The overall aim of this study was to describe and evaluate the educational power of the zoo and the level of awareness among zoo staff from the perspective of conservation, sustainable development and animal welfare, as well as to describe and evaluate the effect of visiting a zoo on learning, awareness and motivation to change behavior from the perspective of conservation, sustainable development and animal welfare.
Evaluation of zoo education activities
SAZA state on their website that “In our member parks people get aware of the importance of biodiversity – and what we can do to protect endangered species and their habitats”. They also state that visitors at SAZA parks get increased knowledge about species, ecosystems and the environment. But can we actually say that we know that zoo visitors learn at Swedish zoos? Though the zoos participating in the present study reported to use a variety of education activities to educate their public, evaluation of such zoo education activities showed to be an area of improvement, as interviewed zoo staff reported only limited evaluation of education activities at their zoo. This was especially true for education activities aimed at zoo visitors. Education is one of the main roles of the modern zoo. Evaluating zoo education activities is important to enable development of education activities but more importantly, evaluation is of uttermost importance in order for zoos to show that they reach their educational goals and make the difference they state that they can make, especially as zoos get ever the more questioned.
When zoo staff interviewed in the present study were asked if staff involved in the education activities in their zoo received any training or education in how to educate, 22 of 35 interviewees said “no”. Few studies have examined the experiences of zoo educators in relation to staff development, however, Zelak (2018) found similar results with zoo staff reporting that training varied from year to year and depending on staff position, and generally included limited focus on conservation.
That zoos seem to provide training and education for their education staff to a varying, though limited, degree is interesting from several aspects; firstly, zoos put much emphasis on their educational role and the zoos themselves as well as national and international zoo organizations highlight education as one of the main roles of zoos. Secondly, out of the zoo staff interviewed in the present study few had studied pedagogy or teaching and would thus likely benefit from training and education in this area. Staff training has shown to result in a higher percentage of zoo staff including a conservation message in their keeper talks, and also increase visitor recall of the conservation message (MacDonald et al., 2016).
Few zoo staff interviewed in the present study had studied pedagogy or teaching. Hence, it is not surprising that many interviewees reported that they would like to develop their skills and knowledge in this area (n=13). Public speaking and visitor engagement was another area mentioned by several interviewees (n=8) when asked what they would like to learn more about or develop their skills in. The interest shown from zoo staff for staff development in different areas give the zoos good opportunities to educate and develop the skills of their staff.
With the increasing emphasis on conservation in zoo education worldwide, it is of interest to investigate whether zoos communicate about conservation through their signage, and what aspects of conservation are communicated. In the present study, there were significant differences between zoos with regard to what extent their signage included information about threat status, threats and conservation efforts. However, when analyzing all signage across all zoos, the results showed that 68% of signage included information about the threat status of the species. The percentage of signage that included information about the specific threats risking the survival of the specific species and the percentage of signage that included information about conservation efforts aimed at the specific species was considerably lower, with 44% and 46% respectively. 34% of signage included information about how the specific zoo contributed to conservation of the species, and only 17% of signage included suggestions about how the zoo visitors could contribute to conservation. This is consistent with findings from previous studies that have reported that zoos communicated conservation as something being done by the zoo or “someone else” (e.g., governments, NGOs) rather than something that zoo visitors can take an active part in themselves (Chalmin-Pui & Perkins, 2017; Ojalammi & Nygren, 2018). Chalmin-Pui and Perkins (2017) examined the effects of a zoo exhibit about biodiversity and found that the information provided did not relate to the daily lives of zoo visitors and did not empower zoo visitors to contribute to conservation. Similarly, Ojalammi and Nygren (2018) reported that the zoo in their study did not provide any concrete suggestions on how zoo visitors could contribute to conservation except from donating money and argued that this distances conservation from the daily lives of zoo visitors. In the present study, becoming a species sponsor at the zoo and donating money was the most frequently mentioned suggestions on zoo signage of how zoo visitors could contribute to conservation, seen to the number of signs including each suggestion, which also signals that conservation is “someone else’s job” and the best way the single zoo visitor can help is by contributing to the zoo’s conservation work. In order to maximize the conservation impact of zoo conservation education activities, it would probably be beneficial for zoos to review conservation actions suggested in their signage and other education activities and evaluate which conservation actions to prioritize in visitor communication, both based on the effect of the different behaviours and on the likelihood that zoo visitors will take on these actions.
Animal welfare and animal care in the zoo
Educating zoo visitors about animal welfare and animal care has been suggested by several previous studies (Warsaw & Sayers, 2020; Collins et al., 2021) and is additionally encouraged in WZACES where it is described as an important part of zoo conservation education (Thomas, 2020). Therefore, it would be beneficial for zoos to review their signage and other education activities with regard to information about animal welfare and animal care communicated to zoo visitors, and identify which animal behaviours or situations may be of importance to explain to zoo visitors.
It is important to note that the present study only examined the signage by the animal enclosures and thus does not give the full picture of what the zoos communicate in their education activities with regard to species facts, conservation and animal welfare, as education activities may also include other signage, keeper talks, lectures, social media posts and more.
Zoo visitors’ best and worst zoo experiences
When questionnaire respondents in the present study were asked to describe their best zoo experience, the top three most common features used by respondents to describe their best zoo experience were education/learning, animals in good condition/well cared for and large animal enclosures. This can be compared to Woods (2002) where participants were asked to describe their best experience of wildlife. For experiences taking place in captive environments (e.g., zoos) Woods found that the most frequently mentioned feature was enjoyment of interactions with animals, followed by learning/good opportunities to learn, large numbers or variety of animals and good care of animals/condition of enclosures. That education places among the top three most common features in both the present study and in Woods (2002) is encouraging as it indicates that zoo visitors likely enjoy the education activities they take part in at zoos.
