A Conversation with Chuck Mayes, Architect Principal at The Portico Group

For over thirty years, the Portico group has been creating some of the very best zoo habitats ever built. The group has helped raise the bar of how zoos exhibit animals and give them environments to thrive. From savannas for lions and elephants to frigid waters for penguins and polar bears, Portico has done it all. One of the geniuses and founders of the Seattle based design company is Chuck Mayes. Here is his story.

@ Portico

Mayes started his zoo career at Jones and Jones, the revolutionary firm which pioneered immersive habitats for zoos. This new philosophy involved not just letting people see animals but replicating the bioclimatic zones the species came from, giving a naturalistic space for these animals behave naturally and transporting guests into the environment. At the time Mayes was working at Jones and Jones his colleagues included Dave Towne who would go on to become a prominent zoo director at Woodland Park Zoo and nationally with AZA and Jon Coe and Gary Lee who would go on to found CLR, a leading zoo exhibit design firm based in Philadelaphia. One of his first big projects was being project manager, along with Dave Roberts, of the African Savanna at the Toledo Zoo. “We worked closely with the director Bill Dennler to design the area,” Mayes said. “We did the Hippoquarium, which featured the first underwater hippo viewing with filtered water. The African Savanna also included exhibits for elephants, rhinos, zebras and antelope, meerkats and a great lion exhibit.”

@ Toledo Zoo

Decades later Mayes would come back to the Toledo Zoo to work on Tembo Trail, a modification of the original African Savanna to expand the facilities for the zoo’s African elephants. “The zoo needed to expand the elephant habitat to accommodate bull elephants, babies and a larger herd,” he explained. “Elephant standards had changed since the original construction and the zoo also had a baby male elephant born so within the footprint available within the zoo’s grounds we wanted to expand the elephant exhibit to the maximum extent possible and add large indoor holding rooms for both bulls and the female group. We developed large enrichment trees and shade structures with remote control operated winches to let keepers provide enrichment activities on a random basis for the elephants. We also added demonstration walls inside and outside for behavioral training. We remodeled the barn to add a large indoor space with a natural earth floor and added a large separate bull barn also with an area with a natural earth floor. For enrichment activities we added a puzzle wall where visitors can watch as elephants manipulate puzzle toys to get at treats and a vertical log push toy with a foundation of truck tires that flexes and springs back to vertical when elephants push and lean on it.”

@ Toledo Zoo

Because of the limited amount of available space, Tembo Trail is not an immersive space but rather is an enriching one. “It’s not a super naturalistic habitat as we often try to design. Elephants in general elephants can be really rough on vegetation,” Mayes added. “We designed this exhibit very much for elephant care and management first. While we still worked to make the design attractive, it’s much more of an architectural solution than a naturalistic habitat. “

@ Toledo Zoo

In 1984, Mayes along with a three others (David Roberts, Becca Hanson and Mike Hamm) left Jones and Jones to found Portico, a brand new design firm in Seattle and were joined a year later John Swanson, another friend from Jones and Jones. At first, the firm’s projects were on a modest scale. “We did small projects for zoos wherever we could find work,” Mayes recalled. “We did the wallaroo yard and small remodels of several exhibits at San Francisco Zoo as well as a lemur exhibit at the Mick Grove Zoo in Lodi and several projects at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. We were young and doing whatever we could to make sure we got a job.” Portico’s breakthrough project was the Tropical Rainforest at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, which combined both indoor and outdoor habitats.

@ Portico

“The Tropical Rainforest was our first highly noted project,” Mayes stated. “We brought in a world famous architect named Arthur Erickson as design architect for the building. We did all the animal spaces, both interior and exterior, and all the detail architectural construction drawings for the building. We had worked at Woodland Park Zoo’s projects while at Jones and Jones so we knew the zoo and the staff well.” Inside the Tropical Rainforest was mostly home to tropical birds like toucans and hornbills but also had ocelots, anacondas, leafcutter ants and poison arrow frogs. “The story was of a biome but wasn’t specifically geographic,” Mayes elaborated. “It had Amazonian, African and Asian animals and plants. We had a free-flight aviary under the dome. For accessibility we ramped the path so the floor gets lower and lower. We tired to give the sense of going higher and higher into the canopy. We went with all natural planting and even did a green wall system within the dome to make it feel like you were in the rainforest. The exhibit sequence within the building starts at the ground level of the rainforest and moves people progressively up to through the midstory and then into the canopy.”

