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“Improving zoo design work in any country is a challenge” – interview with Monika Fiby (ZooLex)

Mrs. Monika Fiby (Source: ZooLex)I suppose you all know ZooLex as a very useful website dedicated to zoo design. The ZooLex Zoo Design Organization was established by Mrs. Monika Fiby, an Austrian landscape architect, to help improve the conditions of captive wild animals. The website has been developed using input from zoo professionals as part of Monika's studies in landscape architecture in 2000. Its database has grown considerably since then; now it is a must for everyone involved in zoo design work.  We asked Mrs. Fiby for an interview and she kindly answered our questions with great patience.

 

elajos: Thank you for accepting our invitation to this interview.
Monika Fiby: You are welcome.

elajos: I would like to begin with my personal experience. Checking ZooLex is always a very important step in my job whenever I have to collect the basics for a new exhibit. I think that a lot of other zoo professionals use it too.
Monika Fiby: It seems so from what I hear when asking around and from the subscribers' addresses.

elajos: What was the reception of ZooLex in the community of zoos in the first years?
Monika Fiby: The first years were very difficult because decision makers in their 40s/50s did not know the internet. They just started using email and did not understand what an online database is. I had to do all presentations by myself, doing interviews, taking pictures, scaling, compiling, uploading. It took about 40 hours to get an exhibit presentation online.
elajos: Was it so only because of their technical incompetence or distrust too?
Monika Fiby: Both - it was also scepticism about somebody not being employed at a zoo - not being "under control": Could I misuse information, would I have enough endurance to keep going, is it worth the effort - these were some of the problems that I encountered.

elajos: As I can see, your collection of exhibits is big enough, so your efforts were followed by success. However, whenever we meet somewhere, I often hear that you are asking zoo experts for sending materials. Actually how difficult is persuading the zoos?
Monika Fiby: It depends on individual personalities. Some like the idea of sharing, some prefer profiting without contributing, some don't use it and don't care. It is easy to find out who is not willing, but not easy to find out who procrastinates. Some presentations take me 5 to 6 years to get ready for publishing with regular reminders. Since it is not so easy to get presentations online this has become normal editorial work for me.

elajos: What do you know about the “audience” of ZooLex, are they zoo experts and architects only?
Monika Fiby: From the subscribers' addresses I can see that the majority is zoo staff. There are also many students, but of course also architects, construction companies and journalists. From the hits over the day I can see that the global distribution of users is quite even.
elajos: There are strict regulations for zoos in many countries which prescribe the dimensions of the facilities for every species. Have you ever been asked by legislature to help determine the standards?
Monika Fiby: I have not been asked helping to develop them and would not be interested either. They are minimum standards that I normally would not use because they don't allow a good animal exhibit.
elajos: These standards are sometimes very strange in several countries: sometimes strict, sometimes insufficient.
Monika Fiby: They are usually the result of a political process.

elajos: As frequent users, could we write some critiques?:)
Monika Fiby: Of course - you are welcome to make suggestions, even though I cannot promise to realize them. This year is the 15th anniversary of ZooLex and my husband who does all the programming promised to add some improvements that I am waiting for. What would you like to see differently or additionally on ZooLex?
elajos: Thanks. So, I miss more detailed descriptions about the materials and dimensions very much – these are very important in the planning phase. Is it possible to add them in the future?
Monika Fiby: I would love to give more details, but depend on the authors. They are often reluctant to give details for liability reasons. They actually prefer to be called and answer such questions personally. Some also do not want to give away information for free that they had to find with some effort which equals cost.
elajos: The second critique is the design of the website - although it is less important for the users.
Monika Fiby: Design - which design? There is not much design. The site was not changed since I developed it for my thesis. It is pure function - I hope. I paid a webdesigner once for a new design, but then did not have the time to implement it. After 4 years it looked old and outdated and I discarded it. No design has the advantage of being timeless and easy to use as many tell me ;)

ZooLexDamson: What are the selection criteria of a given exhibit to be presented on ZooLex? Or will you publish all presentations of exhibits that anyone would like to present?
Monika Fiby: There are no criteria for the quality of the exhibit since the standards and requirements differ so much around the world. I also believe that the format allows the reader to quickly judge an exhibit presented. There are however minimum requirements for the information that needs to be submitted. We do not publish presentations that do not show the service areas. There are zoos that refuse to show them in order to keep the illusion intact, but we consider this incomplete and don't publish them in the Gallery. You can find some "incomplete" presentations of Hannover Zoo exhibits under Research. We always require approval of the zoo hosting a given exhibit before publishing.

Christian: A little bit of another topic. Zoo animal rotation exhibits are more often used in North America than in Europe. Monika, what do you think is the main reason for that? What is your opinion about rotational exhibits at all?
Monika Fiby: Zoo design trends often come from the USA, such as this one. Rotation exhibits are more expensive than normal exhibits because all exhibits must be solid enough for the strongest species rotating through and it requires a lot of costly shift corridors and gates. I think the underlying idea is very good. In fact, I designed a rotation exhibit for the Fasanerie Wiesbaden - not yet on ZooLex, but soon - which rotates a female mink from a breeding station with its young being on exhibit during summer while the ferrets are in the back. During winter when the mink is back in the breeding station the ferrets are on exhibit. This is a very specific use of the principle, not really the original idea, but very effective.
elajos: You mentioned that zoo design trends come from the USA. What do you think is the main trend of the present and next years?
Monika Fiby: Animal welfare and the USA are behind us - by "us", I mean mainly German speaking countries.
elajos: Some days ago I got a "beautiful" plan of a new zoo in Ukraine. It was terrible. How could we improve zoo design work in these countries?
Monika Fiby: Improving zoo design work in any country is a challenge. There are many reasons for poor designs. Often it is copying something visible - from photos or other zoos or ZooLex – without understanding the function and the workmanship. Another challenge is to understand which design is suitable for the expertise of the staff and other resources of a zoo, including finances for maintenance.

Damson: Which type of exhibit do you prefer: the functionalist exhibits evolved only to meet the natural conditions of the zoo or the strictly planned and designed exhibits?
Monika Fiby: A combination of both. If the zoo has experienced craftsmen and the exhibit can be simple in a natural environment, a concept design will be sufficient. If the exhibit is complex and involves the work of different companies it should be strictly planned. In general, I prefer the simple exhibit because it is more flexible and cheaper to change when requirements change for any reason.

Thicius: At this moment how many exhibition/enclosure can we find in the ZooLex gallery database and which zoo is the most active on your site?
Monika Fiby: According to the December newsletter there are 319 presentations (including translations) of 203 exhibits from 101 zoos in 42 states in the ZooLex Gallery . Hmm, I checked the statistics and found that most presentations are from zoos where I did the presentations myself such as Schönbrunn.

Thicius: What is your favourite project?
Monika Fiby: One of my favourite projects is Bioparque La Reserva near Bogota. Ivan Lozano developed it together with friends and had me come to help him develop the masterplan. It is very nice to see how the park thrives. It is strictly educational for captive and rescued native wild animals.

Thicius: Finally, which was your best zoo moment?
Monika Fiby: My best zoo moment was in 1989 at Singapore Zoo when I found that zoo design is a task for landscape architects like me.

elajos: Thank you very much for your patience. Good luck to you and best wishes to ZooLex!
Monika Fiby: Thank you for this interesting and nice interview experience. I look forward to receiving submissions to the ZooLex Gallery from various Hungarian zoos :)

Not for Hungarian zoos only: you can send the description of your exhibits here: www.zoolex.org

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