When questionnaire respondents in the present study were asked to describe their worst zoo experience, the top three most common features used by respondents to describe their worst zoo experience were animals in bad condition/not well cared for, small animal enclosures and behaviour of other visitors. In the study by Woods (2002), the most frequently mentioned features of worst wildlife experiences in captive settings were poor management of captive animals, service/management and animals that chased, bite or attacked. This highlights that zoo visitors care about zoo animals and put much emphasis on that animals in zoos should be well cared for.
Though some clear and commonly mentioned themes/features emerged when analyzing questionnaire respondents’ descriptions of best and worst zoo experiences, what constitutes a good or bad zoo experience is likely highly individual. For example, descriptions of very similar experiences (e.g., dolphin shows and a great ape enclosure at a specific zoo) were found both among the descriptions of best zoo experiences and among the descriptions of worst zoo experiences. Thus, what one individual perceived to be a good experience was by another individual perceived to be a bad experience.
It is worth to note that responses regarding neither best zoo experiences nor worst zoo experiences in the present study were limited to experiences from Swedish zoos but respondents were allowed to describe any zoo experience in any country as the aim of the question was to examine what features of a zoo experience zoo visitors associate with a positive experience and what features of a zoo experience zoo visitors associate with a negative experience.
Visitor perceptions of animal welfare in zoos
Questionnaire responses from the present study make it clear that it is important to zoo visitors to see that zoo animals are in good condition and are well cared for, and that they are kept in large, natural enclosures. However, that only 14% of questionnaire respondents agreed that animals in Swedish zoos do well shows that zoo visitors have doubts regarding the welfare of zoo animals. Those doubts regarding zoo animal welfare expressed by the questionnaire respondents may have different possible explanations: one possible explanation may be that zoo animals may have compromised welfare and therefore are not doing well. To determine whether this could be a relevant explanation, animal welfare studies studying behaviour and/or physiological indicators of welfare would be necessary. Another possible explanation would be that zoo visitors lack information or knowledge to correctly assess the welfare of zoo animals. It is also possible that zoo visitors may have incorrect perceptions or lack knowledge about the natural behaviour of different species and indicators of good and poor welfare. Melfi et al. (2004) found that zoo visitors expected good welfare for tigers to be expressed in active behaviours like play, eat and climb – though these are behaviours that are not a large part of the time budget for tigers. That zoo visitors do not have the skills necessary to assess animal welfare is additionally supported by a study by Collins et al. (2021) that found that zoo visitors asked to write down which behaviours they observed the tigers perform did not write down the same behaviours as a trained researcher watching the tigers. In the present study there was a significant difference between questionnaire respondents with experience from working in zoos and questionnaire respondents that did not have such experience regarding perceptions of animal welfare; respondents with experience agreed to a larger extent that animals in zoos can express their natural behaviour and also agreed to a larger extent that animals in zoos are doing well. One possible explanation for this could be that those with experience from working in zoos have more knowledge about how zoos work to ensure animal welfare. That more information and knowledge can affect zoo visitors’ perceptions about animal welfare is supported by Warsaw and Sayers (2020) that found that when zoo visitors where given information about the context of an animal’s behaviour, more zoo visitors assessed the animal as experiencing positive welfare, compared to when zoo visitors were only provided with a described scenario of the behaviour of the animal. However, a recent study by Veasey (2022) showed a strong correlation between holistic animal welfare assessments and zoo visitor perceptions of animal “happiness”, indicating that zoo visitors’ perceptions of animal welfare may be more accurate than indicated by previous studies. Thus, further research is needed in this area.
Animal welfare is a high priority for zoos and results from the present study and previous research show that zoo visitors care about the welfare of the animals and that their perceptions of animal welfare at the zoo can affect their zoo experience. Veasey (2022) found that visitors’ perceptions of animal “happiness” was strongly correlated with their enjoyment of their zoo visit. Further increasing efforts put into animal welfare would not only directly benefit the animals but also likely have indirect effects on zoo visitors’ perceptions, experiences and attitudes as well as conservation education outcomes. Additionally, increasing information about animal welfare and animal care in zoo conservation education activities would likely also affect zoo visitors’ perceptions, experiences and attitudes regarding animal welfare.
The effect of zoo visits on conservation action
When questionnaire respondents were asked if a zoo visit had ever resulted in them contributing to conservation of an endangered species, 29% of respondents said yes. When asked how they contributed to conservation, the paramount most frequently mentioned action was money donation. This is unsurprising given the fact that donating money was also the conservation action questionnaire respondents most frequently mentioned to have noticed during their last zoo visit, and also one of the most commonly mentioned suggestions of conservation actions on zoo signage. . In the present study, questionnaire respondents were generally positive towards zoos suggesting donations as a conservation action, however, Smith et al. (2010) found that zoo visitors expressed both positive and negative attitudes towards zoos asking for money donations. . Thus, zoos should review what conservation actions they suggest to their zoo visitors through signage and other education activities, and aside from money donations suggest behaviours that are relevant to the everyday life of zoo visitors and empower zoo visitors to take action for conservation. Additionally, it would be beneficial for zoos to evaluate the environmental impact of potential behaviours to suggest to zoo visitors, in order to be able to target those behaviours making the greatest changes to wildlife.
Staff development, evaluation of education activities and improvement of and increased communication about animal welfare are important components of the future development of zoo conservation education in Swedish zoos.
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