The Truth about the Educational Value of Zoos
Most former public school attendees in the U.S. have fond memories of the zoo field trips that take place towards the end of the year during the long-awaited spring transitioning-to-summer climate.
“Zoos are educational” “Zoos inspire generations of children to care about wildlife and conservation—many sources claim. In fact, most nature centers, private animal holding facilities, and aquariums will boast about their educational value whenever their existence is challenged.
This notion is often questioned by (mostly) animal rights activists who disapprove of keeping certain animals in cages. Perhaps the biggest source of debate amongst the public has stemmed from the documentary Blackfish about the apparent lack of education contained within the dazzling animal shows and falsified information for the sake of avoiding dissenting opinions (i.e. killer whales live longer in captivity). Does the presence of living animals present learning opportunities?
- Marius the Giraffe and Killing Zoo Animals—The Big Picture
Was it ethical for the Copenhagen Zoo to euthanize Marius, a two-year old giraffe, due to lack of space for conservation efforts?
Are Zoos Educational? Common Criticism Aimed at Zoos
- Visitors spend on average 10-117 seconds at each exhibit
- Performing animal shows teach children that animals are clowns
- Zoos promote human dominance mentalities/keeping wildlife as pets
- What children do learn at zoos can be learned from other sources
- There is no evidence that children learn from zoos
- Zoos focus more on entertainment
- How to Make Zoo Trips Educational for Children
How to teach children/preschoolers/toddlers about zoo animals before and while attending zoos and aquariums.
What do the studies say?
A popular peer-reviewed study that addresses the educational impact of zoos is this one; Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium, which was published in 2007. This study was conducted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and funded by the National Science Foundation. Information for the study was gathered by surveying zoo visitors.
Given the origin of the people behind the study, the findings presented aren’t surprising:
“We found that going to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums in North America does have a measurable impact on the conservation attitudes and understanding of adult visitors”
...a conclusion that is beneficial to the study’s contributors. The study suggested that visitors had a change in attitude toward conservation, biodiversity, and ecological education.
This study has not gone unchallenged. As an obvious threat to opponents of zoos, Lori Marino (who was featured in the documentary Blackfish and other anti-captivity media) responded with another peer-reviewed study that was created to discredit the zoo-affirming study ("we address whether this conclusion is warranted by analyzing the study’s methodological soundness"): Do zoos and aquariums promote attitude change in visitors? A critical evaluation of the American zoo and aquarium study.
The study includes pretty damning implications such as labeling zoos “…generally accepted forms of entertainment, with little thought given to their purpose or the trade-offs associated with the capture and confinement of animals” and “….rebranding themselves as agents for species preservation and public education.
The introduction must be read in its entirety to fully appreciate the searing rhetoric-infused scientific approach. But Marino makes sound points.
"Marino’s criticisms, however valid, illustrate the issue with nearly every study of this nature and the sheer impossibility of designing the perfect study that can help us find ‘proof’ to the answer of whether zoos are educational or not."
Criticizing studies that confirm educational impact
She came up with the following conclusions (my condensed version) There is no compelling evidence to support the claims of the study because the methods of which the study utilized involved:
- non-random sampling (because participants were self-selected),
- did not compensate for the fact that zoos are a novel and exciting experience with comparisons to other captive animal-free novel environments
- lack of proper assessment to other alluring features of zoos
- the propensity of the responder to answer how they think they’re suppose to (one I really agree with),
- lack of discussion about the non-responders in the study
- and the ever popular yet truthful causation doesn’t equal causation.
Marino’s criticisms, however valid, illustrate the issue with nearly every study of this nature and the sheer impossibility of designing the perfect study that can help us find ‘proof’ to the answer of whether zoos are educational or not. Every stitch of that question is horrendously complex and grounded in immeasurable psychological variables which human beings are endlessly subjected to.
Early childhood learning?
Another study by Brady Wagoner and Eric Jensen, called Science Learning at the Zoo: Evaluating Children’s Developing Understanding of Animals and Their habitats provides interesting findings for the zoo’s role in early childhood development.
To obtain an understanding of the change in thinking that the young students went through after their zoo visit, they were asked to participate in a drawing task involving animals and their habitats. The study found that the zoo visit ‘refined the children’s previous knowledge’ from an educational lecture that they attended before the zoo.
