Sex in the Zoo? How Zoo Architects Design Propagation Facilities

July 14, 2014 • Matt Schindler, AIA

When you visit your local zoo, you will see animals in habitats that mimic their natural environment. But, what you will not see are the behind-the-scene areas created for species preservation and propagation.

To sustain a species in captivity (and in some cases release species back into the wild), accredited zoos initiate specialized breeding programs to produce new generations. There needs to be sufficient space to ‘propagate’ animals rather than just house an individual animal that may not procreate. Having a structured breeding program is an important criterion for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the national accreditation organization for zoos.

Before involvement in a breeding program, a zoo needs a “Breeding Recommendation.” This takes into account several factors in the breeding process.

  • Another zoo must need the offspring.
  • Space to keep a growing population must be available.
  • Necessary resources to care for new animals must be allocated.

Additionally, the DNA and bloodlines of all potential breeding pairs are also diligently monitored to avoid inbreeding and health issues.


At WDM Architects, our zoo architects consider all these factors when designing propagation facilities.

These “nurseries” are strategically designed to help zoo staff fully optimize their abilities to care for and raise animal offspring. The purpose is to sustain the line of the species either by adding them to the zoo’s exhibit, sending them to another zoo that needs the animal or reintroducing the species back into the wild.

Reintroduction is more common with bird and amphibian species and can be a part of a global program. This was the case with the black-footed ferret, which was nearing extinction in the wild. Thanks to established recovery and breeding programs, like the one at the Phoenix Zoo, the ferret was reintroduced back to its original habitat during a more stable period, which resulted in a thriving wild population. Other successful global breeding programs with reintroductions to the wild include the Guam rail, California Condor, and the golden lion tamarin.


WDM-designed Avian Propagation Facility at Sedgwick County Zoo


WDM-designed Propagation Facilities

  • Phoenix Zoo: Conservation Center for Mt. Graham Red Squirrel and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, 2017
  • Sedgwick County Zoo: Avian Propagation Center, 2008 (watch a video tour here!)
  • Tracy Aviary: Wilson Pavilion includes an Avian Propagation Facility with windows for visitor observation, 2010
  • Denver Zoo: Avian Propagation Center with Incubators, day-cycle and u.v. lighting, as well as a pressurized misting system help ensure the viability of successful breeding, 2007