Telling the Story: A Conversation with Becca Hanson, Zoo Designer and Principal of Hanson Studio Rob

Becca Hanson is one of the most innovative and well respected zoo designers in the field. Along with her husband, David Roberts, she founded both The Portico Group in 1983 and, more recently, Studio Hanson|Roberts, a design firm focusing exclusively on zoos in 2003. She is renown for her work on such groundbreaking exhibits as Banyan Wilds and the award-winning Humboldt penguin habitat at the Woodland Park Zoo; the award-winning “Watershed Heroes” at the Sequoia Park Zoo; many exhibits across Canada, including the award-winning “Wander” at Edmonton Valley Zoo and Amur Cat exhibit in Moncton; and many exhibits for the Auckland Zoo in New Zealand, Taronga Conservation Society in Sydney and Zoos Victoria’s award-winning bio-filtered hippo exhibit at Werribee Open Range Zoo in Australia. Here is her story.

@ Becca Hanson

After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in landscape architecture, Hanson joined the team of Jones & Jones in Seattle. “That’s where I gained experience in zoo design among an extremely talented group of people,” she recalled. “I can remember the first zoo project I worked on was the Pittsburgh Zoo and at the time there were so many cages. It brought me to tears and I will never forget Grant Jones saying to me ‘We have to make it better. If we don’t who will.’” Jones and Jones pioneered immersive habitat design and established zoo design as a profession. “My husband David Roberts, also worked at Jones & Jones at that time and designed the award-winning Arctic Tundra at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma,” she said. “Everyone involved learned a tremendous amount about the landscape ecology of the Arctic and how to best represent it, and how to use borrowed landscapes to create an extensive feeling of space. It was all hugely experimental at the time – but we began our life-long learning journey about animals, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

@Point Defiance Zoo

“We’ve also learned so much about the science that goes into making an animal’s living space successful,” Hanson elaborated. “The whole development of behavioral ecology and animal welfare science has given us much more understanding into what makes a species a species and how you accommodate their species-specific and individualized behavior needs. It’s a wonderful field to ask all kinds of questions – including questions about us as human beings. We talk about welfare on both sides of the barriers. Too often we just expect people to follow the trails we set out for them but the pathways can be too long and lacking in focus or drama; the toilets too far apart, or there’s not enough shade or places to sit down; and we frequently fail to understand that visitors need a sense of accomplishment to make their visit memorable. The behavioral needs of humans is equally worthy of trying to understand as the needs of animals. The great zoos take into account how we get people there, give them the support they need and leave them wanting more. Zoos, with all of their various levels of users and client groups, are some of the most complex design challenges there are.”

@ Zoos Victoria

In 1983, Becca Hanson left Jones & Jones and soon after was followed by her colleagues David Roberts, Michael Hamm and Chuck Mayes to start a new firm, The Portico Group. During her twenty years with Portico, one of her best projects was Kimberly-Clark Chimpanzee Forest at the Dallas Zoo. “One of the things we really pride ourselves on is trying to develop a story,” Hanson explained. “How do we create something that’s not just great for animals but also gets people into that immersive setting and mind set where they know that they are sharing a common landscape experience with the animals? For chimps in Dallas we tried to come up with this story of how you ended up in this clearing with chimpanzees. There was a need to engage visitors in the journey to the chimps – a sort of heightened sense of deferred gratification as you start down the path towards the chimps, but you can’t see them yet. After each corner something new is there. We tried to get people’s attention that these animals are so much like us.”

@ Scott Richardson

Along the way, one particular challenge forced them to be creative. “One of our challenges,” Hanson recalled, “was that we couldn’t directly refer to evolution in the interpretive signage so we worked with an artist to create a sculpture of a mother chimpanzee and baby with her hand outstretched. The idea was to create a situation where you would see that hand, look into their eyes and draw your own conclusions. That’s one of the things I dearly love about it - it was that built-in discovery and getting people to think for themselves. In many ways, that’s what zoos have to do is get people to think, to ask questions and to have conversations. We put people in that comfortable space which inspires people to care and talk to others.”

