Science Watch

As the dark-eyed predator cut through the water at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's million-gallon tank, psychologist Steven Yalowitz, PhD, stood on tiptoe to see the animal. Six feet of sinewy muscle propelling five rows of serrated teeth, this great white shark was the first to live successfully in captivity. She'd been caught inadvertently by commercial fisherman and put on display as an emissary for her species, says Yalowitz, and her power was palpable.

"When the white shark came across the top of the aquarium window, there was a ripple in the crowd from right to left; an energy built and almost moved sideways," he recalls. "It was the most intense experience I have ever felt from a crowd."

At the time, Yalowitz was the aquarium's audience research manager, and it was his job to understand what gave visitors spine chills. Like all of the roughly 200 accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States, the Monterey Bay Aquarium counts wildlife conservation and education as one of its top priorities. To those ends, Yalowitz and many other psychologists at zoos, aquariums and universities are exploring how experiences with live animals influence visitors' knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behavior.

"We're trying to educate people about the animals, and, in some cases, we're asking people to change their behavior to help the environment," he says.

But that's no easy task, notes Susan Clayton, PhD, a zoo researcher and social psychologist at the College of Wooster. People don't pick up much factual information from their trips to zoos and aquariums—only about 27 percent read interpretive signs, according to one of her studies. In fact, says Clayton, a decade of research suggests that people generally go to zoos for entertainment, with education as a secondary goal. But, she says, a recent spate of studies is finding that people may be taking away something harder to measure, but just as important, from their zoo visits.

"What seems to be happening is that zoo-goers are enjoying themselves, making a connection with the animals, and developing a shared understanding of their relationship with the animals."

A social experience

To learn what people are getting from their zoo visits, Clayton and her collaborators have spent hundreds of hours eavesdropping on the conversations people have while looking at animals. About half the time, the comments are basic descriptions of animals, such as, "Look—it's scratching itself," according to a study published in 2008 in Zoo Biology.

At first, Clayton was surprised at how mundane these observations were. People said aloud things that were obvious to everyone present: The elephant is big; the tiger is sleeping. But upon closer evaluation, she realized that the comments were allowing the zoo-goers to interact with their friends or family members. In fact, people often pointed animals out to one another and tilted their heads together.

"They were physically coming together," says Clayton. "The animals were serving as the focus of a social interaction."

Follow-up research by Clayton suggests that zoo-goers, often families, used the animals as a jumping-off point to define humans' relationship with the natural world. About 47 percent of the comments people made to one another, for example, were positive—comments like, "He's beautiful." And 33 percent of the observations used the pronoun "he or she" instead of "it."

"Without coming right out and saying it, we're saying, 'We like animals,' and 'They are similar to us,'" she says. "They are making a connection, and I think this connection forms the basis of stronger environmental attitudes."

Sometimes, people's remarks were more explicit, especially parents talking to children. In front of ape exhibits, Clayton often overheard such comments as, "He looks just like Daddy," or "They are our cousins," she recalls. Once, while watching a family in front of a wolf exhibit, Clayton heard a little girl say, "Let's kill him! Wolves are bad." The girl was quickly corrected by her mother, who explained that wolves are not bad and it's our job to protect them.

While these findings are intriguing, they are a far cry from proving that zoos are succeeding in their conservation mission, says Cambridge University psychology professor Andrew Balmford, PhD. He and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of visitors at five England zoos and found that they were not coming away with any increase in knowledge about threatened habitats or species. The zoo visits also didn't appear to increase people's concern for wildlife conservation or their ability to name useful things they can do to save the environment, says Balmford, who reported his results in "Zoos of the 21st Century: Catalysts for Conservation?" (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

"We found no evidence that zoo visits resulted in greater concern for the environment, and there's surprisingly little evidence elsewhere in the literature," he says.

Balmford suspects that his results may be because zoo visitors are often preoccupied with child care. But Ralph Acampora, PhD, a philosopher and zoo researcher at Hofstra University in New York, believes that more insidious social processes are at work. For one, people see zoos and aquariums as places where humans have control over animals' lives and are masters of nature, for good or ill, Acampora says. Even worse, zoos and aquariums separate animals from their natural habitats—a process that further undermines their message of conservation, says Randy Malamud, PhD, an English professor at Georgia State University and author of "Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity" (NYU Press, 1998). After all, he asks, why bother saving rainforests if we can scoop out all the interesting animals and put them on display for our enjoyment?

