Zoo Habitat Design

Asian Highlands at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The Challenge

In 2016, Cleveland Metroparks Rosebrough Tiger Passage had recently opened to great success. Zoo leaders wanted to build on that momentum and create a better space for the snow leopards, Amur leopards and red pandas.

Through a collaborative charrette process, WDM worked alongside Van Auken Akin Architects and zoo stakeholders to develop their vision for guests and animals to experience one another in new and more meaningful ways.

Project goals:

  1. Improve animal welfare
  2. Improve conservation impact
  3. Increase in guest engagement

Previously, the snow leopards and red pandas were located in the Primate, Cat and Aquatics Building (PC&A) where the public could view them through glass. If animals were outside, they couldn’t be seen from inside the building, guests would have to go around to the back. That viewing experience was not convenient and so it was underutilized.

In the Amur leopard habitat, choices were limited to inside, outside, or perch on a single elevated platform. With such a static environment, the leopard spent his time pacing on the ground.

“Leopards like to be in elevated spaces and we really wanted to give them choices and complexity in those habitats,” says Andi Kornak, Deputy Executive Director, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Snow leopards are more elusive than Amur leopards, more solitary in habit, so they tend to hide away from view. How could the leopards’ own instinct be used to move them closer to humans, improving guest experience?

WDM proposed to “flip the script,” as Matt Schindler, WDM principal, terms it, and give the “animals control of where to be and what to see. Put people on display for the cats.”

Leopards are by nature arboreal. Anyone who knows cats will acknowledge that felines enjoy higher vantage points. The new exhibit would use the cats’ instinct to view prey from above as a motivation for them to come closer to the zoo’s guests channeled through the exhibit below them.


  • Design start: February 2017
  • Exhibit opening: June 2018

Goal 1: Improve Animal Welfare

The Asian Highlands are designed with increased space and habitat complexity to improve animals’ activity levels and facilitate more species-typical behaviors.

More space

These species are comfortable in winter temperatures so they are given 23/7 access to the outside. Plans minimized indoor spaces and designated more area for outdoor habitats. The leopard exhibits were expanded more than three times their original habitat size.

Leopard Habitat Sizes

  • Habitat A = 3,000 s.f.
  • Habitat B = 2,000 s.f.
  • Habitat C = 3,000 s.f.
  • Habitat D = 1,000 s.f.
  • Total outside area = 9,000 s.f.
  • Holding Building = 2,100 s.f.

Habitat complexity

The exhibit utilizes the concept of “trails” — keepers choose which combination of the four interconnected habitats cats may access on any day.

  • Overhead and at-grade transfers, tunnels
  • Multiple access points from building to habitats
  • Variety in substrates and exposure to the sun

Views from on high

Vertical space within the exhibit’s footprint is maximized, providing a richer, more interesting habitat.

  • Variety in vertical spaces within habitats — offer high vantage points, elevated platforms
  • Elevated platforms have enough room to accommodate social/family groups
  • Challenge dexterity with climbing poles


  • Cold-climate species seek relief from the heat in summer, so leopards have a water-chilled cave and red pandas have a cooled log for comfort
  • Designed to accommodate first and last milestones in life, like lower platforms in cub yard

Red panda habitat

Red pandas enjoy 25% more space:

  • 1,000 s.f outside
  • 250 s.f. holding building
  • 1,250 s.f. total habitat

Quantifying Animal Welfare: Improved Habitat, Improved Behaviors

Cleveland Metroparks Zookeepers observed that with increased space and habitat complexity, animal activity levels increased and species-typical behaviors increased.

  • Snow Leopard: Increase in elevated platform use = 28% of Improvement
  • Snow Leopard: Decrease in ground usage = 61% of Improvement
  • Amur Leopard: Decrease in ground usage = 47% of Improvement
  • Amur Leopard: Increase in outdoor den usage = 214% of Improvement
  • Red Panda: Decrease in inactivity = 38% of Improvement

Goal 2: Improve Conservation Impact

Conservation Education program highlights human/wildlife coexistence and how our guests can take action to support endangered wildlife (more than 3,500 guests interfaced during peak season).

In the courtyard, a display case shows what items can be bought in the Gift Shop and the proceeds go to the Snow Leopard Trust.

Point-of-sale — Guest services continues the message at point-of-sale locations to let guests know they can donate through zoo purchases with ‘round-up’ and ‘Quarters for Conservation’ programs.

Bird’s eye view of the finished project

Goal 3: Increase Guest Engagement

The Asian Highlands exhibit creates an immersive experience for guests. Nestled into a forested hillside, viewing areas encircle guests, providing an ever-changing experience through both open mesh and glass viewing opportunities. The complexity of their habitat promotes animal activity, which makes for more interesting viewing experiences. In addition, there are overhead and at-grade animal crossings which contribute to the interaction between the animals and the guests. Caves and logs are angled and situated to be optimum for viewing. On warmer days, cats and red pandas seek the shaded caves cooled by chilled water.

Aesthetics: Our design team incorporated central Chinese design influences and unique cultural elements throughout the 1.3 acre space, including custom stonework, moon gates and airy plazas.

Measure of Success

Download Case Study

Project Overview


56,628 s.f.


March 2017


May 2018


Van Auken Aiken Architects: Project management, Architect, Interior Designer WDM: Zoo Architect Consultant SBM: MEP Engineer TBA: Structural Engineer EDG: Civil Engineer SME: Geotechnical Dempsey: Surveying

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Asian Highlands Portfolio Project

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