@ Portico

Outside visitors encounter a number of primates seen from a boardwalk including lemurs and colobus monkeys. Finally the exhibits conclude with gorillas where Portico designed a second gorilla habitat to accompany the groundbreaking naturalistic one done by Jones and Jones in the late 70s. “We made the second gorilla habitat very similar to the original one,” Mayes elaborated. “Woodland Park Zoo was having great success with their gorillas and needed a second habitat to allow for a second group. The original Jones and Jones designed gorilla habitat was a remodel of an old bear grotto so we did the same thing with the bear grotto next to it. We did it in a manner so the two habitats look like they’re both in the same space. It doesn’t feel like two different attitudes toward design. It’s all from the same point of view. We also built a new dayroom and sheltered viewing area but made it feel continuous.” The Tropical Rainforest won the AZA Exhibit of the Year award after it opened in 1992.

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Some of Portico’s other big projects of the 1990s were for the Oregon Zoo in Portland. “I was the principal in charge of that project while Keith McClintock was the lead designer and project manager. Keith is very talented and this project was the first of many collaborations I had with Keith,” Mayes recalled. Opened in 1998, Cascade Crest was a highly realistic recreation of the mountains of the Pacific Northwest featuring mountain goats. “We designed Cascade Crest to be the first exhibit a guest sees after entering the zoo,” he explained. “The concept of Great Northwest was that you go from the crest of the Cascade Mountains to the coast of Oregon. We started with an alpine environment for mountain goats and we were very careful to make realistic rockwork and snowbanks. We even involved a geology professor from Portland State University who came up to critique the rockwork. We designed the exhibit to fit seamlessly into the landscape and be the first animal encounter at the entry to the zoo. We worked closely with the zoo to incorporate public art into the experience. We used interactives, art and graphics to tell the story. We were fortunate to get a good contracting team who were very careful to build it beautifully. It was a magic team that made this project happen from the zoo to our design team to the contractor team. I think it’s one of the best things we ever did.”

@ Scott Richardson

Since the entrance of the zoo was much higher than the rest of the zoo, Portico needed to figure out how to develop two routes to get people done to the central part of the zoo and meet ADA requirements while dealing with steep grades. “One of the routes goes to the canyon with the beavers and otters,” Mayes said. “The Cascade Canyon exhibits were existing habitats designed by Jones and Jones in the 80s. We planned the arrival sequence for visitor to start in the mountains, go through the forest and eventually reach the coast.” This concept led to the creation of Steller Cove, which opened in 2000, as the place where visitors reached the coast.

@ Oregon Zoo

“Steller Cove involved Steller sea lions (since replaced by harbor seals) and sea otters,” explained Mayes. “We took three quarters of the Feline building to use for Steller Cove while the remaining part of the building remained operating as holding facilities for tigers and leopard. It was an interesting design challenge for logistics. It was complex to build but quite beautiful when it was done. We had sea otters and a view through a kelp forest and a big underwater view of the sea lions. We incorporated a strong sense of theatricality and telling the story. Visitors see the habitats first from above and then ramp down to the underwater viewing. You really feel like you’re underwater. The experience makes you feel like you’re on the coast.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Scott Richardson

Portico came back to Woodland Park Zoo to build the state-of-the-art Jaguar Cove, opened in 2003. “They wanted to add a jaguar exhibit to Tropical Rainforest and wanted it to be at the entry of the building,” Mayes recalled. “The idea for the underwater viewing (first ever for jaguars) came because we wanted to have water for the jaguars to get into. We wanted to have people, while coming into the rainforest, encounter jaguars with a sense of surprise. It feels like they’re just around the corner. We wanted a big glass viewing window and wanted it to feel natural.”

@ Scott Richardson

Mayes and his team were determined to make Jaguar Cove as naturalistic and lush as possible. “We came up with the concept of a half rotted giant tree fallen across the path so we could put tropical plants on the top and the jaguars could climb it,” he elaborated. “It provided the structural top for the glass barrier and the connection for the mesh top enclosure. We detailed the heck out of Jaguar Cove. It’s in a tight space as we had to fit everything into the side of the Tropical Rainforest building. Jaguars are big strong animals so we had to net it to keep it secure. To save money, the zoo initially decided not to do have a heating system in the water. When the project was complete, the jaguars only touched the water a few times and would not go in. A few months after opening, we had to design a heater into the system. It was retrofitted to heat the water and raise it to a comfortable temperature. It’s now a great pool for the water and the jaguars now go into it all the time.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

Around the same time Mayes and McClintock worked with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago to convert the old large mammal building into a slice of Africa. “As with all our following projects with Lincoln Park we collaborated with an excellent architecture firm in Chicago,” he explained. “We do the animal spaces while they do the Chicago architecture style for the buildings that is the standard for the zoo. The Large Mammal House was the largest building on campus and was showing its age. It was originally mainly a holding facility that was all concrete and very old fashioned. The zoo wanted to remodel it as African Journey.” With about an acre of space to work with inside the building, Portico redesigned the entire building.

