Updated: Mar 17
The Santa Barbara Zoo’s new Australian Walkabout exhibit is a first for the Zoo, a 15,000 square foot showpiece space dedicated to the animals, landscape and culture of Australia. More than this, it provides an exceptional guest experience, encouraging visitors to interact with the space and feel connected to the many animals that now call the Zoo home.
The project began when the Zoo had to decide what to do with the space that had been home to their Asian elephants for nearly 30 years. The elephants had passed away and changes in AZA standards and other considerations meant that the Zoo had an opportunity to get creative with the large, centrally located space.
Wendy Campbell, the Zoo’s Creative/Brand Manager, says that the process of developing the new exhibit was exciting and challenging. There were several important factors that impacted its development- space constraints, funding and animal availability. As a water and landlocked location, there is no room to expand so the space needed to suit the animals and vice versa. Secondly, as a privately funded zoo, they had to set an appropriate budget and fundraise accordingly; closures during the Covid pandemic and rising supply costs put extra pressure on this aspect. Then, of course, there was the question of what animals were available in the AZA community, not to mention which animals would coexist the best. Wendy also says that at the Santa Barbara Zoo, guest experience is a critical element in the decision-making process.
“What kind of experience do we want to provide for our guests? What story do we want to tell? Our philosophy is that all the animals that we have are ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild,” Wendy explained. “And of course, we want to provide the animals with the best care at our facility.”
As research and team member input fell into place, the Zoo settled on the idea of the Australian Walkabout- an exhibit that would be open, interactive and mindfully created. They began to reach out to find the animals, as well as the resources and inspiration they would need to develop the exhibit.
Seeking inspiration for the Australian Walkabout brought the Zoo to work with the Australian Consulate and Sam Cook, Director of KMBA Creative Agency and Aboriginal Australian consultant to design a culturally sensitive space that would be both beautiful and educational. The Zoo also brought on local companies Blackbird Architects and Frank Schipper Construction Co., both of which have previously worked with the Zoo, to design, landscape and build a space with the safety of animals and guests in mind.
“How can we do this the best for the animals and for the guests in the space that we have? We really had to think about that,” says Campbell. “We wanted to give the animals a lot of choices, so there are lots of places where they can take a break. That way, the guests are going to see the natural behaviors of the animals and have a really good experience.”
During the development phase, the Zoo also had to find the right way to incorporate information and donor recognition signage. As the focus is on the landscape and the animals, traditional interpretive panels and donor signs could potentially interfere with the animals and the guest experience.
“We thought a lot about placement and what we have is not in obvious areas. We have one animal ID graphic at the exit, so you see it after you go through,” Wendy explains. “We have another one that's in a viewing area, so people can go the other way and read about the animals that way.”
Within the exhibit, instead of signage, the Zoo added graphic panels to the enclosure, featuring large-scale photos of the animals on perforated aluminum panels, made with custom ALTO™ powder-coated graphics. Wendy explains that these large panels would have been an opportunity to include Zoo branding, but ultimately it didn’t work within the space; instead, the panels add to the space without distracting from the overall experience.
“The panels are opaque from one perspective and then totally transparent from others. It keeps it naturalistic and open,” she says. “The giant animal photos tell you what's in there without having to add a ton of signage.”
As a privately funded zoo, donor recognition was a big factor in the exhibit. The team had to find a way to honor the donors without interfering with the plants, animals or experience, and so they came up with subtle, creative methods throughout the space. These include engraved concrete pathways, sponsored benches, and bamboo plaques with Aboriginal Australian quotes hung from the trees, as well as special areas like the billabong and a rock structure dedicated to special donors.
The completed space is a new take on typical Australian-inspired exhibits, relying instead on more natural feel where the animals, plants and landscaping become the focus. With more than 30 different kinds of drought-tolerant native Australian plants to mimic the forest environments the animals come from, high-visibility mesh and minimal interpretive or donor signage, the Australian Walkabout is an open, natural space where animals, guests and staff can share in the experience.
“We took that inspiration from the Aboriginal Australian peoples’ cultural foundation of a great responsibility to and respect for the land and living together with animals. You're sharing the space with the animals,” Wendy says. “Just being close to the animals, unimpeded, is a great guest experience that's really unique.”
The Australian Walkabout is now home to wallabies, western grey kangaroos, kookaburras, tawny frogmouths, cockatoos, and two very charismatic and curious emus who were hand-raised at the Zoo. Guests have been delighted with the space since its opening, enjoying the natural beauty of the site and the chance to get up close and personal with some special animals. The only challenge these days, according to Wendy, is keeping the animals from eating the expensive plants!
Special thanks to Wendy Campbell, Creative/Brand Manager at the Santa Barbara Zoo, for speaking to us about the Australian Walkabout. For more information about the exhibit and the zoo, visit https://www.sbzoo.org/animal/new-australian-walkabout/.
Photos courtesy of the Santa Barbara Zoo.