One day in 1979, Jon Coe was perched at his drawing board inside the Seattle offices of Jones and Jones Architecture when the phone rang. Coe answered and was greeted by a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who wanted to know if Coe had designed the new gorilla exhibit at the city’s Woodland Park Zoo.
For decades, it was standard practice to house gorillas under lock and key, often in laboratory-like enclosures that were easy to clean. But at Woodland Park, gorillas were now roaming outdoors among vegetation on terrain that mimicked their native habitat. Strategically placed moats kept the exhibit free of imposing visual barriers, and there were burly trees for the gorillas to climb — an idea that for years had been written off as too risky.
Eager to extoll the many merits of the exhibit, Coe said that he and his associates were indeed the visionaries behind it.
“Then what do you think of the gorilla escape?” the reporter asked.
Unbeknownst to him, a 468-pound silverback gorilla named Kiki used a tree limb as a makeshift ladder to scale one of the dry moats and escape. A grounds crew first spotted Kiki at the polar bear exhibit, where he seemed to be sitting in peace. Next, he went to the Nocturnal House, where he broke into the kitchen, feasted on a stash of papaya and blueberries, and then checked out some Australian potoroos.
Word of the escape got out, and police and local news crews soon swarmed. Between ushering guests to safety and monitoring Kiki’s whereabouts, zoo staff had to lobby a local news station to keep its “Eye on the Sky” chopper away from the scene for fear of spooking the nearly quarter-ton animal.
The lead veterinarian tried to lure Kiki to safety with bananas and sliced apples, but when he ran out of cards to play, the vet shot the gorilla full of tranquilizers.
Coe was relieved to learn that neither man nor beast was hurt. He stressed to the reporter that Kiki wasn’t so much escaping as he was exploring. “Kiki wanted to expand his horizons, to see what he can’t see from his tree,” Coe reasoned. The reporter was satisfied, and the interview ended, but Coe was left knowing that a curious animal equipped with nothing more than a tree branch had bested years of planning and engineering.
Healthier enclosures make for healthier animals. Healthier animals make for savvier escape artists.
Today, Coe is one of the most influential and accomplished landscape architects alive. Born in California, he racked up degrees at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where an adviser once quipped that nobody would ever be able to make a living by designing zoo enclosures. Now, at age 77, Coe’s fingerprints can be seen on exhibits from Bali to Frankfurt to Pittsburgh.
They can also be seen, indirectly, on a fair number of animal escapes: gorillas jumping over gaping moats, crafty orangutans channeling their inner Andy Dufresne. And seeing what he’s seen had led Coe to believe that today’s zoo animals, particularly the great apes, appear to be better equipped physically and mentally to overcome the barriers that once contained them.
It’s simple, really: Healthier enclosures make for healthier animals. Healthier animals make for savvier escape artists. The question follows: What should zoo designers do?