The Zoo Fix It Guy: A Conversation with Nevin Lash, Zoo Designer CEO of Ursa International

@ Nevin Lash

Nevin Lash’s career took a turn when he heard about the emergence of CLR Design in Philadelphia, a design company dedicated solely to zoos. “I was quite bored of designing malls and office parks when I heard about this firm in Philadelphia,” he recalled. At the time, they were looking for a project manager for a massive undertaking that would take Zoo Atlanta from one of the worst zoos in America to a world-class facility. Lash was given the Project Manager role, responsible for leading the design and construction of a complete renovation of the zoo, including four habitats replicating a West African rainforest for gorillas and three habitats replicating an Indonesian rainforest for orangutans with associated exhibits. “I was the guy in between Jon Coe and Gary Lee (CLR), the zoo staff and the local design team,” he said. “It was my first time involved in any zoo project so it was huge learning curve for me.”

@ Jon Coe

@ Zoo Atlanta

For Ford African Rainforest, CLR found innovative ways to replicate the rainforest of Cameroon. It was also perfect for groundbreaking gorilla management in groups. “It was a pretty immersive experience and I had the chance to make great ideas happen,” Lash commented. “We had moats everywhere in the original design, but as we moved forward, one of my big changes was to create an extended claybank planter along the rear of the exhibit so we could plant them to have green backdrops. I think that helped the gorillas feel more comfortable than if it was wide open on all sides. One of the cool things in the design that happened was Terry [Maple] showed up at a construction meeting one day and said ‘Who’s taking charge of our great canopy of trees, we need to make sure someone is looking after every tree’. We saved a lot of mature trees, which was a big plus to the site.”

@ Jon Coe

@ Nevin Lash

Another major project Lash worked on at CLR was Habitat Africa for the Brookfield Zoo, which featured giraffes, African wild dogs and other African animals. “We did a lot of great habitat building and envisioned it being a lively place with visitor activities, and made the interactive experiences beyond the animals to learning about the people and culture,” he elaborated. However, not all of Lash’s ideas were adopted by the keeper staff. “Gary Lee said we have experience but not expertise,” he mentioned. “[The keepers] manage animals everyday while we don’t. We can recommend things but it’s up to the zoo to decide which things to do. You have to get the animal management side right before you design in the visitor side.”

@ CZS

Soon after, Lash was project manager for Primate Panorama at the Denver Zoo, which featured a wide variety of primates from gorillas and orangutans to mandrills and mangabeys. “It was really going to be Clayton Freiheit’s (Denver’s Zoo Director) crown jewel,” Lash remarked. “He was able to put his entire collection [of primates that formerly was inside a building] outside, which was great. We had the room to really build that out.” However, he claimed the best exhibit he worked on with CLR was the award winning Northern Trail at Woodland Park Zoo. “We were at Seattle during an AZA meeting the year it opened and everyone was walking around with their mouths dropped,” Lash recalled.

@ Denver Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

After about a decade at CLR, Nevin Lash set out on his own and created Ursa International. One of his first projects was the Exxon Tiger Habitat at the Dallas Zoo. “Tigers at Dallas was a great privilege to do,” he stated. “I was a new startup trying to make my way. The staff decided they wanted to do something a little different [so they hired me.] We came up with a very complete plan of how this exhibit would work on the site. We even changed the location as we found a better site than the one they wanted to use- a forgotten little valley already filled with trees. [At the time] it was basically a drainage space with a picnic area, but the landscape was already there for a Tiger Habitat. We knew if we enclosed it with fencing and had an authentically themed viewing building where you could view into the habitats, it would work well.”

@ Dallas Zoo

A major focus of the project was human wildlife conflict. “I wanted to show how the human interference into the rainforest was impacting tigers and how tigers were on the brink,” Lash elaborated. “We showed a much more domestic landscape as you entered, feeling like a more human oriented landscape. We planted a lot of bamboo to look as if the bamboo forest was encroaching on the tropical rainforest. [It gave the illusion] the tigers had been given only a small part of the landscape and humans were taking over. The payoff isn’t constant- you’re walking through a landscape for a chance to see the tigers. We used a road that continues into the habitat to blur the boundary of the exhibit. As a tourist, you’re typically in a vehicle when you’re looking at animals in the wild. That’s also where the loggers and bushmeat hunters come in so it’s a double edged sword.”

