Zoo Knoxville: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus

Read Time: 5 minutes

Snakes and lizards and toads! Oh my! How can a zoo engage its visitors in the wonders of herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) when there are so many negative stereotypes circulating about these cool creatures? SEGD member firm Dimensional Innovations partnered with Zoo Knoxville to design and create the new Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus (ARCC) to counter peoples’ fears and help them learn about the important roles these species play in the Earth’s ecosystems.

In September 2017, Zoo Knoxville received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant of $500,000 to transform “guest herpetology learning.” Located in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Tennessee, Zoo Knoxville’s reptile and amphibian collections are significant, focusing on both local and international species. But content and interpretation needed to be updated. Guest surveys confirmed that Knoxville’s herpetology displays were unengaging and outdated. Further assessments determined that visitors wanted better learning experiences. According to the zoo’s IMLS grant application, these experiences included “elements that are interactive, elicit emotion, broaden understanding and use technology effectively.”

Soon after receiving the IMLS grant, Knoxville began collaborating with SEGD member firm Dimensional Innovations (DI) to design and create a new herpetology facility. Titled the Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus (ARCC), the building includes animal displays as well as interpretive learning experiences.

“We had heard of Dimensional Innovations through our master planning architects (CLR Design), and so we talked to them about the desire to up-our-game with technology,” says Lisa New, President and CEO of Zoo Knoxville. “We started to explore some of what DI had previously designed, and they had a real appeal. They are a design-to-fabrication company, so we could work with them through the whole process.”

“The zoo team is great and wonderful to work with,” says Monica Roesner, Senior UX Designer at DI, who created many of the ARCC’s digital interactives. “It was definitely a collaborative process.”

But in taking on the project, Monica and her team at DI faced some unexpected challenges. One of the biggest barriers to visitor learning about herpetofauna is the negative stereotype that many people have about amphibians and reptiles, especially crocodiles, alligators and snakes. Zoo visitors are often hesitant to approach these animals—even though they are safely inside their displays—because of associations with danger and harm. So, one of DI’s design challenges was to create a very accessible and easy to understand space where school kids, families and other audiences could enjoy visiting and learning yet not feel frightened or intimidated.

“There is often a negative stigma that goes along with these animals, so it was incredibly important to the zoo’s team that we make this an accessible space for everyone,” says Weston Owen, DI’s Marketing Strategist. “And it was important for us to design a space where visitors can go through, overcome those challenges and have the animals be approachable.”

To do this, Dimensional Innovations created fun interactive experiences that help zoo audiences remove barriers and learn more about amphibians and reptiles—and even appreciate their beauty. A highlight is “Create a Creature,” a digital interactive that encourages visitors to “make” their own species of frog, snake, lizard or turtle. Here, they can choose an animal form, displayed on a screen, and then customize its patterns and colors.

“The actual 3D model of the animal is relatively realistic, but then you can pick patterns and colors that are totally unrealistic, giving that fun whimsical piece back to the user,” says Monica. “You’re able to adapt and modify the patterns and the colors to make it your own.”

“For ‘Create a Creature,’ in particular, we decided the interactive should be more about engaging a love of and curiosity in reptiles and their environments,” says Lisa. “You can then name your animal and email it home to yourself in a (electronic) postcard.”

This postcard also serves as a takeaway piece about Knoxville’s conservation efforts. The designers incorporated the conservation message not just here, but throughout the zoo’s new ARCC facility, along with the themes of beauty, stewardship and discovery.

“A lot of the conservation message is woven into the interpretive panels that speak to individual animals,” explains Jeremy Williams, DI’s Executive Creative Director. “It was blended with the content and not called out as a separate thing.” 

One of the ways DI showcased the beauty of herps, as well as encouraged their appreciation and stewardship with visitors, is through art installations. These include entry-lobby mobiles made of 3D-printed tortoise shells and wall treatments featuring the colors, textures, and patterns of reptile shells and amphibian skins.

But perhaps one of the team’s biggest challenges was capturing images of some of the ARCC’s tiniest animals through photography. 

“We have a lot of really up-close photography of their bodies, so visitors can get a detailed view and have something to reference when they’re searching the environments to find the different creatures,” says Ian Spaeth, Senior Designer at DI. “It was difficult, yet comical, about needing photographs of these animals, some of them in hibernation. So, we had a list of when they would come out of hibernation—we just had to wait patiently for the animals to cooperate!” 

But all the efforts of the DI and Zoo Knoxville teams seemed to have paid off. The exhibition opened in April 2021, and since then, zoo visitors have sent nearly 92,000 digital animals and postcards from the “Create a Creature” interactive.

“This year, in 2021, we project about 130,000 more people coming to our zoo than in 2019, and that’s pretty phenomenal growth,” says Lisa. “The only thing that has changed is the ARCC, so judging from the lines outside, I think that people are interested!”

Aside from attendance counts and long lines, perhaps the best proof of the ARCC’s popularity is Lisa’s observation of kids interacting with their adults in the new space.  

“The thing for me is watching how long people engage with the displays,” says Lisa. “and not just with the technology. There’s just something kid-sized and friendly about the scale of these experiences. You see little kids dragging their parents to each display, exploring a habitat trying to find the poisonous dart frogs. That tells me how much they love it! I think it’s been incredibly well received.”