Zoo Habitat Design

Rosebrough Tiger Passage at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The Challenge: Renovating Cleveland’s Outdated Tiger Habitat

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo (CMZ) needed to renovate their tiger habitat to provide better space for the cats, so they retained Van Auken Akins Architects (VAA), a local firm who partnered with WDM Architects for zoo design expertise.

Initially, zoo leadership viewed it as a simple project to “eliminate an old moated exhibit where the cats were at least 25-28 feet away from the guests in a relatively small space,’ notes Christopher Kuhar, PhD, Executive Director of CMZ. “We were really just trying to fill in the moats and recapture that space.”

“The challenge was the limited footprint,” says Matt Schindler, Principal at WDM. “We knew that just filling in the moats wouldn’t be enough for these biggest of big cats.”

“Working with our design team, they encouraged us to focus on the core of our beliefs,” says Kuhar. As an AZA-accredited facility, CMZ is committed to providing the highest standards in animal care and welfare. Kuhar explains that for the cats, that means “not just focusing on space but focusing on complexity of space, focusing on three dimensions, interconnectivity and variety that allows the animal to have some choice, to have some control.”

Original Tiger Habitats

  • Habitat A = 1,300 s.f.
  • Habitat B = 2,300 s.f.
  • Total area = 3,600 s.f.
Rosebrough Tiger Passage at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Case Study by WDM Architects-1
Left Image: Previous Tiger habitat based on 1960’s exhibit design with moats • Right Image: Previous tiger habitats kept cats at a 25-30′ distance from zoo guests

The Process

Through a collaborative charette process, WDM worked alongside VAA and CMZ stakeholders to develop a conceptual framework. These intense creative sessions took place in February and March of 2015 in Cleveland.

“My favorite part of the process is the day after the first charette,” exclaims Andrew Jordan, zoological designer at WDM. “You’ve spent all day just soaking in these ideas like a sponge, and then you stay up late into the night sketching to try to get it all down on paper.”

Instead of being constrained by the limited footprint, WDM’s exhibit designers focused on maximizing use of vertical space. Changes in elevation give tigers and visitors the opportunity to view each other from different perspectives. The tiger’s natural preference for elevated vantage points would draw them closer to visitors.

Two concepts emerged: “Intimate Trails” and “Bi-level.” Both honor CMZ’s vision for a habitat that is both enriching for the animals and engaging for the public. “Working with WDM they really explored our opportunities to expand the space and the project grew a little bit — but it grew in all the right reasons,” says Kuhar.

Rosebrough Tiger Passage At Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Case Study By WDM Architects 2

Bi-level Concept


  • Utilizes existing topography
  • Can divide into 3 exhibits
  • Varied experience for tigers & guests
  • Slightly larger exhibits
  • Entry has “presence”
  • Viewing from multiple levels
  • Potentially more covered viewing


  • Potentially more complicated
  • Less immersive
  • More costly
  • Guest entry from multiple points
Rosebrough Tiger Passage At Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Case Study By WDM Architects 3

Intimate Trails Concept


  • Utilizes existing topography
  • Can divide into 3 exhibits
  • Varied experience for tigers & guests
  • More connected experience
  • More immersive guest experience
  • Simplified guest flow
  • Multiple viewing nodes


  • Slightly smaller exhibits
  • More space for circulation
  • Less covered space
  • Upper viewing for guests is downplayed

Animal Experience: Choice & Challenge

The chosen concept, “Intimate Trails,” is a series of four enclosed, interconnected habitats that can be joined or separated by keeper staff in a variety of configurations. Two overhead passages allow the tigers the choice to move between habitats over the heads of guests while taking in the view.

“What evolved was a space that not only brought our guests closer to the animals but allowed a variety of exhibits,” Kuhar says.

“When WDM first said they wanted to put tigers up high,” comments Jill Van Auken, prime architect and principal at Van Auken Aikens Architects, “Everyone was a little surprised, like ‘How is that going to work?’” She exclaims, “It’s remarkable!”

Rosebrough Tiger Passage at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Case Study by WDM Architects-4
Rosebrough Tiger Passage with multiple viewing options and 4 times the space for the cats

Habitat Complexity

Habitat complexity is stimulating and encourages the tigers to explore. Kuhar notes, “The cats are in a different space every day and as a result they are more active, they explore more.”

Construction materials were chosen for their similarity to Amur tiger’s native habitat of birch and conifer trees. 33,000 pounds of black locust timber were used. “To be safe, we even tested the logs with the animals to make sure the animals would react positively with the material,” says Van Auken.


