Zoo Plantman: A Conversation with Rob Halpern, Owner of Zoo Horticulture Consulting and Design

Rob Halpern has carved a role in the zoo industry as the authority on zoo landscapes. While he will always be remembered for his work on the renowned Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo, he has worked on dozens of projects with his company Zoo Horticulture Consulting and Design. Halpern believes design of planting is essential to the quality of an exhibit. “When I design the planting, I think of how it will be like grown in,” he articulated. “Landscape should change over time and the people in charge of running them should make them better than I made them. The whole role of horticulture in zoos is interesting. It’s an ongoing battle.” Here is his story.

@ Rob Halpern

Halpern’s path to zoo horticulture began with his graduate thesis. “I was a graduate student and was struggling with what to do for my thesis,” he remembered. “I received a postcard from my parents from the Queen Elizabeth Conservancy in Vancouver, which had all these pictures of tropical birds in the conservatory.” The thesis led to Halpern becoming an expert on introducing birds into botanical conservancies and led him to talking to zoo horticulturalists about the subject. “Most zoo horticulturalists I spoke to complained about their jobs as so much of what they did was cleaning up from the animal department,” he recalled. “I didn’t really see zoos as a career choice but I went to a regional meeting at the Cincinnati Zoo to speak on my research. I met David Ehrlinger (the Cincinnati Zoo’s first horticulturalist.) He later contacted me to say the zoo was going to rededicate itself as a botanical garden and he wanted to hire a horticulturalist to work for him. He asked if I was interested in the job.” In 1987, Halpern became the second horticulturalist at the Cincinnati Zoo.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo was one of the first zoos to take plants into serious consideration. “[The Cincinnati Zoo} was one of the few zoos I knew that was serious about the value of horticulture,” Halpern stated. “When Ed Maruska took over the Cincinnati Zoo and went to look at other public facilities, one of the things he took away was planting was very important. He hired David Ehrlinger.” Ehrlinger would serve as an important mentor to Halpern. “I certainly learned an enormous amount from him,” he reflected. “He was really interested in relating where animals came from to the plants we were displaying. My role in the past thirty years has been to go beyond that to other levels.”

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo began not just to make horticulture look nice but also interpret it. “A big piece of my education [at the Cincinnati Zoo] was, when the zoo became a botanical garden, the education and marketing people had no idea what to do with it,” Halpern elaborated. “We said follow our lead and we’ll show you how it’s done. We started interpreting the landscape as well as the animals. One day, I was doing a public tour on a Saturday of the red panda landscape. I took this group of 20 middle-aged people through the red panda habitat and tried to explain the flora of China. They weren’t paying attention to me and were all staring at the panda. I realized I had to talk about [how the animals and plants related] to not upstage the animal. I then asked them why the panda was built the way it was and connected it to the plant ecosystem. Then they began to see the pandas and plants as a whole.”

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

“We have to start with the animal to connect it to the landscape,” Halpern continued. “That’s where it all began with me finding ways to connect the landscape to animals and plants as they’re all connected. That blows me away and my whole goal is to blow visitors away so they’ll enjoy nature and take away the bigger ecological value.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Halpern noted zoo horticulturalists of his time at Cincinnati Zoo were much different than those of today. “There’s a group called the Association of Zoo Horticulture started by Chuck Rodgers of Philadelphia Zoo as they felt they had a lot more to offer than their bosses were acknowledging,” he stated. “Their focus was making zoos look good and green. The zoo horticulturalists of today have become a much smarter bunch. They’re very active in plant conservation efforts.”

