Making Love in the Zoo by Thijs de Zeeuw and Kuang-Yi Ku

They just got back from a sex date, landscape architect and NatureOptimist Thijs de Zeeuw and the young speculative designer, bio-artist and dentist Kuang-Yi Ku tell us. They’re talking about the interview they just had with the coordinator of the penguins at Artis. For the design-research project Making Love in the Zoo, which De Zeeuw submitted to the Building Talent grant scheme, he also had a date, on a professional level that is. A match where the experienced De Zeeuw and the young talent Ku find and complement each other.

We meet up at the cranes and snowy owls’ aviary, the enclosure designed by De Zeeuw. We walk past the flamingos to a bench in the sun. Here, the two designers talk about the current phase of their collaboration: collecting stories that emerge from interviews with zookeepers about love, sex and reproduction at the zoo. It forms part of De Zeeuw’s extraordinary Zoo of the Future, an ongoing speculative design study into the zoo of the future.

‘Sexuality is an often-overlooked aspect of animal welfare in the zoo. That is why we find it relevant to investigate what the meaning of sexuality and gender could be for zoo design,’ says Kuang-Yi Ku. In addition, De Zeeuw wonders: how, as a designer, do you deal with responsibilities that come with locking up an animal, and how do you give animals a meaningful existence while also taking the zookeepers and the public into account? ‘I aim to achieve the highest possible standard of welfare for the animals and provide them with room to experience their sexuality freely and enjoyably, while at the same time reproduction is very carefully regulated in a zoo. These are sometimes conflicting interests,’ he says as we continue walking toward the false gharials’ enclosure.

How, as a designer, do you deal with responsibilities that come with locking up an animal? – Thijs de Zeeuw

sex education
The sun outside is no match for the humid temperature inside, which falls over you like a tropical blanket. De Zeeuw also designed this enclosure to make it pleasant for the false gharial couple. ‘The enclosure is now big enough to be together and alone, but also facilitates love-making,’ he says. ‘For a female, mating is very strenuous, so the water has been made deeper so she can float better when the huge male crawls on top of her.’ A monsoon machine was also installed to make it rain inside for part of the year; mimicking the wet season may put the gharial ‘in the mood’.

Although the crocodile couple is close, it has not yet resulted in offspring. The male lacks an example. ‘Sex education is very important for many animals; by copying what they see experienced members of the same species doing, they learn how to copulate,’ says De Zeeuw. The two designers discuss and speculate about various topics at length, for instance about the role of pornography. ‘The right porn could help both humans and animals have a satisfying sex life and might be a good instrument to use in the zoo to build a sustainable population. That might also take away the taboo a little for humans: if animals watch porn openly, why not us?’ wonders De Zeeuw.

sexuality in the zoo
The duo soon decided to modify the plan submitted to Building Talent. The initial premise of designing 3D visualizations from the animal’s perspective was taken off the table and they shifted to a shared interest: the role of sexuality in the zoo. Sharing knowledge and experiences from different cultural backgrounds led to a reciprocal and equal collaboration that has contributed to the development of the project. The designers seem to complement each other perfectly. In addition to being a landscape architect, De Zeeuw is a NatureOptimist: a platform for “the joyful, opportunistic and indomitable nature in and around us”. He has since specialized in designing zoos. His rock landscape for the Asian elephants at ARTIS was nominated for the ‘Best Building in Amsterdam’ in 2018. In addition, as an advocate for non-humans, he is a regular discussion partner with, among others, the Municipality of Amsterdam.

‘We both have a practice rooted in reality with a knack for creative thinking and speculation,’ Ku summarizes. As a result, they both have one leg in the world of speculative storytelling: Thijs with Zoo of the Future, Kuang-Yi Ku with, among other things, the recent Future Museum of Holy Pig and his graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2018: Tiger Penis Project. The Taiwanese-born multidisciplinary designer combines his biomedical background with non-Western perspectives and speculative design methods to predict the future within biomedical science and explore how humans and nature can coexist.

gender and sexuality
With the other leg, they both stand firmly on the ground: De Zeeuw’s tangible practice consists of designing animal enclosures at ARTIS and Ku is a dentist. ‘I find Ku’s approach interesting,’ says De Zeeuw. ‘He is open to discourse and debate on gender and sexuality, a rather unexplored topic at the zoo. Ku is versed in the medical field and the world of sexuality and gender, and explores his own gay identity as well. I myself am interested in how humans and non-humans collaborate or relate to each other within the context of my platform Zoo of the Future, a laboratory to develop new ideas,’ he says.

voluntary zoo
For example, he philosophizes about a voluntary zoo where humans and animals go for a fun day out and to meet each other. Or he looks at our funeral ritual from a different perspective. ‘What if we fed our dead to the vultures at ARTIS instead of taking them to the crematorium? This way, we are not only consuming but also giving something back,’ he says, looking up at the vultures sitting on tree branches at the top of their enclosure. A gay couple here made headlines some time ago for taking care of an abandoned egg. It resulted in a healthy vulture chick that has since been released into the wild in Sardinia. ‘By the way, one of the gay vultures has mated with a female again,’ De Zeeuw informs us.

toy bat
In the lush, tropical-green bat enclosure, the designers tell us that these animals are an important part of their research. Because only a small population of rare bats remains, reproduction is carefully arranged between the various zoos. A breeding group elsewhere had a surplus of males so ARTIS took charge of the group of 15 bats. Some of these males became sexually frustrated because of the lack of females, until, as an experiment, a toy bat from the ARTIS shop was hung from the ceiling, which the males immediately unloaded on. Ku saw the similarities with people: ‘There is a sub-culture, Furry Fandom, where people dress up in animal costumes. In these costumes they are found sexually attractive, even though from our perspective they look funny and childish rather than sexy and erotic,’ he says. In the same way that bear and cat suits with masks create excitement, we could design the ultimate sex doll for the bats.’

We want to avoid creating a tangible design solution – Kuang-Yi Ku

avoid a solution
In the case of the bats, it may lead to a design within Making Love in the Zoo, but that is not the priority. ‘When we finish the project in October, we want to avoid creating a tangible design solution,’ says Ku. ‘We want our ideas and concepts and the analyzed research to result in a book with a broad spectrum of the most appealing stories that have emerged from our interviews and findings,’ explains De Zeeuw. ‘Stories about the versatility in the animal world, which we can take into account in the reproduction story and in the design of the enclosures.’

Text: Viveka van Vliet
Photography: Renate Beense