@ Dallas Zoo

“When we picked the site for Chimpanzee Forest, we selected an area with a lot of trees,” Hanson elaborated. “The thing was set out so the chimps could space themselves out as much as possible but also get together as a troop. The chimps had a lot of freedom of movement and choice of privacy. Chimpanzees are probably the most seriously difficult animals to deal with since they’re so damned political - they deceive each other, fight with each other and play politics with each other just like people do. This had to be a habitat where they could not only come together but get away from each other.”

@ Dallas Zoo

Hanson expanded on the lessons learned from this project over a decade later when designing the renovation of the chimpanzee habitat at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. “They had a troop of 27 chimps living together and their ethical point of view was let the chimps be chimps and solve their own problems,” she remembered. “Their mindset was if we assert ourselves in their disagreements we’re taking away their ability to solve their own problems. They have an amazingly cohesive group of chimps - they have so much natural behavioral in that troop.”

@ Scott Richardson

“Taronga was a different situation as it was a renovation of an existing facility,” Hanson explained. “We enriched it even more and added a big mesh habitat that could be used as an introduction are for new chimps. It could also be used to give the troop outdoor access overnight without fear they would escape or something would happen to them. It works spectacularly and it’s something we have a great deal of pride in – even if the aesthetics are not something that we would create in an exhibit from scratch. It works for the animals.”

@ Taronga Zoo

Some of Becca Hanson’s favorite projects are the children’s zoos she designed for the Dallas Zoo and the Lowry Park Zoo. “At the time, children’s zoos were just seen as petting zoos and not much was done about how children learn and what type of learning experiences you have to provide to get them engaged with the natural world,” she stated. In the case of Wallaroo Station at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, it took the idea of a children’s zoo and put it in the context of Australian wildlife. “Lex Salisbury, the Zoo’s director at the time, had gone to university in Australia so he really wanted to reflect that experience and showcase some of those animals,” Hanson recalled. “It was something kids in the Tampa area would not necessarily experience.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“We conjured up this experience that was solidly based in Australia with key elements of children’s play, discovery and contact throughout,” she continued. “We created an environment where children and parents could be comfortable in this space for as long as they wanted to be. It became an experience all in its own, and visitors would come just to spend time in this space. There was this wonderful, wild enthusiasm with the use of color. We developed this aesthetic where you knew you were some place difference. Each experience unfolded with color, interpretation and settings for the animals that were different.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Hanson’s last project at Portico was on Russia’s Grizzly Coast, a groundbreaking complex for Russian wildlife at the Minnesota Zoo. It was the brainchild of then Minnesota Zoo director, Lee Ehmke (now director of the Houston Zoo.) “I hired Lee Ehmke as a student intern on the San Francisco Zoo master plan,” Hanson recalled. “When he graduated we offered him a job but so did the Wildlife Conservation Society! He chose WCS, but we’ve remained friends ever since. When he became director at Minnesota, we were hired to do a master plan. One of the things that came out of the plan was how to have more walkable, immersive exhibits and Russia’s Grizzly Coast was the first on the list.”

@ Portico Group

“When Keith McClintock and I started work on the concept design, we believed that there was a bigger story about grizzly bears beyond the fact that they ‘used to inhabit Minnesota’,” she elaborated. “As we looked at the world that grizzlies inhabit, one thing stood out: Minnesota and the Sikhote Alin Mountain range in the Russian Far East – where Russian grizzlies and Amur tiger and leopards live – were on a similar latitude. We thought we could tell the bigger story about the bears’ circumboreal distribution and the different suite of animals that exist in different habitats. Hence, a landscape inhabited by grizzlies, Amur leopards, wild boar and sea otters was developed in close proximity to the Zoo’s existing and much-loved Amur tiger exhibit that drives so much of the Zoo’s conservation efforts. The deeper story is allowed to play out in parallel to creating an enjoyable experience for guests and richly rewarding habitats for the animals.”

@ Minnesota Zoo

In 2003, Becca Hanson and her husband, David Roberts, left Portico to start Studio Hanson|Roberts, a firm focusing exclusively on zoos. “We wanted this exclusive cornerstone for our work as there is so much expertise required for zoos and you need to give it your full attention.” One of the firm’s signature projects is the award-winning Humboldt Penguins of the Desert Coast at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. “We were hired to carry forth a concept the Zoo already had for a penguin exhibit,” Hanson explained. “Significant work had already gone into pre-design and full-scale model-building by Zoo staff, and we saw it as a way for them to get clear what was important to them and to build commitment and enthusiasm for the project. Design facilitation has never scared us and we’ve always found it to be a lot of fun. It was an ideal chance to work with a group that had already done a lot of thinking and to jointly come up with a solution that was going to work and be amazing at the same time.”

@ Scott Richardson

“Through workshops, we worked together to tease out what wasn’t going to work and focus on how things could work better,” she continued. “It was a true partnership in moving the solution forward. One of our areas of focus centered on was the wise use of resources, including the recycling of water and the reduction of power usage. The point of view that we developed was to treat the filling of the penguin pool as a one-time gift from the citizens of Seattle that needed to be well-cared for and not wasted. To accomplish this we filter the water, treat the backwash and wash-down in wetlands and return it to the system, and collect rainwater off of the roofs to make up for evaporation. In addition, we infiltrate all pathway water back into the aquifer and run the pool water through geothermal wells to heat and cool it so it’s the optimal temperature for the penguins. It’s a system that has met all of our expectations – and the wetlands are flourishing!”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

The Humboldt penguin habitat has been acclaimed for its level of complexity and naturalism. “We worked long and hard on this component of the project,” Hanson stated. “Part of it was understanding what we wanted for the penguins in terms of their behavioral ecology. When do they need shallow and deep water? When do they need to make sharp turns or go really fast? When do they need to be in the sun or shade? At the urging of the Zoo, we based this exhibit on a nesting site for these penguins in Punta San Juan, Peru. A guano mining operation takes place there and the mining firm actually engages in conservation as they are trying to protect the long-term availability of this resource. The exhibit became a story of this place about how people were working together to protect both the birds and the natural resource that they produce.”

@ Scott Richardson

“The Zoo’s amazing interpreter, R. Scott Vance, went to Punta San Juan to look at the geology and try to understand this story about why penguins were on this coast,” Hanson recalled. “It’s a big story and we tried to understand it all. Additionally, a lot of work went into understanding the long-term vision for the penguin colony and envisioning the types of behaviors that we would need to plan for. We took great care in understanding how physical manifestation of the habitat could enable these natural behavior patterns, including how to regularly encourage porpoising as they get up to speed.”

“We built nesting burrows into a cliff face so the penguins have three ways to get to their nest burrow,” she continued. “These burrows lead to a behind-the-scenes area where dog kennels replicate burrows and provide protected space for them to incubate and raise their young. The staff then can unbuckle the dog kennels after the breeding season is done and clean them.” The exhibit also has a strong connection to conservation. “Punta San Juan has had a research project going on for many, many years,” Hanson remarked. “and there’s a number of researchers there that we spoke to during the design process.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Lastly, the Humboldt penguin habitat had to be designed with visitor viewing, comfort and engaging a sense of discovery in mind. “The choreography had to be designed to let people go through at their own pace,” Hanson said “and encounter different birds in different scenarios. There’s shallow water, deep water, narrow pools, wide pools, beaches and obstacles – all of which give them the opportunity to do what they do best: be themselves.” Humboldt Penguins of the Desert Coast won the AZA Exhibit of the Year award in 2010.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Recently Studio Hanson|Roberts worked again with Woodland Park, but this time with Malayan tigers and sloth bears in the jungles of Asia. “Banyan Wilds is probably one of the greatest renovation projects I’ve ever been involved with,” Hanson explained. “We renovated early 1950s era holding areas to meet 21st century needs for the animals and extended more expansive the habitats out in front of them. It was a case of adaptively using the spaces and connecting them with a number of sensory and interlinked experiences. Part of that whole design was creating a new mid-zoo circulation pathway right outside the area. Suddenly there was a great new exhibit and great new public access way."

@ Woodland Park Zoo

With limited space and budget, Hanson and her crew had to be adaptive and creative. “The original holding area for the tigers was also the holding area for the lions in Africa so we couldn’t demolish it,” she said. “We had to keep the bear holding facilities since it was part of an old bear holding area that had been renovated for use by both bears and gorillas. We accepted that and upgraded them. Doors were renovated, acoustics improved and better service access provided so that the staff could better manage the animals.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“For the sloth bears, we renovated existing habitats to make much them much more diverse and interactive,” Hanson remarked. “We helped people feel a part of the sloth bear experience, including witnessing enrichment: There’s a sculpted concrete root wad - looking as if a tree had been washed down and lodged in the rock. Keepers can put mealworms in it so that the bears have to use their sucking power to get the mealworms out. There’s also a sucking tube that is used to demonstrate the bear’s sucking ability. When people hear and see what they can do, they gain a better understanding of the capabilities of these animals and they can actually see that the sloth bears don’t have large front teeth so they can suck termites directly into their mouths.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

On the other hand, the Malayan tiger habitat was brand new. “We built a training wall directly into the tiger habitat,” Hanson commented. “Part of the setup for Banyan Wilds was to create the sense of entering a nature reserve where scientists are trying to understand how humans, animals and agriculture could coexist. Each of the animal nighthouses are made to look like structures that would naturally find in such a setting – in effect, hiding them in full view. There’s a central conservation advocacy center acts as a visitor center and helps guests interpret this place and get closer to tigers without affecting them. Banyan Wilds talks extensively about the palm oil crisis from the perspective of a ranger.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

“One of the first design challenges was the size and shape of the habitat,” Hanson elaborated. “We went through a series of scenario planning sessions to ask ourselves and zoo staff about, if tigers are supreme ambush predators, how far does it take for a tiger to get up to full speed if so motivated. How far does it take for them to stop or turn? What in the exhibit would encourage the tigers to move around so they could find their own places to overlook their landscape? We made a space that was longer than it was wide and has gives and takes so you can get random circulation patterns. Tigers can climb trees, get in water, hide and investigate their surroundings. They’ll even try to catch fish.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

In 2016, Studio Hanson|Robertsain won an AZA Exhbit of the Year award for their design of Watershed Heroes at the Sequoia Park Zoo in Northern California. This exhibit, featuring river otters, bald eagles and salmon, teaches visitors about the need to protect the watershed. “Watershed Heroes was so much fun,” Hanson recalled. “We didn’t have to make up a story because they already had one. They needed something where people would fall in love with these animals. They were going to have a paddock for otters and a swing hole for them to swim but we pushed them by saying we could do this space where the animals were elevated and constantly on view. We could hide these dry moats so you were never looking down on the animals. The sides are very steep.”

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

“We’d have these long design discussions and in the final analysis everyone realized the landscape allowed the animals to play to their strengths,” Hanson explained. “The director Gretchen Ziegler came up with the idea of an acrylic tube letting guests go through the water. The otters get to interact with people in a way that’s part of the animal’s world.”

@ Sequoia Park Zoo

Studio Hanson Roberts has also helped revitalize the Edmonton Valley Zoo in Canada. “We freed their seals from outdated spaces and put them in this amazing setting replicating Canada’s Arctic,” Hanson said. “When the exhibit opened they had a number of first nations people come to help bless it. one of them was in tears because she said it felt just like home. We created a space for the seals to live fulfilling lives. We did storm water capture so we could reuse the water. We designed it to funnel the water into an irrigation storage area.”

@ Edmonton Valley Zoo

@ Edmonton Valley Zoo

“The other project we did for Edmonton Valley was the Wander,” Hanson added. “It’s their new entry and visitor circulation spot which is a complete transformation of coming to the Zoo. when you arrive at the Zoo you don’t pretend to be anyplace else so we made the area a story about the Saskatchewan River in Edmonton. We wanted to celebrate Edmonton. We introduced people to play in a meltwater play area. They can see salmon in a stream, get up close with river otters and play in a sturgeon water feature. The whole entry gives you access to the education building, gift shop and café and it’s all free. It helps give people access to the ideas in the Zoo and we opened it to the community so runners, dogwalkers and others could be part of this community feeling that’s part of the Zoo.”

@ Edmonton Valley Zoo

One of the firm’s most recent projects is Land of the Lemurs at the Calgary Zoo. “The Zoo wanted the African Savanna area to be more interactive,” Hanson explained. “They wanted to do lemurs so we did this concept that’s a loop experience with lemurs as the crescendo right at the end. We were going to do a sloping area with lots of trees that would give lemurs a lot to do. There’s an indoor holding area where the lemurs can be seen through the glass in the winter. We created this amazing landscape experience on the outside and gave the lemurs a lot to do.”

@ Calgary Zoo

However, challenges came their way. “There was a flood that devastated the Calgary Zoo so they built a wall around the campus to prevent a flood like this from ever happening again,” Hanson said. “All the trees we wanted to include were suddenly gone so we recreated it in a different area. Land of the Lemurs is remarkable because of the resilience of the staff. It also has a dedicate area to walkthrough with the lemurs where the lemurs are above and around you. We had to plant new trees but it looks good.”

@ Calgary Zoo

One of Hanson’s favorite projects in her career is the Kubu River Hippo Experience at the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria. “We’ve done a lot of hippo exhibits starting with Toledo so we wanted to do a really great one,” she explained. “Werribee’s is totally biofiltereed- it has one hectacre of wetlands that is all biofiltered through reed wetlands. The animals are amazing to watch even though they don’t have underwater viewing. The hippos have ample grazing room where they can graze the grass immediately adjacent to it.” Hanson is currently designing an upcoming hippo habitat at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo which will use similar ideas.

@ Zoos Victoria

Hanson also takes pride in the work she has done at the Auckland Zoo. “We did a sea coast for fur seals that is a story about coming to the coast in New Zeland and all the familiar things about the New Zealand coast,” she stated. “There’s this wonderful place where the seals can come out of this rock. There’s this sea trek where you go past blue penguins and go to an underwater viewing area to see the fur seals. It’s all about being good to the coast and making sure there’s no trash that piles up and you do your part to use the right products. It’s all about what you can do locally to benefit the animals of the coast.”

@ Auckland Zoo

Currently at the Auckland Zoo Hanson is designing an Asian rainforest for Malayan tigers and orangutans, a species the zoo has never designed an exhibit for before. “We’re trying to do hands down the best orangutan exhibit and experience anywhere in the world,” she said. “We’re making it so orangs are up in trees and going on O-lines. We’re creating the best living experience for orangs. We’re going to have shared shelters so there’s dryness and heat.”

@ Auckland Zoo

“We think about getting people to think differently about the landscapes of zoos,” Hanson reflected. “It’s an eye opening thing to pay attention to the acoustic environment. We try to give a much more natural setting and are inspired by how Disney did a complete acoustic analysis of all their animal habitats. We’ve been involved in a lot of education and interpretation so we’re always working on that storytelling angle and trying to get people to ask questions. We want to spur people on and engage how they think. It’s beyond beauty to taking advantage of what people are all about.”

@ Becca Hanson

#WoodlandParkZoo #SequoiaParkZoo

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