Mark Dumont @ Cincinnati Zoo

Halpern found Ed Maruska, the Cincinnati Zoo’s director for decades, to see the value of him and Ehrlinger’s work. “Ed doesn’t’ dance around but, as a New Yorker, I had no problems with that,” he remembered. “We would be walking through the zoo and he’d ask are you planning on adding more exotic trees and would encourage us to do so. Ed was very supportive of the development of the landscape but he was very much an animal person. He had his own collection of Japanese giant salamanders the public never saw and a collection of plants he kept in the backup greenhouse.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

One insightful experience for Halpern was when the Cincinnati Zoo temporarily had a giant panda in 1992. “We had this whole landscape but we found the panda would go out first thing in the morning when the sun wasn’t completely out, come back inside by 8:30 and never come out again,” he recalled. “This happened day after day. We came to understand the panda had been in London where it never came outside and pandas are largely forest animals. A panda wants to be in a forest. Animals at a deep level have an ideal environment. If you create that for them, they will be less stressed and will be where guests can see them.”

@ Cincinnati Zoo

The decision was made to put Komodo dragons in the habitat where the panda had lived. “We were the first zoo in the states to get into the Komodo dragon craze and we didn’t know much about their husbandry,” Halpern continued. “We designed it with the mindset the adults couldn’t climb. We put a planter up high and protected the roots from their digging. When they got into the exhibit, they would climb up the rockwork into the planter since it was the most densely planted.” This taught Halpern the importance of thoroughly understanding an animal’s ecology when designing a habitat for them.”

Lisa Hubbard @ Cincinnati Zoo

In 1993, the Cincinnati Zoo opened the award-winning Jungle Trails, an immersive trail through the rainforests of Africa and Asia. “Jungle Trails was a big project and it was largely planted by the horticulture department, not contractors,” Halpern recalled. “It was my first experience working on a large exhibit construction project with machinery reshaping the land and craning in big trees. When I think of Jungle Trails, my thoughts go to how much I learned from it. I learned how to do a project like that and that it’s really exciting and terrifying. Anyone who has worked on a big project knows that there’s a kind of euphoria that goes on with it. You have lots of people with different specialties trying to make something wonderful together and stepping on each other’s toes as there’s no way to avoid it. my head was swimming with this whole choreography of who does what when and thinking multi-dimensionally.”

Kathy Newton @ Cincinnati Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

Jungle Trails took guests on a lush path through a lush canopy of tropical trees. Careful attention was paid to the choreography of the guest experience. “You entered through a long trail that established you’re in a jungle,’ Halpern explained. “You’re really just a few yards away from the bonobo house but we screen it off to create the sense you’re walking through a jungle. When you first go around the bend and are surprised to see there’s a tree with gibbons in it, it’s an emotional moment. Then, you turn and see a clearing with Asian birds. As you finish looking at the orangutans and you head into the Asian building, we tried to diminish the experience of going outside to inside.”

@ Scott Richardson

Halpern mentioned the sequence of events in a zoo exhibit is important. “All good zoo design is about choreography and creating this journey,” Halpern elaborated. “Do you start with the sexist animals and if so where do you go from there? The first animal has to not be the star of the show but has to be interesting. You built up to the star. Exhibit design is an emotional experience not unlike actually going out into nature. if you go to your local park, you have this sense of drama, discovery, excitement and intellectual curiosity. All of these things get us at a deep level and landscape is an essential piece of that. The goal is not to look at what cool plants we have. The goal is getting people excited about nature. [When I was at the Bronx Zoo,] we had weekly meetings with Bill Conway just about exhibits and operations. He said if you boiled down our mission, it’s simple. It’s to get people to fall in love with nature.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Scott Richardson

In 1993, Halpern moved to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo and he would work closely with its renowned Exhibits Graphics and Arts Department (EGAD) department. “I had never wanted to move back to New York and the only thing that brought me back was the Bronx Zoo,” he recalled. “There’s very big ambitions in the Bronx Zoo’s horticulture department.” The Bronx Zoo had a rich history of creating world-class immersive habitats. “The Bronx Zoo took revolutionary ideas and did them right,” Halpern explained. “They would take something somebody else had done but do it an ambitious way.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

At the time, EGAD was beginning to design Congo Gorilla Forest, which would become often regarded as the greatest exhibit in zoo history. “My predecessor Mark Wourms had started a nursery in preparation for Congo,” Halpern stated. “Congo was originally going to be much less ambitious. When I started was the transition between the two plans. I had a talk with John Gwynne (then head of EGAD) and Lee Ehmke (project manager on Congo Gorilla Forest) about if we could do a convincing feeling outdoors where guests were in a rainforest. I showed them Jungle Trails and the nursey and said here’s how we’ll recreate it.”