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Regenstein African Journey takes visitors on a quest through a variety of African environments. “The concept is a transect of the continent from West Africa to East Africa habitat wise,” Mayes stated. “You start in the rainforest with birds in the foreground and monkeys in the background. We punched a lot of skylights into the building and used fog and lighting effects to create an immersive experience.” In addition to the “charismatic megafauna”, the team made sure to emphasize insects too. “We did the finest cockroach exhibit ever done,” Mayes remarked. “It was an interesting experiment. Traditionally insect exhibits are in terrarium type exhibits but we envisioned having a rotted interior of a tree with not just a few but thousands of hissing cockroaches in one place, on the floor and covering all of the walls. At opening we had 5-7,000 cockroaches on display. As part of the construction and design process we had a small portion of the environment fabricated to see how the cockroaches would react and to make sure they would cover the walls of the exhibit. They were breeding away but the insects were just staying on the ground. We got worried and started looking at cockroach ramps and pathways up the walls. Finally once the population on the ground got dense enough, they crawled up the walls on their own. The lesson for us was that the critical element for the cockroaches was numbers and density not routes of travel.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Another gem in the building is the underwater habitats for pygmy hippos and dwarf crocodiles. “We wanted to have a lot of water in the building so we tried to recreate the Congo basin,” Mayes added. “Past the pygmy hippos is a drier environment more like East Africa. That’s where the aardvarks, meerkats and lovebirds are. In winter, the giraffes are indoors there too so this is a very popular building during the winter. Visitors finally then end up in the Rift Lakes with schools of cichlids.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Grayson Pontiti

Some parts of the old Large Mammal House and the outdoor area were kept the same. “They didn’t want to spend any money on the indoor/outdoor area for the elephants so we left that alone,” Mayes said. “Since then they’ve been replaced by the black rhinos since it became decided elephants needed bigger spaces and what they had was too small. The rhino exhibit was left in place to save money as well but we redid the entire holding to meet the needs of the animal management staff. What we did change outside is we took over the space between the building and what had been the public pathway and created a one-acre savanna with giraffes, ostriches and antelope. We raised the center of it and created a viewpoint on both sides of it to prevent people seeing each other. That little hill in the middle is a nice touch.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Over a decade later, Portico did three more new habitats for the Lincoln Park Zoo. “We came back there to do a mini-masterplan for various parts of the campus,” Mayes explained. “One of the things they wanted to do was replace the old penguinarium which was small, dark and out of date, and change it into a better exhibit space. We developed concepts for the Regenstein Macaque Forest for snow monkeys to take its place. It’s a spectacularly good primate exhibit. We have a hot springs pool for them to bathe in, automated feeders to give them treats periodically, heated rocks and a varied topography with logs, trees and rocks to give them lots of places and routes to explore.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The state-of-the-art Regenstein Macaque Forest, opened in 2015, and is also a cutting-edge research center. “One of the really cool things the zoo is doing there is cognitive research with primates,” he elaborated. “So we provided two locations for cognitive researchers to work with the monkeys, one on public view while one is invisible for visitors. Researchers invite the snow monkeys to play games using touchpad computer screens. Guests can see how intelligent and curious the monkeys are when researchers are on view in a glassed-in research booth. The other place where researchers interact with the monkeys is in the middle of the habitat with access from a tunnel behind the exhibit. The staff calls this spot the Hobbit Hole. While the public can’t see the researchers inside their pop-up they can see the animals in full view as they sit outside the Hobbit Hole.” Another key innovation for the design of this facility was the careful design of the holding and keeper/researcher back of house spaces to follow recommendations from the National Institutes of Health for control of potential disease transmission between humans and non human primates to create a large, clean, secure and smoothly functioning animal care area to support the exhibit.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