“Research shows that even if the animals don’t use all of the space they have available, their stress level comes down if they have choices.”— Christopher Kuhar, PhD, Executive director, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo


Rosebrough Tiger Passage Updated Habitat Sizes

  • Habitat A = 7,300 s.f.
  • Habitat B = 1,620 s.f.
  • Habitat C = 3,800 s.f.
  • Habitat D = 1,860 s.f.
  • Off-exhibit maternity yard = 200 s.f.
  • Total habitat area = 14,780 s.f.


The hilly topography was both a blessing and a challenge during design and construction. “There were a lot of grade changes,” Sean McDermott, PE, the zoo’s Chief Planning and Design Officer explains the obstacles in making sure the exhibit would be ADA compliant.

The overhead cat bridges were constructed with steel supports and then covered with sustainably harvested, naturally branching whole trees. “Keeping the steel profiles small as desired by the architect was challenging, but working together we were able to develop appealing solutions,” comments Mike Cochran, PE, structural engineer for the project.


Natural features include:

  • Deep soaking pools and a rocky shallow stream
  • Rock outcrops and ridges
  • Climbing poles
  • Native grass meadows and hillsides
  • Plantings native to the boreal forests of the Amur River Valley

Guest Experience: Making it Personal

Rosebrough Tiger Passage allows guests and tigers to experience one another in new and exciting ways. It serves as either the entry or exit experience into the Wilderness Trek region of the zoo. Guests traverse a winding, accessible path through the forest which offers opportunity for nose-to-nose encounters.

“If the animals are behaving as they should, that’s the most powerful guest impact,” states Kuhar.

The exhibit’s three audio zones contribute to an immersive experience for visitors. Guests hear chainsaws while reading about deforestation and habitat loss. Other zones have sounds of birds, elephants and tigers.

An interactive camera trap was also incorporated to help guests understand how scientists track wild tigers.

“Our investment really paid off in terms of guest interaction,” says Kuhar. “It completely transformed the guest experience.”

Measure of Success

“Since opening the exhibit, guests now ask if we have bigger tigers, but we don’t. Its just that they’re seeing them up close instead of 25 feet away.” — Christopher Kuhar, PhD, Executive Director of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo


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Project Overview

Project Area

Habitat area - 14,780 s.f. Guest area - 4,450 s.f. Total site area - 37,000 s.f.

Project Costs

Construction - $3.7 million Soft costs - $400,000 Total budget - $4.1 million

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Team

Christopher Kuhar, PhD, Executive Director Andi Kornak, Deputy Executive Director Vicki Searles, Director of Conservation Education

Cleveland Metroparks Team

Sean McDermott, PE, Chief Planning and Design Officer Andy Simons, Project Manager

Design Team

Van Auken Akins — Architect of Record: Jill Van Auken, AIA, Principal, Holly Grambort, Project Architect WDM Architects, PA — Zoological Design Architect: Matt Schindler, AIA, Principal, Andrew Jordan, RLA, Exhibit Designer

Engineering Team

Environmental Design Group — Civil Engineer, Landscape Architect: Jill Pfeiffer-Ward, PE, Project Manager Thorson Baker & Associates — Structural Engineers: Mike Cochran, PE, Structural Engineer Scheeser Buckley Mayfield — MEP Engineers: Chris Schoonover, PE, Principal Satchell Engineering & Associates: Water treatment systems: Robert Satchell, Life support systems engineer

Construction Team

General Contractor: Panzica Construction Company: Mark Panzica, Project Executive, Chris Montgomery, Project Manager AZA Commercial Partners: Whole Trees Structures: Natural trees, Cemrock: Rockwork and theming, A thru Z Consulting: Enclosure netting and animal caging

Mission: Education and Conservation

“An important part of inspiring our guests to conservation is to really help them develop an emotional connection to the animals,” acknowledges Schindler.

Jordan of WDM agrees, “We do that by not only entertaining them but also really engaging them in the space with the animals.”

Sir David Attenborough noted this correlation between conservation and emotional connection by saying, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” Rosebrough Tiger Passage gives these tigers, as ambassadors for their species, a better opportunity to inspire the public to conservation.

Andi Kornak, Deputy Executive Director Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, notes the increased visibility of the cats have “caused our guests to engage and take action to conserve wildlife.”

Interpretive messaging throughout the experience highlights the plight of tigers and their native habitat while educating the public on what they can do to help.

“Our firm is involved in zoological design because we believe in the conservation mission of AZA organizations. Although our part is small,” says Schindler, “it’s important for us to know that the work we do is having a positive impact on the world.”

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Rosebrough Tiger Passage Portfolio Project

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