo.

So why not let the animal facilities play a more important role in the story you want to tell. Stop hiding these valuable assets and start making the stables, holding rooms and other structures part of the visitor experience.

Of course only if the behavioural needs and behavioural management of the species are taken into account and the five freedoms of the animal are not compromised. But that goes without saying.

The stables are part of the visitor routing and provide a glimpse behind the scenes


Provision of a high standard of public viewing experience, that demonstrates fully the animals and their behaviours, and which is consistent with the educational messages and strategies relevant to the species, the organisation and EAZA.”

EAZA – Standards for the Accommodation and Care of Animals in Zoos and Aquaria
Accommodation – Space, Exercise and Grouping

Care to share your thoughts on this or interested in finding out how to open up kitchen at your zoo, please do not hesitate to contact us!



Stichting AAP

The Animal Advocacy and Protection Foundation provide shelter for exotic animals that do not lead animal-worthy lives due to human conduct like illegal trade, private ownership, exploitation in the entertainment industry or scientific research. Many primates and other exotic mammals are still forced to live under very poor circumstances. At Stichting AAP the animals are given the professional care that they need so that they can settle down and recuperate.

Immersive design (wiki)

To design intact worlds that are coherent, have an interior logic, contain history, geography, surface, metaphor, respond to and drive narrative, and allow an audience to be fully immersed in both environment and story. By definition an immersive designer is engaged in the embedding of story into environment, whether for passive or interactive media, in virtual or physical worlds.

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