@ Dallas Zoo

The facility was designed for top-notch tiger welfare. “We created outdoor off exhibit areas for the tigers to hang out and still be in an enriched space,” Lash elaborated. “You need to give carnivores a completely interconnected area so they can keep moving around. It was a very well thought out holding building with lots of opportunities for keepers to take care of the tigers and train them.”

@ Dallas Zoo

Nevin Lash’s other early major project as Ursa was Kitera Chimpanzee Forest at the North Carolina Zoo. He was brought in to help solve some problems with the chimp exhibit. “[The original exhibit] was by far one of the best chimp exhibit when it opened- open moated view, mature trees, great distance views and very immersive landscape,” Lash explained. “The lion exhibit was basically on the roof of the holding building and could be seen from the chimp overlook. The problem was the chimps were very exposed and surrounded. People didn’t always act very nicely around chimpanzees - they would make noises and gestures causing the chimps to take rocks and throw them at the people. It was a terrible situation. We were tasked to improve the exhibit for both people and chimps.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

One of the major changes was filling in the moat and replacing it with glass viewing. “We gave the chimps the upper hand by elevating them a few feet above the people,” Lash remarked. “All of a sudden the alpha male started sitting at the glass making kissy faces with the visitors. It was a beautiful experience right there at the glass, which used to be the point of warfare.” Additionally, the space was made even more immersive and enriching. “We were able to plant the whole habitat with tropical-looking plants and improved it so you never saw the edges,” Lash said. “The zoo staff built this amazing climbing tree where I’ve seen up to 12 chimps on it. When you enter the exhibit you just see chimps up in the tree, no barriers, no edges. Before it was just grass and trees with hotwire while now it has a lush under-story and mid-canopy.”

@ Nevin Lash

@ Nevin Lash

The indoor facility was also given a major upgrade. “Originally the holding area was just a storage building for lions and chimpanzees together,” Lash recalled. “Now there is a separate holding for chimps and lions. It’s a modern back-of-house facility with introduction suites, hydraulic doors, by-pass chutes and perches. We also made it so the keeper staff could have a break room, locker/shower room and enrichment kitchen to boost professionalism. There’s also an off-exhibit outdoor area where they’ve been able to integrate new chimpanzees into one big troop.”

@ Nevin Lash

@ North Carolina Zoo

Kitera Chimpanzee Forest was given strong interpretation and conservation messaging. “We built a viewing blind as a researcher’s station and second one as a community center where there’s a room that is a museum-like place that talks about chimpanzee biology and local conservation efforts by the zoo,” elaborated Lash. “We wanted to give visitors a separate place away from the chimps, to let visitors learn on their own, sit on rocking chairs, and hang with the Chimps. There are docents who give presentations. A wonderful thing about North Carolina Zoo is it includes a percentage for art in their exhibits and new projects. There’s art everywhere! And there are wonderful realistic sculptures of Chimps crossing the path at Kitera.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

Ursa International has been very aware of what issues in wildlife management it may need to address. “What I’m trying to do is look at the future of zoos and solve problems that are lurking out there,” Lash explained. “For instance, I spent a lot of time with Chimp Haven designing their whole facility. Their goal was to get chimps out of labs and retire them into a naturalistic space. The federal government (NIH) gave them $30 million to build and operate that facility.” Located in Shreveport, Louisiana, the sanctuary is home to over 200 chimpanzees formerly used in laboratory research, pets and entertainment. We showed that it would save the government money to retire chimps into naturalistic habitats than to keep them in the lab setting.

@ Chimp Haven

@ Chimp Haven

Additionally, Lash designed a polar bear sanctuary in Cochrane, Northern Ontario for nuisance polar bears. “We designed this facility for seven bears with two one-acre habitats which are the largest zoo polar bear habitats in the world,” he stated. “They took the next step by putting a fence around a small natural lake adjacent to the habitat and gave it to the polar bears where they could go out swimming. For a facility for polar bear wellness, it’s as good as it gets. For the visitors, we designed in a glass barrier in a shallow pool next to the bear pool for kids to make it looks like you’re swimming with the polar bears. I think it’s really bear enrichment. The whole idea of interacting with polar bears has been taken up a notch.”