As part of their ongoing improvements Lincoln Park Zoo also decided to remodel and remove portions of its former Bear Line to build modern facilities for polar bears and penguins. In the fall of 2016 Lincoln Park Zoo opened two new exhibits at the former Bear Line, The Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove and the Walther Family Arctic Tundra.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“The Penguin Cove exhibit, which opened last year, features African black-footed penguins. Thematically it’s a continuation of Africa since it’s right next to the savanna that is part of Regenstein African Journey at the entry to the indoor exhibits. The penguin exhibit is based on the habitat of Boulder Beach down on the Cape in South Africa. The exhibit presents penguins on the beach with a view above and below water. There is an option to create a surging wave ability within the pool,” Mayes said. “We designed the habitat to make sure the penguins could thrive and have access into underground nests we designed into the rockwork. We made nests from modified dog kennels so that they can be cleaned and managed easily from keeper spaces behind the exhibit rockwork.” The exhibit also features an area to facilitate penguin encounters for a limited number of visitors. Here penguins can come up and meet guests nose to beak under supervision of one of the zoo’s penguin care staff. Since the African penguins are temperate-weathered birds and Chicago winters can sometimes be a bit severe, Portico built a modern indoor facility with pools and dry areas for times when the penguins need to stay inside.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The new facility for polar bears is at the opposite end of the old Bear Line from Penguin Cove. “The old facility for polar bears was not in compliance with Manitoba standards and, since polar bears are so popular and Chicago has an appropriate climate for them, the zoo decided to renovate and expand their old exhibit,” he recalled. “We took the existing polar bear exhibit space plus several of the old grottos to create a larger polar bear facility that can hold 2-3 bears plus cubs and meet all of the current polar bear care standards. We tired to create an experience that was as natural as possible.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“The important thing for the polar bears was to give them more land space and natural soil to be able to dig,” Mayes elaborated. “We have an ice machine that’s able to give them crushed ice throughout the summer. The polar bears have a lot of choices of different activities to do. One of the critical things is giving polar bears places that are high enough for them to see out. We worked really hard to provide a large variety within the restraints of the footprint we had at Lincoln Park, which has a fairly small campus. However, we tried to create routs and different elements that would keep the polar bears feeling engaged and have a variety of things to do. With polar bears they’re so smart so you want to give the habitat opportunities to have keepers mix things up and keep them stimulated.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

For the Los Angeles Zoo, Chuck Mayes and his team at Portico took on the gigantic challenge of building a large, complex habitat for Asian elephants during a time of intense public scrutiny of the zoo’s elephant program. Opened in 2010, Elephants of Asia involved overhauling many outdated habitats in the center of the zoo to create a four-acre facility for the massive beasts to roam. “The goal with Elephants of Asia was to maximize the usable apace for elephants and add variety to the topography and experiences we could get for the elephants,” Mayes stated. “Everything was designed from an animal welfare perspective to give the elephants spaces they could rotate through at any time of the day. We designed it so that keepers would have the ability to move animals around to different spaces and habitats at any time of day and to separate or put together groups of elephants as needed to meet the animals needs.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

The project included a state-of-the-art barn for the zoo’s elephants. “The zoo wanted to build a well-functioning barn facility in the middle,” Mayes commented. “The elephants have 24/7 access to their outdoor habitats. Elephants of Asia is great for both the animal care staff and elephants. The only regret he has about the turnout of the project is the barriers. “I’d like to redo the barrier system so it’s less visible. It’s getting better as the plants have grown and matured but the barriers are still pretty visible.” Mayes explained. “We didn’t want to take away any space from the elephants for moats and hidden barriers so we used cable barriers. We now design these barriers to be built using weathering steel so that they are low maintenance and weather to a dark red-brown color. The dark color blends into the background much better than a galvanized metal surface.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

However, from an animal welfare and management perspective, Elephants of Asia is incredible. “The best feature is probably the waterfall,” Mayes remarked. “It’s very tall and overhanging so elephants can move all the way under it. It’s free choice and two of the animals love the water and will stand under the waterfall often and for long times while others are not so fond of water. They all have free choice and use the water features as they like. We also have an interactive demonstration area where keepers are able to interact with elephants in a protected area and talk to visitors about elephants and their status and challenges in the wild.”

@ Portico

@ Portico

“The storyline with Elephants of Asia is about the conservation of Asia elephants and stresses they face in different parts of the Asian elephant’s range,” he added. “Guests can encounter the exhibit at different points and interpret different parts of Asia within the elephant’s range.” Today, this exhibit is still regarded as a world-class facility for Asian elephants.

@ Los Angeles Zoo

In 2012, the Living Amphibians Invertebrates and Reptiles (LAIR) opened at the Los Angeles Zoo and it was also designed by Portico. It is regarded by many as one of the best herpetariums in America. “We designed LAIR to replace the old, falling-apart reptile house that was demolished to make way for Elephants of Asia,” Mayes recalled. “The challenges we addressed were a tight budget and our quest to make the building as sustainable as possible. We approached the design of LAIR like it was a living organism in and of itself. Our design solution included thick insulation over a mass concrete and block structure to help maintain a stable, internal temperature inside the building. The roofs are covered with green roofing systems featuring drought tolerant plants. We used solar tube skylights to illuminate all of the internal reptile habitats and augmented this natural light with special reptile UV light fixtures to maintain healthy animals.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

The educational component of LAIR is very strong. “We tried to maximize the impact and story of the various amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates that were part of the zoo collection,” Mayes explained. “The building is very reptile heavy since the zoo sometimes inherits or houses endangered reptiles confiscated at LAX that are part of the illegal trafficking of endangered wildlife. The zoo wanted to be able to give their animals great homes and show them to visitors as well as well as display new arrivals from time to time. One of the my goals for the design of LAIR was to break away from the traditional reptile and insect house paradigm of little boxes or windows on a wall- I wanted exhibits to have a bigger feeling and a more continuous flow between habitats to make a better and more immersive visitor experience.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

