Can you worry about an animal you’ve never seen? The role of the zoo in education and conservation.

Update: twitter readers have contributed cases where captive breeding programs have saved species from extinction, and have (or are in the process of) released animals back to the wild. Many zoos also hold the last remaining animals of their species. Examples of successful conservation cases include (but are not limited to): Ozark hellbender: salamander, Houston toad, Kihansi spray toad, Socorro doves, Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon, Arnold’s giant tortoise, California condor, and the previously mentioned golden lion tamarin and  black-footed ferret.

“He 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 neighbors, 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.

Rhea at the National Zoo. Photo credit: Rory Harper.

What justifies the existence of zoos? Questioning the goals of zoos.
The role of the zoo has evolved to prioritize 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 1961 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.”

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 organizations 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 behavioral research center, 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.

Behavioral researchers at Primate Research Center, Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Bowler, 2012

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 behaviors 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.”

sea lion and keeper in the training demonstration. Keeper has a whistle and a bucket of fish for rewards. Sea lion is rewarded when she shows her flipper for inspection (for example, during a vet exam). Photo credit: Rory Harper.

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 behaviors, 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 500 lb 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.

Zoo keeper puts eye drops in sea lion’s eyes. Sea lion is rewarded with fish for complying. Photo by Rory Harper.

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 realize 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 maximized 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.

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. 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.

Mystery bird, the cassowary at the zoo. Photo by Rory Harper.

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, 826-841
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.

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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