@ WCS

A total of 14,000 plants would be used in Congo Gorilla Forest to properly replicate their environment. “My focus was very much on what zoos had been doing but on creating something that functioned specifically as an African rainforest,” Halpern explained. “Lee and John said let’s create more planting space and push the mudbanks farther back. We wanted to get certain areas constructed ahead of time so we could grow things in a bit before it opened.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ WCS

Congo Gorilla Forest was an extremely collaborative project. “The landscape architects, exhibits designers and theming designers worked extremely close as a team and that’s why Congo is so excellent,” Halpern noted. The team paid close attention to detail. “The design team was walking through where they were going to build a waterfall and I said it looked too much like an exhibit,” Halpern explained. “If you’re face to face with the full front of a waterfall, it feels like a fake one in a mall. There should be plants obstructing it. You should approach anything in an immersion exhibit gradually. Additional planters are needed to place the waterfall in the context of the landscape. The fabricators said let’s do that.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Scott Richardson

Halpern is a strong advocate for landscape immersion in zoo design but believes it should be done to true to the concept. “Immersion landscape is not simply landscaping the habitat so it kind of suggests where the animal comes from or having a landscape around,” he articulated. “It’s trying to place the animals and visitors in the same landscape to create one space people and animals move through that seems seamless.” In Congo Gorilla Forest, Halpern and the rest of the team exercised this subtlety. “We discovered there is this balance you have to find [between landscape and theming],” Halpern elaborated. “If you go too far towards theming, it just looks like theming. If you go too far with landscape, it just looks like a forest in New York. There’s a spot in between where it becomes theater and the plants and theming become more than they are. We were able to do it because we all worked with each other and walked through to talk about how to make it better every day.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Grayson Ponti

The team did their best to blur the distinction between being inside and outside. “John and Lee had this vision where you’d move seamlessly from the outdoor mandrill viewing area to the building through a mudbank covered with ferns,” Halpern explained. “We thought about this for awhile about how to do this with Jolly Miller, the end-all be-all zoo fabrication guy. We put in holes for the ferns in the mesh and attached drip irrigation to the back of the mesh as a backup. Years later, the fern canyon was dead and no one then at the zoo knew what to do. They didn’t remember we had done the backup.”

@ Scott Richardson

@ Grayson Ponti

An important decision in the layout of Congo Gorilla Forest was to have guests inside as they watched the gorillas from the outside. “We flipped it so the gorillas were out in the fields doing what they wanted while the humans were inside behind the glass and the gorillas were fascinated by them,” Halpern remarked. “Conway said we had just built the most expensive gorilla entertainment facility ever built. We encouraged the gorillas to be close to the guests and found they had all become acclimated to guests. After it was open, I became very aware the gorillas only used some of the areas all the time and others not at all. We found out the gorillas always wanted to have something overhead. On a cloudy day, they would wander everywhere while on a sunny day they would only stay under the trees.”

@ WCS

@ Scott Richardson

When Congo Gorilla Forest opened in 1999, Halpern had dedicated six years of his life to its success. “Congo was so all engrossing and fantastic that frequently we were working on it six days a week,” Halpern recalled. “I remember one Sunday I was walking through the zoo taking in what we had done. I ran into Lee Ehmke and we said what are we going to do after this is over.” In 2000, Halpern left WCS to do his own projects.

@ WCS

Some of Halpern’s first projects on his own were collaborations with Craig Rhodes and WDM Architects. “I assisted them on [their projects with] Cameron Park Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo and later on Oklahoma City Zoo,” he said. “I was mostly brainstorming with them.” For Cameron Park Zoo, he worked on Brazos River Country, the zoo’s signature exhibit which featured the wildlife and habitats found on Texas’s Brazos River. “Craig sat me down and we went over what they were trying to accomplish with Brazos River and present the different habitats you would encounter along the river,” Halpern said. “I advised them on how to accomplish that with landscape.”

@ WDM Architects

@ WDM Architects

For the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Halpern helped WDM on Downing Gorilla Forest. The exhibit was inspired by Congo Gorilla Forest but did not intend to capture the same detail and lavishness. “They wanted to recreate Congo with a tiny fraction of the funds,” he recalled. “Basically, they started with this somewhat sloping site with a moat in the back and an ha-ha wall. I worked with them on the landscape design but they just wanted me to consult.” Halpern passed on some of the knowledge he learned from Congo Gorilla Forest. “I helped them understand how a gorilla interacts with another gorilla and how the landscape creates good behavior,” he noted.

@ WDM Architects

Halpern suggested the Sedgwick County Zoo should take a different direction to creating a habitat for gorillas, inspired by a river running through the front of the trail. “I suggested rather than doing a forest, let’s go through a bai, an area that is basically a big open swamp,” he elaborated. “That [environment] has the best eating for gorillas and elephants and has an important part of the story of the ecosystem. You don’t think of gorillas being in a big swamp so it adds to [the guests’] understanding of gorillas and where they come from. It’s also cheaper than creating a rainforest.”

@ WDM Architects

Halpern also consulted on Oklahoma Trails at the Oklahoma City Zoo, which featured all of the state’s ecosystems. “Oklahoma Trails was fascinating as they wanted to convey the wealth and wonder of the different habitats of Oklahoma,” he recalled. “I did not know the first thing about how amazing Oklahoma’s habitats are. [Oklahoma] sits on the crossroads of many habitats with prairies, cross timbers and eastern forests all coming together. They wanted to tell this story using animals and appropriate plants. They had large existing trees they wanted to keep, which is a challenge. Part of my work was advising them on what it would take to save those trees.”

@ WDM Architects

@ WDM Architects

Another one of Halpern’s clients was the Nashville Zoo, a young zoo with a reputation for immersive habitat design. He found Rick Schwartz, the zoo’s director, to be very considerate of the important role of horticulture. “Rick Schwartz’s vision [for plants] was based on Cincinnati’s- having landscapes that are very pretty,” Halpern elaborated. “They may use a lot of contrasting textures so they’re kind of sexy landscapes suggesting nature but not recreating nature. Very tidy, park landscapes.” Schwartz is a highly regarded exhibit designer in his own right and known for his heavy involvement in construction. “Rick is ridiculously hands on,” Halpern mentioned.

@ Nashville Zoo

@ Scott Richardson

The first project they collaborated on was African Elephant Savanna, which turned what used to be farmland into an African plains environment. “Rick had these large, old pastures where he was going to put elephants,” Halpern noted. “He wanted them to be on lush grass. I had an idea for a custom blend of soil. An immersion experience is one where you’re walking around and you’re surprised to encounter wildlife. In Nashville, you enter through a long trail of grassland. We used a great number of different grass species and you go into much taller grass until it opens up into tented viewing areas.” African Elephant Savanna has since become home to white rhinos.

@ Scott Richardson

@ Nashville Zoo

One of Halpern’s most unique projects was designing the Green Planet Science Museum's rainforest, first rainforest exhibit in the Middle East. It was in collaboration with Studio Hanson Roberts. “That was an unbelievable challenge and success,” he remarked. “As strange as it seems to create a rainforest in Dubai, it was for an environmental science education center. While you can do ecological education of the local area, the ecology of Dubai is rather specific. If you really want to talk ecology, there’s no better place than the rainforest."

@ Studio Hanson Roberts

There were a number of challenges for the project because of its location and staff. “You can’t import a lot of things into Dubai so I had to start over again with scientists to study sandy soil that would let plants from South America grow,” Halpern explained. “There was also nobody hired yet to run it- no director or curator.” The rainforest turned out very well and served as an incredibly educational experience. “Dubai is 85% non-native people and is one of the biggest tourist destinations in that hemisphere,” noted Halpern.

@ Studio Hanson Roberts

Another notable project Halpern has worked on in recent years was the Osher Rainforest for the California Academy of Sciences. It would become a four story, indoor rainforest with three different habitats. “We wanted to create rainforest size trees but not have them just be artificial,” he explained. “We wanted to have them sort of be alive. Finally, the project managers said this was beyond the client to maintain so we never put in those trees.” The proposed live/artificial hybrids were replaced by much smaller live trees.

@ California Academy of Sciences

@ California Academy of Sciences

in 2010, the Dallas Zoo opened Giants of the Savanna, a state-of-the-art immersive habitat complex for African elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, cheetahs, warthogs, ostriches and antelope. The exhibit went through development and construction rather quickly due to pressure by animal rights activists to move out Jenny the elephant. “There was great pressure to get that done quickly,” Halpern elaborated. “Since they were in such a hurry and both CLR and I had so much experience with these kinds of exhibits, we could concentrate on making what we know even better rather than reinventing the wheel.”

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

Careful consideration was taken into providing a complex, varying terrain for all the animals, especially elephants, and creating a naturalistic environment. “They had Acacias in West Texas so I could do an African savanna with real acacias to better tell that ecological story,” Halpern noted. “The rolling hills work incredibly well and get the elephants to move up and down the hills.” Eventually, Giants of the Savanna became the first exhibit to house elephants and giraffes together.

@ Dallas Zoo

@ Dallas Zoo

Halpern carried the knowledge he leanred on Giants of the Savanna to Heart of Africa, the Columbus Zoo’s African Savanna designed by PGAV Destinations. “My picture of a savanna exhibit had changed because of what I did in Dallas,” he remarked. “Heart of Africa was a very interesting project. We had 30 acres of soy bean fields where they wanted to do it and they had the notion of not only doing a great mixed species savanna but having a watering hole be the focal point. When I first heard it, it struck me as a very weird idea but the more I understood it, the more I thought it was absolutely brilliant.” The watering hole would feature a variety of species on a rotational basis such as cheetahs, hyenas, warthogs, aardvarks and jackals.

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

On Heart of Africa, careful effort was put in maintaining the terrain. “We had a whole lot of animals that had to be out on the grassy savanna but, since I am almost the only zoo design person who has actually worked at a zoo on the operations side, I came in looking at [the savanna] saying we can certainly do giraffes and wildebeests but zebras are hell on turf,” he explained. “They really wanted it to be green and took the bold undertaking of spending money to put in the custom designed soil to allow all these animals to be out. It’s beautiful because it’s a custom soil”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

When asked about the future of zoos and zoo design, Halpern responded that he saw bigger, more dynamic habitats with a stronger connection to why animals are held in human care as the answer. He expressed great pride in the work he had done over the course of his career.

#BronxZoo #CincinnatiZoo #DallasZoo #OklahomaCityZoo #CameronParkZoo #SedgwickCountyZoo #NashvilleZoo #ColumbusZoo

You Might Also Like:
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
0824BZ_3117TA
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
maruska
charlie
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/05/14/A-Life-Devoted-to-the-ModernConservation-Zoo-A-Cons
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/08/03/Connecting-People-to-Living-Things-in-an-Emotional-

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. 

 

About Me
Search by Tags
No tags yet.

© 2017 by Grayson Ponti