Mayes took the challenge of making the layout and execution of LAIR unique as well as have it be interactive. “There’s the main central room with floor to ceiling glass between various animal spaces,” he said. “We bring people in the middle and have animals on the perimeter. We put keepers on display as they prepare diets, hatch animals and take care of reptiles. We have video displays so the story of how keepers care for the animals can be shared directly with guests. That’s been very successful. When LAIR opened it was super people as people like reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. They actually had to control access to the facility for much of the first year and they got record breaking attendance that year.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

One of Chuck Mayes’ best habitat complexes is Asian Highlands at Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. “Asian Highlands is actually a remodel of the old feline building,” he remembered. “They asked us whether the zoo should tear the old building down to build something new or if they should remodel it. On our first pass we determined that the zoo could get more value if they remodeled it. It had been an old style building with cages around the perimeter and really small holding cubicles behind the exhibits along a central keeper access way. We reconfigured and converted the caged exhibits into large back-of-house holding spaces and turned the cubicles into transfers. The holding area, carved out of the old exhibits is now one of the best, most flexible large feline breeding facilities at any zoo. All the outdoor exhibit habitats were new and expanded. One challenge with this approach was we had to find a way to get the big cats across the visitor path in order to connect the holding to the large exhibits on a nearby hillside. We proposed several relatively long transfers incorporated into the village walls and architecture we envisioned. This was before Philadelphia Zoo developed their successful Animal Trails” Mayes explained. “We only managed to convince the keepers to let us have one rather wide connector over the visitor path. We detailed it to look like a rustic log bridge and it is amazing when a tiger passes overhead.”

@ Portico

Asian Highlands features Amur tigers, snow leopards, Amur leopards, Russian lynx and Pallas cats in naturalistic spaces. The goal was to replicate the landscape and architecture of the Himalayas. “We wanted it to be culturally reflective so we chose a Chinese mountain village character,” Mayes said. “We designed the interpretive exhibits and graphics at the same time as we designed of the habitats so the whole facility is tightly integrated. One of the goals the zoo had was to attract visitors and make the Asian Highlands a destination within the zoo because it is located at the most distant point in the zoo from the entrance. The zoo wanted to provide food, retail, seating areas and activities to meet guest needs and encourage them to linger for a while.”

@ Hogle Zoo

“At Asian Highlands, we designed the habitats with netted tops to maximize the useable area for the animals rather than taking up animal space to provide buffers or hidden barriers. This approach saved budget as well,” he elaborated. “Fully netted enclosures also lets us not worry about animals getting out. Another way we creatively used our limited budget was that we turned an area that had once been a snack bar into the viewing shelter for the Amur tiger habitat. We opened a wall and expanded the roof and then dressed it up to look like a Tibetan hut. It’s a really nice complex and one of my favorites.”

@ Hogle Zoo

@ Hogle Zoo

Mayes and Keith McClintock headed out to the Kansas City Zoo to design a facility that would bring penguins to the zoo. “Helzburg Penguin Plaza came from a desire for the zoo to have both temperate and sub Antarctic penguins with additional aquarium facilities. The zoo was concerned about the smell penguin exhibits can sometimes produce so the indoor exhibits for cold weather penguins and temperate penguins are completely enclosed by glass. The temperate Humboldt penguin exhibit also features the ability for this species to access an outdoor exhibit when the weather is good” A great deal of care was placed on the sequence and layout of the visitor experience and how to move guests from above water to underwater viewing seamlessly and efficiently. “There was a lot of study about how to fit the building to the site and the progression of the experience in the exhibit- where you’d enter and exit,” he added. “We built the world plaza at the entry with a view of the outdoor Humboldt penguins to greet visitors as they start their journey. They then move indoors to descend past multiple views of the Antarctic penguins to the full underwater view and the exit on grade at the lower part of the hill.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Next came the challenge of designing the perfect exhibit for the Antarctic penguins. “My vision for their habitat and the visitor views was to make it like some of the best diorama experiences I’d ever seen at a natural history museums but on a much larger scale and with live penguins and real water,” Mayes explained. “We wanted to bring visitors up close to the penguins. We wanted visitors to see from many angles and in unique ways (above ice, at the surface of the water to wee above and below water and then fully underwater. We researched what the underside of ice in the arctic looked like, how it could freeze down to a rocky bottom, what the rocks and cobbles would look like, how the light would refract at the water surface and what could be seen looking up from under water in order to make the exhibit habitat look as accurate and authentic as possible.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“ With Penguin Plaza, we tried to create a beautiful, natural space for the birds in their habitat,” Mayes continued. “Part of our design philosophy for animal exhibits to replicate the character of wild places and ecosystems. We believe it is critical to present animals with an appropriate sense of their natural habitat in order to intuitively connect animals as part of natural ecosystems. We try to be naturalistic whenever we can.”

@ Grayson Ponti

One of the most ambitious projects of Chuck Mayes’ career was Penguin Plunge at the Calgary Zoo. It lets guests walkthrough the frigid realms of the Antarctic birds. “Penguin Plunge was part of a new entry complex and the penguins would be the first animals that would encountered by visitors at the zoo,” Mayes recalled. “The zoo wanted both indoor and outdoor penguin species. In our design we provided the flexibility for animal care staff to move cold weather penguins outside in winter months so they can have access to light and real ice and snow when the weather’s right. During the winter, the take the zoo takes their king penguins outside on parades through the entry plaza.” Penguin Plunge has become the zoo’s signature exhibit and has been a major hit with visitors since opening in 2012. Several penguin chicks have been born there.

@ Portico

“We were very much inspired by Penguin and Puffin Coast at the Saint Louis Zoo, the first walkthrough penguin habitat that I’m aware of,” he continued. “We took the thought and concept of actually bringing people totally into the penguin’s environment and made it a walkthrough experience. It reverses the sense of tunnel you often have in aquariums. It’s a U-shaped experience with penguins up on both sides of people. There are underwater swim channels for them to go under. It’s a very chilled environment. The indoor area is kept at 4 or 5 degrees Celsius all year. It’s also a very energy efficient building and was able to achieve a LEED Gold certification. “

@ Scott Richardson

@ Scott Richardson

In 2014, the highly ambitious Journey to Churchill opened at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg and ended up winning an AZA Exhibit award. Designed by Mayes and his team, the complex of exhibits, research buildings and interpretive experiences includes naturalistic environments for polar bears and other arctic animals and educates visitors about their conservation and their ecosystem. “Journey to Churchill was a very big project,” he explained. “It is 10-11 acres and is the signature project for the revitalization and new identity of the zoo. After we completed the master plan the first phase of improvements was to address the old bear grotto exhibits. The old polar bear facility was no longer used since it did not meet modern polar bear standards. We renovated, expanded and remodeled the old bear holding into a bear rescue and transition center as part of the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre we were designing for the zoo and the Province of Manitoba”

@ Assiniboine Park Zoo

This complex was much more than a traditional zoo exhibit as it includes a state-of-the-art research and interpretive center and the rescue and transition center. “It is the home base for provincial wildlife biologists studying polar bears in the field and has a rescue and transition center where orphaned polar bears can be saved from starving or euthanasia in the field and to be brought back to health and transitioned to lives in the zoo community. There are labs and offices for researchers and a distance-learning classroom. The IPBCC includes the only computerized gene sequencing for polar bears in the world and it has a public exhibits and education area where visitors can use interactive games and displays to learn about the story of polar bears facing the challenges of global warming.”

@ Assiniboine Park Zoo

“The second phase of the project included the rest of the project based on the environments and animals that could be encountered as one traveled from Winnipeg to Churchill through the boreal forest onto the tundra,” Mayes continued. “We have caribou, snowy owls, Arctic foxes, musk ox, seals, wolves and of course polar bears. We went beyond what anyone had done before. This project was new from the whole cloth.” The facility is also excellent for polar bear welfare. “Overall it’s the biggest polar bear facility in the world,” he said. “It has a great variety of habitats-we made three separate environments for polar bears to use.”

@ Assiniboine Park Zoo

@ Assiniboine Park Zoo

“We incorporated a panoramic view from the Tundra Grille, the central restaurant at the zoo, which looks out at the largest polar bear habitat,” Mayes said. “The design allows polar bears to be rotated through all the different habitats by the animal care staff. There are a variety of places within the exhibit habitats for bears to choose to be. We worked to provide room to roam and a variety of places and activities to keep bears from boredom. That’s one of the challenges with polar bears, they’re smart. No exhibit on its own can be interesting and stimulating for animals all of the time. For Journey to Churchill we made it easy for keepers to mix things up and we set it up for them to make things happen. We put in the ability to drop large ice chunks into the deep pool periodically and to keep the bears active and moving around while keeping visitors and the animal care staff safe. The whole facility is great for enrichment.”