"I don't think that zoos can possibly encourage people to think ecologically, that we're all in this together," says Malamud.

Building a better zoo

Such arguments, while compelling, don't square with empirical research on people's zoo experiences, counters John Fraser, PhD, an architect and psychologist at the Institute for Learning Innovation, based in Edgewater, Md. While zoo visitors may not pass a conservation or animal-fact test, 54 percent claim that their experience made them reconsider their role in the world's ecology and 57 percent report that their zoo visit inspired them to think about their relationship with nature, according to his organization's recent audience surveys, funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the National Science Foundation.

"We have a relationship with the natural world that is somewhat challenged by our daily lives," says Fraser. "When people go to a zoo, they seem to use the experience to get back in touch with that organic part of themselves, that biological part of their identity."

Also, he says, people do learn at zoos—the Balmford study only studied the effect of a single zoo visit and did not consider more nuanced views of learning.

"They did not look at synthesizing knowledge, nor did this study really develop a pre/post strategy for explaining whether the zoo did contribute to learning," he says.

Before joining ILI, Fraser spent eight years as director leading interpretive programs, public research and exhibit evaluation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which oversees four New York City zoos and one aquarium. In that capacity, he and his colleagues seeded the Central Park Zoo with snippets of poetry—such as the phrase, "I am I because my little dog knows me," to encourage readers to take the perspective of the animals, says Fraser. Other lines of verse attempted to reinforce the idea that we all share one world, he says.

The approach may have worked, according to a study in Tourism Review International (Vol. 11, No. 3): Zoo-goers who visited after the poetry was installed were 37 percent more likely to mention their concerns about man's threat to nature and 48 percent more likely to say that humans are part of a larger ecosystem than people who visited a poetry-free zoo. Now, Fraser is working with Poets House in New York to bring poetry to five more zoos across the country.

Researchers are also trying to improve the amount of factual information people take from animal exhibits. When he worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Steven Yalowitz and his colleagues found that successful exhibits often build on what people already know. For example, many shark exhibits focus on persuading visitors that sharks are not usually dangerous to people and are worth conserving. Research at the aquarium showed that visitors already knew that information, but they did have one major misconception: People felt that all we need to do to save sharks is to "leave them alone," he says.

"They didn't realize the extent that sharks were being killed in commercial fishing," Yalowitz says.

Given that finding, exhibit designers placed signs around the shark exhibit explaining that about 100 million sharks are caught by commercial fishermen each year, and half of those are accidental victims of nets or deep lines intended for tuna and other fish. As a result, shark populations have fallen precipitously in recent decades, with 21 of 23 species of open ocean sharks and rays facing the risk of extinction.

The result has been greater awareness of shark conservation, according to audience research conducted by the aquarium. But more important, says Yalowitz, the aquarium gave people a way to act on this information and help save sharks. Volunteers hand out wallet-sized seafood watch cards that list which fish people can eat without worrying about supporting harmful fishing practices (such as striped bass) and which ones to avoid (bluefin tuna).

Over time, people tend to forget specific conservation facts after their visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says Yalowitz, but they do remember that sharks are being depleted by commercial fishing. And, he says, you never forget what it's like to look into the eyes of a great white shark.

"What has the most holding power is an appreciation of the ocean, an appreciation of the animal world," he says.

Further reading

  • Acampora, R. (2005). Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking Successor Practices. Society & Animals, 13, 69–88.

  • Bruni, C., Fraser, J., & Schultz, P.W. (2008). The Value of Zoo Experiences for Connecting People with Nature. Visitor Studies 11(2), 139–150.

  • Clayton, S., Fraser, J., & Saunders, C. (2008). Zoo experiences: Conversations, connections, and concern for animals. Zoo Biology.

  • Fraser, J., Condon, K., & Gruber, S. (2008). The Tourist Value Proposition of Zoos and Aquariums, Tourism Review International 11(3), 279–293.

  • Myers Jr., O.E. & Saunders, C.D. (2002). Animals as links to developing caring relationships with the natural world. In P.H. Kahn Jr. & S.R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature: Theoretical and scientific foundations (pp. 153–178). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Rabb, G.B. & Saunders, C.D. (2005). The future of zoos and aquariums: Conservation and caring. International Zoo Yearbook. London, UK: Zoological Society of London.

  • Yalowitz, S.S. (2004). Evaluating Visitor Conservation Research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Curator, 47(3), 283–298.