Rainforest, Savanna and Taiga in Seattle: A Conversation with Dave Towne, Retired Director of the Wo

During the late 1970s, zoo habitat design was at a crossroads. For decades, zoos had been places where guests merely went to see animals, almost always in spaces that did not give much consideration to their natural habitat or lifestyles. However, a design team named Jones and Jones in Seattle saw the potential for something better. They pioneered “immersion” habitats, which recreated specific bioclimatic environments from around the world. In this concept, animals live in naturalistic conditions that facilitate their wild behavior while visitors are simultaneously immersed into these environments as well. When Jones and Jones came up with a master plan for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, many thought the concept was absurd since it would make it harder to see the animals. However, one person who did see potential in the idea was head of parks in Seattle, Dave Towne. He would later become the longtime director of the zoo. Here is his story.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@Woodland Park Zoo

In the 1970s, the Woodland Park Zoo was in need of a new direction and more community support. “I was head of parks at that time in Seattle,” Towne recalled. “The zoo had been through a major controversy. The controversy was over a proposal to expand the zoo over a highway into a lower park area. A large air structure would house both plants and animals and that raised a great uproar from park people.” Additionally, many of the zoo’s facilities were outdated. Towne saw the long-term master plan created by Jones and Jones as a risk but also an opportunity. “I saw the plan as a risky bet on naturalistic habitats where the public would feel they’re part of the environments of the animals,” he said. “This was a major shift from a landscaped park with animals exhibits in it. I was concerned there would be objections.” Instrumental to the project was David Hancocks, who Towne hired as director of the zoo. Towne gave Hancocks the responsibility of implementing the master plan. “David was very articulate and was able to help sell the concept that Jones and Jones had developed,” he reflected. “He was a very sensitive person when it came to animals and landscape, less so to politics and the general public.”

@ Scott Richardson

With Hancocks as director, the zoo began making the concept of immersion habitats a reality. “We started implementing the concept with a swamp and marsh bird habitat,” Towne remarked. “We converted an unused aviary that was heavily landscaped with native birds.” A much more ambitious project was taken with the second immersive habitat: the very first naturalistic environment for gorillas in an American zoo. “There had never before been anything like that gorilla habitat anywhere,” Towne elaborated. "The gorillas had been kept in a concrete building with no outside experience. The zoo world was very skeptical that it would ever work.” The environment was carefully planted and designed to recreate the atmosphere and experience of the African rainforest. The groundbreaking gorilla habitat opened in 1979 and, for the first time at any zoo in the world, gorillas were free to live in a naturalistic space.

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Even today, the Woodland Park Zoo’s gorilla habitat is one of the very best in the world. Two groups roam through a lush environment complete with plenty of opportunities for them to nest, forage, play, explore and interact naturally. While some of the “older zoo world people thought it was a flash in the pen,” the habitat won the praise of an extremely significant professional: the late primatologist Diane Fossey. While not usually a fan of zoos, she was very impressed when she came out and visited the gorilla habitat. “Fossey really appreciated that we were trying to do the right thing,” Towne recalled. He explained that while the habitat had its doubters at the time, today “everyone loves it." "We’ve had 12-15 gorillas born and raised there and they’re out year round because of the heating lamps," Towne commented. "Everybody loves the fact [the gorillas] look like they are in nature.” What is even more amazing is that the habitat looks just as brilliant almost forty years later. Towne credits this to the habitat being “well thought out” and being “very well maintained and managed.”

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@ Woodland Park Zoo

The next major project that showed the world what immersion habitats could be was the African Savanna. “Jones and Jones had the idea of taking an unused area and building an African Savanna over it,” Towne recalled. A central plains features giraffes, zebras, ostriches and antelope with only invisible barriers separating them from lions, hippos and Patas monkeys. The vegetation and landscape in the area resembles the plains of East Africa. “It was our first award,” mentioned Towne ( African Savanna won the Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 1981.) Like with the gorilla habitat, he credited expert design and maintenance for the region standing the test of time. “The African Savanna requires a lot of replanting,” explained Towne. “We have wet winters where the animals- the zebra, the giraffe- tear up the grass so it has to be constantly replaced. Later we added to it the African Village, which is more educational. That has really been a big hit.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

However, while the immersion concept had proven itself, the progression of the zoo’s habitats and the desires to keep improving the zoo were stalled by insufficient finances from the city. This economic reality was particularly resented by the zoo’s director, David Hancocks. “Back then the zoo was run by the city and depended on its money,” Towne explained. “David would get very upset at the city council and the mayor when he didn’t get things he wanted.” Frustration grew at the lack of economic support for the zoo and this was only cemented when a levy failed to pass. In 1984, Hancocks left the zoo and morale was low. “There wasn’t money to get stuff we wanted done,” Towne recalled. With the zoo in need of a director, Dave Towne was hired and agreed to “be there for two years to right the ships.” However, he would end up serving as director until 2000.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Fortunes of the zoo changed when a large levy was passed, giving funds for improvements. “I stayed mainly because all the sudden we got community support and passed a bond issue, which passed in spite of a lot of opposition,” he remembered. “We had a mission to satisfy the voters and a need to raise another $30 million in private money in order to match the bond levy that had been voted on. I was so pleased we were supported and needed to make sure we satisfied what the public wanted." The first major project done under Towne’s leadership was the construction and opening of Elephant Forest, one of the first naturalistic habitats for the pachyderms which has since been closed. “Newspapers and several other people stepped up and said they wanted to save the elephants and take them out of their crappy old exhibit,” he remarked. “They went on a fundraising campaign that we supported and generated a lot of money to build Elephant Forest. The levy included money for an elephant habitat that would become world-class.” Elephant Forest won the AZA Exhibit of the Year award in 1990.

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However, from day one, the habitat raised controversy. “Our town is rather susceptible when it comes to Free Willy type attitudes,” Towne reflected. “When we opened the habitat we had protestors at the gate saying unchain the elephants. I invited them into the dedication and said we were on the same mission.” Even though the elephants received high quality care and lived in a naturalistic environment with a nice pool, some people felt the habitat was not large enough. “Our elephants never walked to the other side of the habitat unless we put food there,” Towne said. “The argument was that there wasn’t enough room for the elephants even though it was the elephant’s choice to stay there.” Tensions grew as efforts to breed the zoo’s elephants were unsuccessful. The only calf born at the zoo, Hansa, was killed by a deadly virus in 2007, which “somewhat encouraged the activists.” A few years ago the difficult decision was made to send the zoo’s remaining elephants to another zoo. “We had an aging herd and no ability to bring in any new Asian elephants,” Towne recalled. However, he feels many larger, more modern state-of-the-art elephant habitats opened at other zoos in recent years build off of the foundation of Seattle’s elephant habitat. “Many other zoos- Omaha, San Diego and so forth- have tried to replicate what we did with Elephant Forest,” Towne explained. "They’ve made it naturalistic and given them pools.”

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One of the major changes that came during Dave Towne’s time as director at the Woodland Park Zoo was a newfound focus on education and conservation. “We didn’t have any education when I first came,” he reflected. “Neither did we have conservation. We were part of a city department and the funding was not there to support that kind of program. We finally hired a curator of education, which also included conservation. Jim Foster, who was very concerned about conservation, was involved with the Diane Fossey’s work in Africa.” Towne credited Foster with changing the culture of conservation at the zoo. “Little by little we evolved the program,” he remarked. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that Towne felt the zoo was doing a lot for conservation. “We hired a conservation director, founded the center for wildlife conservation and funded it through private sources,” he explained. “We undertook combined efforts with Oregon Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo and Northwest Trek.” However, Towne acknowledged there is “no comparison between the conservation efforts when I was there with the ones now, budget wise or energy wise.” He praised the zoo for its profound focus on global conservation projects.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

After Elephant Forest, the zoo’s next major project was the Tropical Rainforest. “It rains here a lot and our effort was to create habitats that replicate different parts of the world,” Towne explained. However, while the zoo could recreate the tropical rainforest with plants outside, it could not do so with all the animals “without a climate controlled facility." "What we did was combine what we could do outside with certain animals and what we had to do inside,” Towne said. Designers at Portico, an offshoot of Jones and Jones, worked diligently to make the environment as natural as possible. “We wanted to make visitors feel like they were truly in a tropical forest,” Towne elaborated. “It was before a lot of the huge rainforest buildings at other zoos. Ours is just minor compared to their concept.” While it is not the largest tropical rainforest in a zoo, he feels it creates the illusion quite well. “You feel like you’re in the tropical rainforest with the various birds,” Towne remarked. “That was developed to a large degree because of the levy in the 80s.” The Tropical Rainforest won the AZA Exhibit of the Year award in 1993.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

The zoo’s next project was Northern Trail, a replication of the frigid taiga of Alaska. With only invisible barriers separating the animals from each other, its centerpiece is a spectacular wilderness habitat for grizzly bears featuring a flood plain with an evergreen forest behind it. Mountain goats, Stellar’s sea eagles, river otters, gray wolves, elk and North American porcupines are also found in the region of the zoo. Surprisingly Towne wans't that excited about that. “It was probably the project I paid the least amount of attention to," he recalled. "[I wasn’t sure it would gain much interest from visitors since] we have all those animals in the local area. However it turned out to be one of the best habitats we’ve ever done."

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Jon Coe, one of the original designers of the Jones and Jones master plan who had since moved to CLR Design, and Gary Lee were the key designers of Northern Trail. However, Dave Towne credited much of the area’s success to John Bierlein. “John Bierlien came here as an education curator and was a conservationist,” he said. “He then took over the oversight of exhibit development. John was the conscience of the zoo since he tried to follow the philosophy of Jones and Jones. I give a huge amount of credit to him and our horticulturalist who spent a month in Alaska taking pictures and samples of rock formations of the taiga, which we then replicated in Northern Trail. They came back with a plant inventory and an environmental one that we used.” This attention to detail resulted in one of the most naturalistic and authentic sets of habitats ever built in a zoo. “When we opened Northern Trail, we had an advisory group from Alaska come down and two of them said ‘I know that stream,’” Towne recalled. “I was quite impressed at how well it turned out and how popular it was.”

@ Scott Richardson

Most importantly, Northern Trail was a big hit with the animals and let guests fully appreciate them. “It made the people fully appreciate the grizzlies,” Towne said. “The bears at the zoo came there as cubs. They’ve just thrived in the environment and still wow the visitor.” Also well adjusted to Northern Trail are the river otters. “The river otters are always performing and they have reproduced a couple of times,” Towne remarked. Northern Trail won the AZA Exhibit of the Year award in 1995.

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Next the zoo recreated the jungles of Southeast Asia with the Trail of the Vines, featuring the first open canopy for orangutans at any American zoo. However, for the first time, the zoo went with designers not connected with the original group from Jones and Jones. “For Trail of the Vines we went with Ace Torre [as exhibit designer[,” Towne stated. “He had a lot of experience with exhibits that really appealed to us. We thought it would be a good chance to see what he could do.” However, the complex was a challenging one to design and build. “It was a struggle because whatever he would design we couldn’t afford,” Towne said. “He redesigned it three times.”

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Even today, the orangutan habitat is arguably the best and most naturalistic in America. It is filled with lush vegetation and plenty of opportunities for them to climb and forage. “It broke ground in terms of how to exhibit orangutans and we’ve been able to maintain the vegetation,” reflected Towne. “Unlike the gorillas who were rather cautious, the orangutans adapted immediately to the habitat. They are rather exploratory and took to it right away. The siamangs loved the trees and would climb to the top and swing. It was really gratifying to see how they responded.”

@ Scott Richardson

With all these new habitats opening, Towne valued quality over quantity even if that meant not having as many species of animals as other zoos and phasing out those in substandard homes. “We used to have bison but they weren’t that educational, took up a lot of space and there was no reason to try to breed them,” he recalled. “They were not a conservation mission so we phased them out. The polar bears had no reason to be kept since [Point Defiance Zoo] built a state-of-the-art habitat in Tacoma and they were in a cramped cement grotto here. I felt they deserved better. Most people accepted that.” With the exception of the departure of the elephants, which upset a lot of people, most visitors proved to be content with a smaller amount of animals in better habitats even if it meant not having superstars such as chimpanzees. “Chimps are very difficult to exhibit since they are dangerous and very smart,” Towne remarked. “There’s been no strong feeling on the staff, board or city that we need them.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Before retiring from the zoo in 2000, Towne led the zoo to being privatized and run by a non-profit society rather than the city. “I had a mission all the way since I took the job to privatize the zoo,” he said. “I did not want to see the zoo go through what David Hancocks had been through. My feeling was the only way to go was to get the zoo out of the control of the city.” While unions proved to be an obstacle, Towne was able to privatize the zoo and start the non-profit.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

During the 1990s, Towne turned out to be instrumental in bringing giant pandas to America. He has been a major leader in conservation of the iconic species for decades. “When I was president of the AZA, there was a big blowup because we had zoos who were interested in having pandas and China who was interested in renting them,” Towne explained. “They were renting pandas for thousands of dollars a month for exhibit lengths that were 3-6 months. They capitalized on this since people would flock to see the pandas. The AZA wanted a moratorium on pandas in zoos without a strong conservation message.” In fact, the U.S. government put a moratorium on any importation of pandas when all this was going on. “That’s when we had six to eight zoos who had a strong interest in housing pandas,” Towne explained. “We found they were being manipulated by the Chinese government and we were having zoos betting against each other.”

Public Domain

Towne and others decided to find a solution. “We formed a group called the Giant Panda Foundation with the freedom to negotiate with people who wanted pandas and also address the North American interest in China,” he stated. “I was elected as chairman of that foundation so we helped develop the new federal policy of importing giant pandas. We required it be long term and the institutions had to prove the money was going towards the conservation of pandas in the wild.” Towne explained how the group “reviews the conservation plan that has to be presented to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how the money will be used and drag out fights with China about where it goes. We are the only country who makes China verify where the money is used. The group has a scientific committee within the foundation that works within China.” Towne praised the fantastic facilities in the mountains of China which have begun to be successful with giant panda breeding and conservation.

Public Domain

Since retiring from the Woodland Park Zoo, Towne has served as a consultant at other zoos. When he would do this it would be when “they needed someone on an interim basis. Usually there was a great deal of angst over whoever had left since there had been controversy over their firing or leaving.” In 2002, he served as an interim consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo when they needed to find a new director. “I happened to just be retired so Ed Maruska (longtime director of the Cincinnati Zoo) and I went down there to job share the situation for maybe a year,” Towne remarked. “We helped establish the director.” He served a similar role as a consultant to the Honolulu Zoo for about “eight months.” Towne then worked for the Reid Park Zoo Society in Tucson. “It is a community support group and was having real problems,” he said. “I was asked to come in and help. It was reestablishing the board, reestablishing relationships with the director.” A few years ago, Towne was very honored to win the Marlin Perkins Award for his lifetime commitment to zoo conservation although he was not convinced he deserved it.

@ Jason Jacobs

While he acknowledged challenges and obstacles, Dave Towne saw a promising future for the Woodland Park Zoo and zoos in general. “Collectively, the conservation efforts zoos are doing is unbelievable and they need to be published,” he said. “They need to get the message out.” Towne pointed to giant panda conservation and how “we’ve helped China in being more responsible about this endangered species.” As for the Woodland Park Zoo, he has a lot of faith in the institution’s new director Alejandro Grajal. “He is very conservation-minded and has the ability to rebuild the confidence with the city,” Towne praised. “I see a bright future for the Woodland Park Zoo. Between the director, society and management, they are getting lots of private support.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

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