@ Assiniboine Park Zoo

@ Assiniboine Park Zoo

One of Portico’s biggest clients in recent years has been the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, a zoo that’s been undergoing a rapid expansion to become a world-class institution. “I actually grew up in Fresno so it was especially important to me to do great exhibits for them,” Mayes remarked. “The Fresno Chaffee Zoo had passed a county wide levy and the citizens of Fresno had voted to restore the zoo and make it special for the city and the county. The tax, called Measure Z, raised $8-9 million a year. Portico was selected to design Sea Lion Cove, the first major project started after the master plan.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Portico

“For Sea Lion Cove, the director Scott Barton wanted to create a new and larger home for the zoo’s sea lions modeled on Point Lobos in California,” Mayes explained. “He wanted to take advantage of the existing zoo landscape especially a grove of large redwoods planted fifty years ago adjacent to the project site. We worked closely with Scott and his staff to create an affordable exhibit that looks fantastic and has worked really well.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Sea Lion Cove won the 2014 AZA Exhibit award, a testament to the excellent design by Portico. “We made sure the sea lions had really good water and a number of underwater routes they could travel,” Mayes stated. “The sea lions at the zoo had been in an older small facility so we made the new exhibit it as big as we could. The water is only deep at the end of the pool where there’s underwater viewing, the rest of the pool is 5 feet deep so that keepers can easily and safely keep the pool spotless. We spread the surface of the water it as long as we possibly could and it bends around a bit of a corner with some underwater arches. The sea lions are free to cruise and glide."

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Mayes gives much of the credit to Sea Lion Cove’s success to the staff. “A lot of credit has to go to the dedicated and enthusiastic staff,” he said. “They have kayaks where they go out and give educational presentations once a day. The zoo only takes in seals and sea lions who have been rescued and cannot be returned into the wild. One of their original sea lions was blind and it took her awhile to get used to the exhibit. She had to be guided around by one of the other sea lions before she had her whole new environment memorized. She then could freely swim since she had a mental map of the environment. We can design a beautiful habitat but it’s the staff that makes it special for the animals.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Around the same time as Sea Lion Cove in Fresno, the National Zoo opened America Trail, which also featured state-of-the-art sea lion facilities. “At the National Zoo we had existing pools that we were working with. The project started with the need to upgrade and improve the water system but as the design progressed the zoo determined that they needed to make much more substantive improvements for both the needs of the animals and for their visitors.” Mayes explained. “The zoo decided to completely redo the pools and make multiple improvements to the pathways, accessibility and the overall visitor experience. They wanted to make the habitats more interesting and enjoyable for the animals and engaging for guests. We designed the sea lion pool to have a new wave generator to enrich and activate the animal’s experience. We had experienced a sea lion exhibit years before in Hong Kong when we were designing the remodel of a sea lion exhibit and noticed how much more active the animals were when the waves were on versus when the generator was turned off."

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

"Our team also made the entire visitor pathway in the canyon of the American Trail ADA compliant," Mayes continued. "The zoo had told us they had done several previous studies with several different landscape architects and that it wasn’t possible to make the entire canyon pathway ADA compliant. One of my partners, Dennis Meyer, took this report as a personal challenge and carefully analyzed the entire canyon to figure out how to grade it and have it fully ramped to meet ADA. Of course, the regarding of the path impacted several exhibits and we remodeled a lot of terrestrial animal habitats in the canyon as well.”

@ Smithsonian

One of Mayes’ favorite projects in his career was African Adventure at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, opened in 2015. “Fresno Chaffee Zoo was able to use their funding from Major Z to double their size,” he said. “African Adventure is the first movement of expansion into that new area. We tried to make the most incredibly accurate experience of an African savanna that has ever been done in a North American zoo. At the time we started, Dallas Zoo had the African exhibit that was the standard to beat so we were certainly inspired by them. Again working with Scott Barton and his staff we created an authentic looking landscape by taking advantage of existing mature trees and carefully locating and controlling where buildings and pathways and barriers were placed. We worked with a landscape that started out looking like it could be in Africa so we took advantage of that. We evaluated the health and remaining life of every existing tree. Any tree we deemed healthy we had to save. For the buildings and visitor areas we wanted to avoid an approach that might use a cheesy African village for a theme. We chose to try to recreate the visitor experience of going to a national park in Africa on safari at a modern and beautiful safari lodge.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

One of the prominent features of African Adventure is the Kopje Lodge dining facility that looks out over the savanna. “We to make a place where guest would linger and want to come back again with an expansive panorama across the savanna and view into the far distance,” Mayes explained. “The term I kept telling Scott was I that I wanted to create ‘Starbucks on the savanna’ where people would sit and stay and be transported to a different place. Our design goal was to make the kopje lodge the best, most unique lunch venue in California and I think we achieved that. The design of Kopje Lodge was based on inspiration from several actual lodges in Africa. It feels authentic."