Others studies/papers about zoo education
1972- “What Do We Learn at the Zoo?” (Robert Summer)
“The sight of caged animals does not engender respect for animals”
“…a visit to a zoo will reveal a great deal about the adaptation of animals to captivity”.
2000- “Factors Influencing Zoo Visitors’ Conservation Attitudes and Behavior” (Jeffrey S. Swanagan)
2004-“Effects of a Conservation Education Camp Program on Campers’ Self-Reported Knowledge , Attitude and Behavior” (Cara K. Krus and Jaclyn A. Card)
“Results indicated that conservation knowledge scores increased over the study period, as did attitude and behavior, though patterns of change were varied in each level of camp. Campers' self-reported knowledge, attitude, and behavior also increased with increased levels of animal husbandry.”
2007- “Zoo education: from formal school programmes to exhibit design and interpretation (L. L. Andersen)
“The use of signage, interpretative graphics, worksheets and presentations by staff increase awareness and knowledge for children and adults alike and result in a stimulating visit to the zoo. Education and interpretation will increasingly utilize modern information technology, allowing direct links to in situ conservation programmes which zoo visitors help to support".
2010- “Visitor interest in zoo animals and the implications for collection planning and zoo education programmes” (Andrew Moss and Maggie Esson)
“In this, zoo learning is a very personal construct, develops from the previous knowledge, and experiences and motivations of each individual.”
“In this article, we make the assertion that learning potential, although difficult to quantify, is very much related to the attractiveness of animal species and the interest that visitors show in them”.
Educational opportunities that zoos offer
Introduction to living animals, ecology, and conservation topics
Guided educational tours
Captive animal holding facilities for wildlife that needs rehabilitation
Zoo camps that offer educational talks, introduction to animal husbandry
Exposure to uncommon species
A prospective way to study animals that are elusive or hard to study in the wild
Potential to inspire a future career with animals
Career opportunities, internships
Studies on captive animals can assist researchers doing field work
Fostering An Appreciation of Conservation and Nature
I vividly recall volunteering at a nature center about 40 minutes outside of the New York City area. I was asked with the other volunteers to bring the tortoises outside to sun themselves and eat grass in the front lawn. An older woman visiting the center seemed enthralled by the animal, gazing at it for an extended period while I unenthusiastically engaged her, not finding tortoises very interesting (being a reptile owner). She remarked of how amazing it was to see such an animal up-close and how she was rarely exposed to such animals in her city dwelling, which she obviously must have lived in her whole life.
My thoughts: Zoos are a learning 'tool'
And just like with any form of teaching tool, it must be utilized properly for maximum benefit. A pencil compass can be used to poke holes into a sheet of paper by a bored student, or it can assist teaching the student about the degrees present in a circle, plus the concept of circumference and diameter.
Therefore, I imagine that a zoo will have minimal impact for some visitors who are not self-motivated due to lack of interest in what they’re seeing, just as a substantially educational lecture on chemistry would fail to teach me about SN2 reactions if I chose to sleep during it.
Many zoos offer some of the most presentable and entertaining means of introducing children (and adults) to scientific concepts, but this will only go so far in cementing more nutritive information to the less enthusiastic crowd and adults who think zoos exist mainly as children’s entertainment and 'tune out' during their visit.
The information cards planted on the exhibits exist for the interested, and they certainly do serve a purpose.
The strength of benefit obtained from zoos will also depend on the quality of the zoo’s educational programs, exhibits, and presentations.
How do we learn from animals in cages?
How do children learn? Why do educators glorify and encourage activities for children where they touch, hear, smell, taste (when applicable) and engage with new experiences? Some people feel that children can learn essential lessons from taking a walk in the woods versus being stuck in the classroom.
I can personally attest to the excitement that the presence of a live animal brings, especially when you are a child that, like most, has an interest in animals but has parents who are unaccommodating with allowing pets in the house. Live animals naturally invite attention, which would make lectures about that animal far more fruitful. Yet, this attention can easily be lost in a typical zoo's stimuli overload and endless exhibits along tedious walking trails.
Length of time spent at zoo exhibits
Argument: Visitors rarely spend more than seconds looking at animals. Children can learn about animals like dinosaurs without ever seeing them.
Some studies have determined that on average zoo visitors spend approximately 3 seconds to 2 minutes at each exhibit. This sounds about right. Most kids (and adults) bypass exhibits featuring ‘boring’ animals that are small or resemble the ones that live in our own backyard, sleeping animals, and enclosures with animals not in clear view.
Another factor that certainly adds to brief viewing times (in my experience) are the crowds, and the general politeness of allowing the hoards of people behind you a chance to see on crowded days.
When an interesting animal is actually moving and behaving (educational opportunity) crowds are likely to become even more congested in that area. This is not technically the zoo's fault, but it certainly hampers educational impact.
Zoos as museums
But in most cases, exhibits will be briefly viewed before the visitor moves on until something interesting catches their eye.
Zoos are essentially living museums, and zoo detractors often forget this. Museums such as The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which never seem to have their educational value contested, essentially have similar set ups to zoos with their taxidermy collections and written descriptions of the animals and environments depicted.
I don’t recall spending too much time at each of these displays as a child either.
With exhibits about dinosaurs, I generally scanned the bare bones until famous recognizable species appeared (T-rex, triceratops), and even upon seeing these, I didn't read the written information.
This is even more true for botanical gardens, which also have educational value but probably have information cards that are rarely read.
The flawed dinosaur analogy
Speaking of dinosaurs, one argument by the anti-zoo side is that children are perfectly capable of learning about animals without seeing them, hence their natural understanding of the large extinct reptiles.
However, as a dinosaur fact-infused youngster, I had little interest in the bones of impressive-looking but still not so interesting extinct mammals of North America that were in the room next to the mammal-like reptiles. What appeared to be a gigantic moose, a dog-sized horse, and woolly mammoths—were not so interesting.
I can only imagine the awe I would experience to see those animals in the flesh however. I find the dinosaur comparison to be a bit short-sighted, as there is a reason that children tend to be more interested in an allosaurus vs. their real-life song bird relatives.
A small animal like a finch for example, will be 60% more interesting if it is alive for children to see. The most popular dinosaurs look like mythical, dangerous creatures and barely resemble the way animals look today, so the attention they get is unsurprising.
Chances are that zoos with their living animal collections will engage children (and adults) for longer periods, particular if the animal is presented with a speaker.
Argument: Captive animals don't act wild
What Do We Learn at the Zoo? by Robert Summer covers this topic. Can we learn about animals that are living in a confined, captive environment?
It might sound unconventional, but I believe we have a lot to learn from animals when they are removed from their natural habitat, because in doing so, we can understand the degree of which 'nature vs. nurture' has in their behavior.
For instance, a person raising a goose will learn that this bird will imprint on humans with ease and will have no interest in migration if not taught how to do so (i.e. Fly Away Home). So in effect, we are learning about animals based on how they act when they lack. This can unfortunately sometimes be negative, such as the presence of stereotypic behavior, but good zoos are developing enriching methods to curb this problem, and this also can mean education for the public.
Based on the essential species-specific enrichment that animals need such as walking space for elephants, foraging cubes for monkeys, and even hamster wheels for rodents, we can deduct how that species lives in the wild.
We can learn that tigers absolutely love to swim in contrast to lions. We can recognize the importance that foraging has with many animals for their mental well-being.
Despite the unnatural appearance of common enrichment devices, thoughtful minds can deduce that these objects are mere substitutions for natural features.
The importance of animal demonstrations
There is a lot of controversy regarding animal 'performances', and this is where the SeaWorld controversy comes into play. Many find any scenario where there is a performing animal to be disrespectful to wildlife, circus-like in nature, and sometimes even cruel. Having animals perform is not cruel in nature, but using cruel methods to get animals to perform is.
Incorporating education and entertainment
Luckily, operant conditioning techniques utilizing positive reinforcement work wonderfully for any animal (here is a video of me training a spotted genet with the same method Seaworld and others use).
More importantly, such training actually provides essential enrichment to zoo animals and makes them easier to work with for vet check ups. While performing cetacean shows ignite a lot of debate, they are not much different from other zoos shows that have trained parrots, sea lions, and basically any animal that can be brought out to amuse a crowd by doing a behavior on command.
SeaWorld's shows may be flashy and silly (and perhaps a little lacking in the education department), but they are providing essential enrichment to the animals while putting their species in the spotlight. Animals like hyenas have the added benefit of looking 'cute' when they normally aren't considered as such, and this might make people care more about their related conservation programs in addition to the charismatic species.
Does presenting cuddly exotic animals make people want to keep them as pets?
In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with keeping exotic pets! And yes, some people do have a natural desire to want to experience animals up close, and owning them is the ultimate experience in this regard. But do zoos promote the practice? If you're like me, the answer is actually yes. After every live animal presentation at day camp I found myself wanting one of the 'ambassadors'. First a chinchilla, then a prairie dog. But I naturally gravitate toward pets because that is my true interest. Millions of people attend zoos every day and 'real' exotic pets are highly uncommon in households. There's probably a 'me' sprinkled in every large crowd, but we'd likely find our pet keeping passion through some other means eventually. I think that for most people when they say they would like a pet tiger, they are probably joking.
Attractions at the zoo?
Even something as exciting as live exotic animals can get monotonous to some people after many visits.The modern zoo can sometimes be a place of amusement recreation. Larger zoos often draw visitors with IMAX theaters, non-animal related rides, and even water parks. Many of these attractions are not educational but they do attract visitors which helps keep the zoos afloat financially, and that can contribute to research and conservation-related causes.
What are the most effective means of education?
People often forget that some zoos are not just holding facilities for animals that people walk through. They present numerous opportunities for children's educational programs and adults alike.
Smaller nature centers may not be thought of as 'zoos', but that is exactly what they are when they maintain captive animal collections, which can prove to be an integral draw of visitor interest.
Zoos also have programs where presenters travel offsite to give lectures about animal science and conservation with their 'animal ambassadors' in tow. No nature documentary or picture book can compete with a live exotic animal visit in grabbing a child's attention, I believe.
There is some valid criticism regarding the educational experience of milling through a row of cages, but as some studies suggest and common sense dictates, presentations, including trained animal demonstrations, are powerful learning tools if the speaker dispenses the right information.
Either way, zoos aren't magic and cannot bestow a lesson upon those who whiz through the exhibits and don't read information cards. A speaker should be present to expect real benefit. In my opinion, the best forms of education that zoos can offer is:
- Exhibits that are routinely visited by speakers who can talk to visitors.
- Live animal presentations where a speaker brings out one animal at a time and dispenses information about habitat, related conservation issues, and behavior.
- Days camps for children which provide animal husbandry involvement and/or talks about conservation and science.
- Guided tours through the zoo where a speaker puts animals into an evolutionary context, or discuses ecological principals while giving general animal facts. Tram/bus/monorail rides can also serve this purpose if there's a speaker.
- At the zoo, presentations where animals receive their enrichment, and discussions as to why this is important and what natural behavior it is hoping to emulate.
- Training sessions with animals and the process of how it is achieved.
- A video presentation aired before entering a certain exhibit area that can discuss what animals the visitor can expect to see and their regional significance/biodiversity.
Are zoos worth it?
So what have we learned? The truth about the educational value of zoos is that no one can really understand the impact they are having on a quantifiable level. It's difficult to imagine how our society would be without exposure to animals through zoos (and pets) and wonder if this would be positive or negative for animals and conservation. Zoo detractors can dispute studies that verify people learning in zoos but that is certainly not evidence that they do not. In addition, people vary as individuals and each experience is different.
I would caution a zoo enthusiast from highly regarding studies or claims that zoos are inferior forms of education when they originate from sources who have their minds made up that zoos are moral crimes. It’s hard for a person to consider that zoos might be beneficial for human education when they are fixated on the idea that animals in zoos are suffering and living an abysmal existence.
Make no mistake that it is also my belief that education (and conservation) is not worth animal suffering, but I do not consider captivity synonymous with suffering. I believe zoos present learning opportunities, in addition to their endless potential to contribute to in situ conservation efforts. Zoos drag millions of promising unique brains through their trails each day and may inspire a future herptologist, zoologist, or conservationist.
Even the disrespectful, dimwitted zoo visitor that makes jokes about the animals and gets upset that a certain animal is not visible all the time still has to pay admission that will aid conservation efforts economically. While not everyone will benefit to the same extent of another, or at all, the percentage of people who do still count.
A great read!
- Let's Keep Zoos
Encounters with zoo animals help kids consider deeper moral questions about what nature is worth, and what it means to exercise good stewardship.
More by this Author
Exploring the phenomenon of people thinking animals are "sad" in zoos because of the expression on their faces. Can you read an animal's mind by looking at it?
SeaWorld has made the wrong decision by ending its orca breeding program and teaming up with the Humane Society of the United States.
Profiles of the small and medium-sized exotic or wild cats that are sometimes kept as pets in the United States.