@ Polar Bear Habitat

@ Polar Bear Habitat

In 2014, the North Carolina Zoo opened a dramatically expanded polar bear habitat designed by Ursa International. “I got a call from the North Carolina Zoo saying we’re going to have trouble getting polar bears in the future,” Nevin Lash stated. “The new regulations for Manitoba standards would have all these requirements they didn’t meet. I went there for a workshop to meet with the curators and design a new exhibit expansion that would be a more land-based exhibit. The bears would have access to the existing big pool and then this expansion habitat would be the upland area. With polar bears, you need to give them land for digging and walking around. We also found the holding under-sized so we built a new wing with a maternity suite, transfer cages, scales and more modern facilities. They went to the legislator and got a commitment for $9 million after saying they couldn’t have polar bears if they didn’t do this exhibit. It was approved and the new exhibit would exceed current and future requirements."

@ North Carolina Zoo

Instead of aiming to recreate the environment of the Arctic glaciers, the zoo focused on recreating the taiga. “At Detroit Zoo, Jones and Jones did Arctic Ring of Life, which recreates the tundra,” Lash explained. “It looks like you can see for miles. At this site in North Carolina, there was no way we could replicate an expansive view like that. The horticulture staff was convinced the closest habitat they could pull off was the Pacific Northwest. I thought, ‘Polar bears don’t live in the Pacific Northwest!’” Over time, Lash was convinced this approach would work most affectively. “We picked out all these great Northwest plant materials to hide our sixteen foot tall chain link fence in the back and planted more evergreen shrubs and grasses in front of it,” he added. “We built as big of a habitat as we could at that site adjacent to the existing polar bear exhibit, but this would be the green exhibit.

@ North Carolina Zoo

@ North Carolina Zoo

The landscape of the habitat subtly enhanced the theme of climate change found throughout its messaging. “As we got into thinking about climate change, we thought, if polar bears didn’t have sea ice, and couldn’t eat seals, what would they eat? Where would they live to find food?,” Nevin Lash remarked. “In the future, there may be interaction between polar and grizzly bear territories. During the summer months, polar bears migrate into taiga regions. We justified [our design] when the Zoo was offered a sculpture of an Inuit hunter about fifty paces away from a grizzly bear. This got us talking about how, with climate change, odd juxtapositions are happening. Will these native people have to migrate south for food? Would polar bears follow? Would grizzly bears move into polar bear territory and encounter Inuit people? We were presenting a future time where the polar bear lives in a boreal forest, with spruce and shallow gravel bars.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

The environment was carefully designed to meet polar bear welfare needs. “We wanted to give them a lot of permanent shade and thought of the viewing building as an ice cave where visitor and bears can go in and be in a expansive shaded cave directly off the exhibit, holding and viewing areas. For the visitors, the ice cave has multi-media images of the expansive tundra, where you can touch a melting glacial ‘moulin’ experience, feel the cool air, and have close-up ice cave viewing, and landscape vistas into the exhibit. For the bears, it’s a place where the polar bear can get away, near their holding and next to the people,” Lash elaborated. “We created this covered area adjacent to the view building that was open to the public and would allow the polar bears to get out of the sun. It appears as an ice cave that opens onto the main habitat, which is a landscape area with a waterfall, permafrost banks, stream and shallow pool. They can look around for random enrichment goodies. Besides the stream and ice cave, the rest of the 20,000 sf additional habitat, uses all soft substrate to make it a comfortable place for the bears stretch their legs.”

@ NC Zoo Society

“Primarily, the habitat offers flexibility [in polar bear management],” Lash continued. “The zoo now has nine building rooms all interconnected to the two different habitats and two additional off-exhibit outdoor areas. There are countless places to put a polar bear and a lot of ability to do training of the polar bears and easily transfer them from one place to another. It was designed with the keeper staff in mind but really for the bears to be able to comfortably live at the zoo forever.”

@ North Carolina Zoo

“I like to think of myself as the zoo fix-it guy,” Nevin Lash reflected. “If you’ve got a problem, I can solve it for you. I’m a small, flexible firm so I am able to enter into situations that are a bit hairy and end up making the zoo a much better place for animals. We’re trying to improve the conditions of animals in human care all over the world. I’ve worked in 12 different countries and made a huge difference, especially in Global South zoos. If I’ve done anything with the business, I hope it’s improving the lives for animals in captivity and safety for the keepers who care for them.

@ Nevin Lash

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