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

The 13-acre exhibit brought back lions to the zoo for the first time in decades. “Everybody says lions never climb trees but in fact there are places in Africa where they do climb trees,” Mayes stated. “Scott knew that he wanted to see a lion in a tree. Together the design team and Scott identified one specific tree on the site that was going to be the lion tree- it was an oak tree with a big horizontal branch. So basically the whole lion habitat and in a sense the entire exhibit started with that tree and we took that as our focal point. That let us know where we had to put our viewing shelters pathways, the lodge, everything.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“We wanted the lions and the savanna species in the background to be visible together with a barrier between them hidden from the view,” Mayes explained. “ We created another hidden barrier between the elephant savanna and the rhino/giraffe savanna by submerging a separation wall within a natural looking water hole. For the lions and the Kopje Lodge we created a kopje environment where the lions could get up high and see a territorial view. We researched rock forms in the Serengeti and we reviewed hundreds of of photographs of rock kopje formations in Africa for inspiration. We also recognized that Fresno gets really hot in the summer so we also made a places where lions can relax in a shady spots on artificial rocks that are heated rocks during the winter and cooled rocks during the summer.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Also in African Adventure is cheetah habitat, a brand new species for the zoo. “The cheetahs were added late in our documentation process, since we thought they’d be in a future phase. The zoo saw the need and added these beautiful animals to phase 1.” Mayes recalled. “Cheetahs aren’t supposed to climb but kept some trees with low branches in the exhibit area. We tried to create a large and long space so that the animals had room to roam. The space was planned so that if the zoo wanted, they could install a lure course for cheetah runs. We made sure we had some space for that with a couple of alternate routes could be done.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

For the first time in the zoo’s history, African Adventure brought African elephants to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. “We originally considered having the elephants on all three large savannas but the zoo decided to keep the elephants in only two areas and plan for the ability to bring other species into these with “creeps”,” Mayes stated. “We envisioned a large open space for the elephants to be able to maintain the grass in their habitat. We made sure the zoo could irrigate the grass since Fresno is rather hot and dry and chose a grass species that was really tough to keep the space as open and natural as possible. We protected large existing trees for elephants to use for shade and left some palm trees for the animals to play with. The palm trees are quite tall and give a nice African accent to the various mix of trees. And again, since the San Joaquin Valley is a warm place in summer, we provide lots of options of water for the elephants to swim in. “

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Of course, the elephants needed a state-of-the-art building for them to stay in. “We built a large flexible elephant barn behind some existing trees,” Mayes said. “We used colored concrete panels for walls that are dark and kind of match the tree bark color of the trees it so it really fades into the background.” One feature that has been very successful is an invisible barrier between the elephants and the neighboring savanna. “There’s a large water body which we wanted to look like a natural watering hole,” Mayes added. “It has an underwater wall provides a permanent physical barrier between the two spaces which is quite well hidden and which can be used to divide the pool in order to drop the water level on the elephant side when the zoo has baby elephants.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

The African elephant habitat was designed to be a complex, enriching space for the intelligent, social animals. “You want to have enough room, natural substrates, shade and design in a variety of ways for animal staff to enrich the daily lives of the animals,” Mayes said. “The elephants have a large artificial baobab with feeding and enrichment devices, a waterfall to play in, a wall with small openings for hidden and random treat searching opportunities and elements which can be varied by keepers on a regular basis. We were going to design a constructed mud wallow but the zoo decided it would be more natural and fun for the elephants to have keepers choose varying locations periodically and soak the soil and turf down. Then let the elephants dig their own mud wallow. When the keepers decided to move the wallow the let the area dry out, fill it in and reestablish the grass on top of it. This system seems to give the elephants great fun.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

The elephants occupy two of the three savannas: white rhinoceros, wildebeest, zebras, greater kudu, impalas, ostriches, springbok, elands and Speke’s gazelles live in the main part of the savanna one, the largest exhibit space. Right now giraffes are maintained in a smaller area of savanna one near the feeding shelter. “The giraffes will eventually to the large open savanna area,” Mayes commented. “The zoo is taking time and care to allow the giraffes to get used to the rhinos so it’s going to be a slower introduction.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

“With the main savanna, we and the zoo wanted to create the most natural and diverse African mixed species habitat in America,” he added. “The zoo staff did a great job of making the savanna like one in Africa. They talked to professionals throughout the zoo community and found which species would mix well together then carefully planned the introductory process for the animals to making them live happily.”

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

For the past few decades, Chuck Mayes has been one of the premier architects in the zoo industry. He has helped create many truly superb habitats that have given animals the most enriching, complex and active lives they can have. Mayes is determined to help push zoo design into the future. “I believe in mixed species exhibits- it can be good for the animals to have other species to add variety to their daily lives and adds to the educational value for visitors by presenting animals as part of larger ecosystems,” he reflected. “I see larger, more complex and naturalistic habitats coming. Social animals need to live in bigger social groups while solitary animals need to not be forced into social groups."

@ Fresno Chaffee Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti