AboutZoos, Since 2008


The role of the zoo in edu­ca­tion and conservation

pub­lished 17 March 2013 | mod­i­fied 07 March 2014

After read­ing the blog of Cristina Russo on PLOS blogs I thought it deserved broader audi­ence than just those indi­vid­u­als inter­ested in sci­ence. There­fore I pub­lish Russo’s blog in About­Zoos News. Here’s what she writes:

Can you worry about an ani­mal you’ve never seen?

Tel Aviv zoo03He had black fur and a horn on his head,” my sis­ter said. She came to DC for a few weeks and spent many after­noons vis­it­ing our local zoo. After one of those vis­its, she hur­ried to Google Chat to report that a big tall bird was chas­ing her behind the fence of his enclo­sure. My sis­ter described the bird as hav­ing long fur-​like feath­ers and a horn. She has never seen any­thing like that before and was gen­uinely curi­ous. She was famil­iar with the bel­liger­ent bird’s neigh­bours, the rheas (ratite birds like ostriches and extinct moas). Rheas are native to South Amer­ica, as are we, and we’ve seen them before while grow­ing up in south Brazil. “Mys­tery bird” was about to become a per­fect exam­ple of zoo edu­ca­tion.

What jus­ti­fies the exis­tence of zoos? Ques­tion­ing the goals of zoos
The role of the zoo has evolved to pri­ori­tise research, edu­ca­tion, and con­ser­va­tion. Some peo­ple still con­demn the exis­tence of zoos based on zoo’s past life of pure enter­tain­ment. It is true that zoos started as menageries and amuse­ment parks, but they have come a long way since the late 1800s. Cur­rently, laws pro­tect wild ani­mals and guar­an­tee their wel­fare (e.g., Ani­mal Wel­fare Act, Endan­gered Species Act, Marine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act). Accred­i­ta­tion bod­ies make sure zoos and aquar­i­ums offer great care for their ani­mals.

The field of ani­mal research ben­e­fits from zoo expe­ri­ence. Zoo keep­ers, researchers, and vets have learned a lot about ani­mal care as zoos evolved. Improve­ments in hus­bandry have led to increased longevity of ani­mals in cap­tiv­ity. In his book At Home in the Zoo, pub­lished in 1960 and cov­er­ing the pre­vi­ous thirty years on the Man­ches­ter Zoo, Ger­ald Iles men­tions that “ani­mals which were once either dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to keep in cap­tiv­ity are not only thriv­ing but breed­ing. Longevity records are con­stantly being bro­ken.”

It is dif­fi­cult to be con­cerned about the fate of an ani­mal you have never seen. Even a two-​dimensional film rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an ani­mal does not have any­where near the same effect as see­ing one in the flesh, hear­ing it, smelling it. The usual response to such a real-​life sight — whether in a zoo or in the wild — is emotional.
Jake Page »
Zoos have an essen­tial role in con­ser­va­tion. Back in the 60’s, Iles already said that “…the ani­mals of Africa have been reduced by 80% within the last hun­dred years… and 600 species of ani­mals are tot­ter­ing on the brink of extinc­tion.” Cur­rently, zoos have their own breed­ing pro­grams to help in cases of dwin­dling pop­u­la­tions. All efforts in cap­tive breed­ing have led to increased research. Like author Jake Page put it, “many zoos have become places of rig­or­ous sci­en­tific research… cou­pled with an active effort not just to pre­serve in cap­tiv­ity those crea­tures that are endan­gered in the wild, but… to under­stand, save, and replen­ish unique nat­ural habi­tats.” Besides breed­ing endan­gered ani­mals (e.g. the suc­cess­ful golden lion tamarin breed­ing pro­gram, or the black-​footed fer­ret breed­ing pro­gram), zoos are also invest­ing in dis­play­ing less pop­u­lar ani­mals.

Still, there are many peo­ple and organ­i­sa­tions out there who dis­like or choose not to believe in this new role of the zoo. Peo­ple like Peter Bat­ten, who in his book Liv­ing Tro­phies states that “pri­mary rea­sons for zoo use are only remotely con­nected with learn­ing.”

Do Zoos actu­ally edu­cate?
A study at the Edin­burgh Zoo tracks vis­i­tors who enter a pri­mate exhibit ‘Liv­ing Links to Human Evo­lu­tion Research Cen­tre’ in the Edin­burgh Zoo. The exhibit is out­fit­ted with a behav­ioural research cen­tre, and on many occa­sions researchers are present and work­ing with the pri­mates. The study aimed to deter­mine if watch­ing the researchers had any impact on vis­i­tor expe­ri­ence.

The study fol­lowed vis­i­tors and mea­sured their dwell time in the pri­mate exhibit, in the pres­ence and absence of pri­mate researchers. They found that vis­i­tor dwell time increased in cor­re­la­tion to pres­ence of researchers. Bowler and col­leagues claim that “…par­ents were often seen explain­ing the research to their chil­dren … what was hap­pen­ing in the research room.” But are vis­i­tors sim­ply drawn by the “activ­ity” (as opposed to pas­sive view­ing)? How do we know if the research obser­va­tion is trans­lated in edu­ca­tion?

Another study aimed to iden­tify the effect of ani­mal demon­stra­tions and of inter­preters (the docent equiv­a­lent in zoos and aquar­i­ums). With a sim­i­lar approach, Ander­son et al. fol­lowed vis­i­tors and mea­sured dwell time on Zoo Atlanta’s Asian small-​clawed otter exhibit. In this study, researchers also sur­veyed vis­i­tors before and after they entered the exhibit. The sur­vey attempted to find out if vis­i­tors’ per­cep­tions of otters changed after their visit. Did they actu­ally learn?

Zookeep­ers and inter­preters were present in the otter exhibit. They talked to the pub­lic about the otters, and showed their nat­ural behav­iours through demon­stra­tions (see sec­tion about demon­stra­tions below). Some vis­i­tors were offered a sea otter demon­stra­tion, a demon­stra­tion accom­pa­nied by inter­pre­ta­tion (albeit read from a script), and some were not offered demon­stra­tion or inter­pre­ta­tion (i.e. signs only). The study attempted to mea­sure the effects of inter­preters, ani­mal demon­stra­tions, and signs on vis­i­tor learn­ing. They deter­mined that the vis­i­tors spent an aver­age of two min­utes pas­sively strolling the exhibit (i.e. with signs only and no human pres­ence), com­pared with six min­utes when ani­mal demon­stra­tion was tak­ing place, and eight min­utes for ani­mal demon­stra­tion plus inter­preter. The sur­vey results indi­cate that vis­i­tors pre­ferred to watch the demon­stra­tions. By com­par­ing pre– and post-​visit ques­tion­naires, researchers believe that “vis­i­tors attend­ing an ani­mal demon­stra­tion retained large amounts of the con­tent mate­r­ial weeks after hav­ing attended the ani­mal demon­stra­tion.”

Aren’t ani­mal demon­stra­tions just enter­tain­ment in dis­guise?
Most zoos offer ani­mal demon­stra­tions. I had a chance to watch sea lions on their train­ing ses­sions. The zookeep­ers bring two of the ani­mals out, while the pub­lic lines up to watch. The demon­stra­tion is in fact a train­ing ses­sion for the sea lions: keep­ers reward the ani­mals for cer­tain behav­iours, like rolling over, expos­ing their fins, allow­ing them­selves to be pet­ted. The sea lions receive rewards of fish and squid after they allow the keep­ers to treat them with eye drops, or rub their flip­pers. The goal of this train­ing is not to amuse vis­i­tors, but to facil­i­tate ani­mal care. You can’t force a 225 kg marine ani­mal to roll over to ultra­sound their abdomen. The train­ing counts on vol­un­tary ani­mal par­tic­i­pa­tion and proves very effec­tive for ani­mal care and also for their men­tal stim­u­la­tion.

Besides, it is a great oppor­tu­nity for sci­ence edu­ca­tion and for spread­ing a mes­sage of con­ser­va­tion. The keep­ers talk to the pub­lic about sea lions in their nat­ural habi­tat, their anatomy, their innate dif­fer­ences from seals. They also men­tion that the two older sea lions at the zoo were res­cued from the wild as pups when their moth­ers died as result of sea con­t­a­m­i­nants. The image of help­less orphaned sea lion pups in a pol­luted sea is a pow­er­ful one.

Edu­cat­ing by cre­at­ing affec­tive con­nec­tions
Jake Page men­tioned that an affec­tive con­nec­tion with ani­mals greatly helps con­ser­va­tion: “It is dif­fi­cult to be con­cerned about the fate of an ani­mal you have never seen. Even a two-​dimensional film rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an ani­mal does not have any­where near the same effect as see­ing one in the flesh, hear­ing it, smelling it. The usual response to such a real-​life sight — whether in a zoo or in the wild — is emo­tional.” Ger­ald Iles points to an extra ben­e­fit of zoo ani­mals to edu­ca­tion. Accord­ing to Iles, ani­mals are indi­vid­u­als with per­son­al­i­ties, and allow­ing the pub­lic to see that will have an impact in their emo­tion: “the pub­lic, vis­it­ing a zoo, sees many kinds of ani­mal. Each species con­form to a set pat­tern, often based on facts gleaned at school. Ele­phants are just ele­phants; lions are just lions; bears are just bears. What the vis­i­tor often does not realise is that each ani­mal is also an individual…all my zoo ele­phants were dif­fer­ent from each other, and each one leaves me with a dif­fer­ent mem­ory.” Another study reported on the “the pos­i­tive effects of zoos on stu­dents cog­ni­tive and affec­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics.” As we’ve been say­ing here on Sci-​Ed, edu­ca­tion can be max­imised if there is an affec­tive con­nec­tion between learner and object: it’s a moa at the mall, a march­ing pen­guin, and stum­bling on learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties.

[The sight of these two polar bears play­ing will prob­a­bly cre­ate an emo­tional response, but most cer­tainly will cre­ate a nice mem­ory.……, Moos]:

Zoo crit­ics will always exist. Many advo­cate for phas­ing out zoos, while offer­ing no sug­ges­tion for what to do with the newly-​homeless ani­mals. They even dis­ap­prove of the role of zoos in edu­ca­tion. Peter Bat­ten, the incred­u­lous zoo critic, believes that “the zoo’s con­tri­bu­tion to edu­ca­tion is min­i­mal, … and most peo­ple show no more than casual curios­ity about its ani­mals.” As evi­dence for visitor’s dis­re­gard for ani­mals or for learn­ing, he cites “years of hear­ing vis­i­tors call cas­sowaries ‘pea­cocks’, tou­cans ‘fruit­loops’, tigers ‘lions’, and otters ‘beavers.’”

At the zoo I’ve heard vis­i­tors call an ape “mon­key,” and a rhea “ostrich.” It still does not change my belief that cor­rect ter­mi­nol­ogy is not nec­es­sar­ily an indi­ca­tor of people’s attach­ment to the ani­mals. Vis­i­tors are not expected to arrive at the zoo know­ing the names and species of all ani­mals in its col­lec­tion. And I’m sure they are leav­ing the zoo with more infor­ma­tion than before they walked in. In fact, my sis­ter saw the “black bird with a horn” (or what Batten’s vis­i­tors called a “pea­cock”) but left the zoo with the knowl­edge of a new ani­mal. I’m sure she won’t for­get the rare sight­ing of the endan­gered cas­sowary,[ which is con­sid­ered vul­ner­a­ble accord­ing the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species™, Moos]. That’s an ani­mal only found deep in New Guinea jun­gles, or in zoo con­ser­va­tion pro­grams, where it helps researchers and vis­i­tors alike mar­vel at nature.

1. Ander­son U, Kelling A, Pressley-​Keough R, Bloom­smith M, Map­ple T (2003) Enhanc­ing the zoo visitor’s expe­ri­ence by pub­lic ani­mal train­ing and oral inter­pre­ta­tion at an otter exhibit. Envi­ron­ment and behav­ior, Vol. 35 No. 6, 826841
2. Bowler MT, Buchanan-​Smith HM, Whiten A (2012) Assess­ing Pub­lic Engage­ment with Sci­ence in a Uni­ver­sity Pri­mate Research Cen­tre in a National Zoo. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34505.
3. Frynta D, Lisˇkova´ S, Bu¨ ltmann S, Burda H (2010) Being Attrac­tive Brings Advan­tages: The Case of Par­rot Species in Cap­tiv­ity. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12568.
4. Kalof L, Zammit-​Lucia J, Kelly J (2011) The Mean­ing of Ani­mal Por­trai­ture in a Museum Set­ting: Impli­ca­tions for Con­ser­va­tion. Orga­ni­za­tion Envi­ron­ment
5. Yavuz et al. Sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy teach­ers’ opin­ions regard­ing the usage of zoos in sci­ence teach­ing. The online jour­nal of new hori­zons in edu­ca­tion, vol­ume 2, issue 4, 2011
6. Whit­worth AW (2012) An Inves­ti­ga­tion into the Deter­min­ing Fac­tors of Zoo Vis­i­tor Atten­dances in UK Zoos. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29839.

Can you worry about an ani­mal you’ve never seen? The role of the zoo in edu­ca­tion and con­ser­va­tion. by Cristina Russo is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion 3.0 Unported License.

The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at PLOS blogs — Sci-​Ed, the image and video are sourced from About­Zoos.
(Source: PLOS blogs — Sci-​Ed — Cristina Russo, 11.03.2013)

UN Biodiversity decade
WWF Stop Wildlife Crime
Fight for Flight campaign
End Ivory-funded Terrorism
Support Rewilding Europe
NASA State of Flux

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
Fol­low me on: