Thursday, April 29, 2010

I just discovered this video on National Geographic about a pet monkey transitioning to sanctuary life at Jungle Friends. It features a few cameos from some old monkey friends of mine (Puchi! and Udi, who I knew as a little guy!), as well as my human friend Erin!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The efficacy of zoo education: empirical evidence

Here, I want to outline the results of the study on assessing the education impacts of visiting zoos by Falk and colleagues (2007). This is the study that has been heralded by the AZA and various AZA facilities, but has come under critique for methodological drawbacks and overextending claims based on its results. The full document can be accessed at the AZA page on visitors and public research.

This study examined the following questions (Falk et. al, 2007:5-6):

• How do aquariums and zoos contribute to people’s personal and emotional connections to animals and their conservation?
• How do zoos and aquariums contribute to the ways people act and behave toward animals?
• How do we increase these impacts? What do we do that is successful?
• Who are our visitors?

They examined these questions in a visitor-tracking study at two zoos and two aquariums. Visitors were randomly approached by researchers as they entered the zoo, and were asked if they would be willing to participate in the study. One adult from each consenting group were then asked to fill out a pre-visit survey on conservation knowledge and motivation for the visit. When they were done with their visit, they then approached the researcher to identify which exhibits they visited, their path through the zoo, and to answer interview questions. A random sample of those visitors that provided contact information were later contacted via phone or email and questioned about what they recalled from that visit and its impact on their knowledge and attitudes. Falk and colleagues (2007:9-10) summary of their results area as follows:

Visitors arrive at zoos and aquariums with specific identity-related motivations and these motivations directly impact how they conduct their visit and what meaning they make from the experience.

Overall, visitors bring with them a higher-than-expected knowledge about basic ecological concepts. A small percentage group of visitors (approximately 10%)
did show significant changes in their conservation-related knowledge. However because of the higher than expected entering knowledge of most visitors, there were no statistically significant changes in overall knowledge.

Most visitors (61%) found that their zoo and aquarium experience supported and reinforced their values and attitudes towards conservation. Visits to accredited zoos and aquariums prompted many individuals (54%) to reconsider their role in environmental problems and conservation action, and to see themselves as part of the solution.

Roughly half (42%) of all visitors believed that zoos and aquariums play an important role in conservation education and animal care. A majority (57%) of visitors said that their visit experience strengthened their connection to nature.

While their results are encouraging, Marino and colleagues (2010) critique their conclusions, citing methodological flaws. Based on their assessment, they conclude that the AZA and its associated institutions make claims based on Falk and colleagues (2007) study that go beyond its findings. They contend that they study was not designed in a way that provided adequate opportunity to falsify their hypotheses. Furthermore, they critique the methodology on a number of levels, including the selection bias of participants (participants that agreed to participate may have different attitudes about zoos and conservation than those that choose not to participate), and the response bias that may emerge from asking participants to reflect on their beliefs. Furthermore, Marino and colleagues (2010) note that Falk and colleagues's (2007) study never assessed attitudes that may have worsened as a result of their visit (for example, increased perception of animals as objects of entertainment).

Marino and colleagues (2010) stress that the aim of their paper is not to critique the AZA's education efforts; rather, they hope that their critique will encourage new studies examining the impact of zoos on visitors that are methodologically stronger.

Given that Falk and colleagues (2007) study remains the best attempt to assess zoos impact on visitors, it seems that it provides some evidence that, for at least a subset of zoo-goers, visiting the zoo strengthened their interest in conservation and may have prompted them to consider how they can contribute to conservation efforts. However, these visitors may be those that are already somewhat knowledgeable about animals and conservation, and their visits may just be reaffirming beliefs and attitudes that they already hold. However, what about the rest of visitors? How might those who choose not to participate be different? And what about the 39% of participants who didn't feel their visit reinforced their conservation attitudes? And the 46% who didn't feel their visit prompted a reconsideration of their personal impact on the environment and conservation efforts? Or, more troubling, what about the 58% of participants who didn't believe that zoos play an important role in conservation and animal care?

It is apparent to me from my reading of these two studies that the jury is still out on how a visit to the zoo impacts its visitors. Furthermore, I suspect that the impacts are a mixed bag: for those that visit the zoo with a strong prior interest in animals, nature, and conservation, a trip to the zoo might reaffirm their beliefs and interests. However, for visitors who take a trip to the zoo as a means of amusement and entertainment, it is unclear whether they leave the zoo with any greater understanding of the animals or larger conservation goals. Furthermore, I suspect that the biggest educational impact that zoos have is on children: I think studies that specifically examine how a visit to the zoo influences a child's knowledge, beliefs, and attitude is crucial to understanding whether zoos are meeting their education goals.


Falk,JH,Reinhard,EM,Vernon,CL,Bronnenkant,K,Deans,NL Heimlich, JE.2007. Why Zoos &
Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.

Marino, L, Lilienfeld, SO, Malamud, R, Nobis, N, Broglio, R. 2010. Do zoos and aquariums promote attitude change in visitors? A critical evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium study. Society and Animals 18: 126-138.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Zoo goals: Conservation, Education, and Research

Before I discuss the results of recent studies on the efficacy of zoos/aquariums on visitor education, I would like to briefly outline some of the focuses and potential outcomes on each of these three goals.

Zoos aim to meet conservation goals through several means.

1)Zoos are often considered as a "biological ark," that can maintain a population of animals that may be declining in captivity. Thus, their goals are, ostensibly, to maintain a captive population to prevent total extinction, as well as to provide a source population for re-introductions. However, there are some obstacles to achieving these goals. The small populations are at risk for inbreeding. Though zoos usually carefully manage breeding with the goal of maintaining genetic diversity, they may be constrained by the amount of genetic variability within the existing captive population, as well as space constraints that limit the amount of animals that can be maintained within the zoo system (for the US, this would be the AZA). Furthermore, while there have been some succesful reintroduction projects, reintroduction is difficult to do (especially for primates and other social animals). This may be because animals may be have lost crucial survival skills, or because of the risks of introducing disease to wild populations.

2)Coordinating and funding field conservation efforts. This is probably the most crucial contribution that zoos make toward conservation. By raising money for field conservation, and funding field projects (or in some cases, coordinating field projects themselves, for example, see Lincoln Park Zoo's conservation projects). In particular, I am a big fan of zoo exhibits that provide a link between their captive animals and their habitat in the wild, and specifically encourage donations toward that end.

1)Zoos seek to educate the general public through informing visitors about conservation crises, and inspiring them to care enough to become involved through donations or other means. Furthermore, they provide education material on specific animals and habitats, to increase visitor's knowledge base about animals and their habitats. Ultimately, the idea is that if people feel a connection or empathy for the animals, they will feel motivated to take greater efforts toward supporting conservation, through moderating their environmental impact, participating in local conservation efforts, and donations to field conservation funds. This is particularly important for children, as they often spear-head family changes--for example, the recycling movement largely grew through schools developing recycling programs, and educating children on the importance of recycling; the kids in turn, encouraged their parents to recycle. Children also represent the next generation of potential conservationists.

1) Zoo populations provide opportunities for many different avenues of research. In particular, the genetic research and management of small populations is crucial for maintaining genetic diversity of zoo populations themselves. However, this research is also helpful in learning to manage and conserve diversity in wild populations, that are often increasingly fragmented and isolated.

2)They provide observation and sampling opportunities for topics that may not be feasible in the wild (for example, projects that require close-range observation, or fecal sampling that may not be possible in the wild--for example, fecal samples collected from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo before and after a stressful experience-a vet exam-are essential to my pilot research).

3)Finally, zoo research is crucial in monitoring the welfare and health of the animal themselves, and in making modifications to promote welfare.

However, while a number of zoos have active research programs, I think that they are often an untapped and underutilized resource. Unfortunately though, gaining permission to conduct research at zoos (even just observational research from public observation areas--gaining access to non-public areas or fecal samples can be even more challenging), often requires jumping through hoops, or having connections within the zoo. This varies widely, but some zoos are not that supportive of facilitating outsider research (as with jobs in the zoo world, having connections within the zoo world often makes a difference).

Happy Earth Day!

In honor of Earth Day, I thought I share a couple pictures from my beautiful forest. The first is of a female spider monkey feeding, and the second is the roots of my favorite ficus tree. Both represent some of the beauty and wonder of the rainforests that we need to conserve. Over the time that I have been doing research in Costa Rica, the status of black-handed (also known as Central American) spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) has declined from vulnerable to endangered. This is likely due to the reduction of habitat, because spider monkeys need large tracts of forest, and are one of the indicators of a large, healthy forest (the forests, in turn rely on spider monkeys for the dispersal of seeds). We need to intensify efforts to conserve and protect tropical forest habitats, if we want to continue to live in a world that can sustain these, and other, beautiful animals in the wild.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Serious monkey business

Click here for a very eloquent explanation of why primates are both fascinating and important to study. Serious Monkey Business is definitely a blog to keep checking out!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Do zoos accomplish their goals?

Marc Bekoff's blog at Psychology Today has a post entitled Zoos and Aquariums do not accomplish what they claim to do. He brings up the issue that animals living in captivity often live compromised lives, and notes that African elephants have shorter lifespans in captivity versus the wild. He addresses a study conducted by the AZA that concluded that zoos were succeeding in their education goals, as well a study critiquing it's conclusions based on methodological issues.

There's a lot of complex issues raised in Bekoff's post that I'd like to address, but unfortunately I'm just about to head off to the AAPAs, so I don't have time. I also have not had a chance to read either of these studies, which I would like to to do. Nonetheless, since it brings up a lot of topics I'd like to tackle in the near, I'd like to outline some of the questions raised, which I hope to explore in future posts.

First, underlying Bekoff's post is the issue of whether it is ethical to keep the animals in captivity. This is an important issue in itself, and it's one I would like to examine in more detail. This, of course, is dependent on 1) the conditions of captivity (which can vary largely), 2) the health and welfare of the animals (which also will vary largely by species), and 3) the benefits of captivity (ie,in this case whether zoos are achieving their goals).

To address the health and welfare of captive animals, in my next post(s), I'd like to examine these questions in detail using two examples, African elephants and spider monkeys (surprise, surprise). While I was originally tempted to use "primates" as a broader category, there's so much variation (consider the space, enrichment, and social requirements needed for chimpanzees, vs. marmosets) that it's probably best just to focus on what I know best, and perhaps just comment how the situation may vary for other primates.

Second, Bekoff's posts is particularly addressing whether zoos are achieving their goals. While his post, and the two studies mentioned, both focus on education, I think we should also consider the other goals of zoos and aquariums: research, conservation, and, (arguably) entertainment. How important are each of these goals? And how are zoos successfully achieving these goals, or how are they falling short of them?

While I hope to address those questions in another post, for now, I'd like to raise some questions to my readers:

1) Do you believe that it is justified to keep wild animals in zoos and aquariums? Do your opinions vary based on taxa considered, or which goals are being achieved?
2) Do you feel that zoos have educated you or otherwise influence you?
3) Out of the three main zoo goals (education, conservation, research), how well do you think zoos address each of these? Are there any particular successes or shortcomings that you are aware of?
4) How does entertainment fit into these goals, and how important is this a consideration? If zoogoers go do the zoo as a recreational activity, are they get anything out of it?

I personally feel that zoos have played an important role in influencing my decision to pursue primatology, my education as a primatologist/behavioral endocrinologist, and in providing opportunities for my own research. Nonetheless, I do think the health and welfare of the animals in captivity should be a top priority, and if zoos cannot provide an adequate environment for a given taxa, we need to reconsider whether it is ethical to keep those animals in captivity. Furthermore, I think that zoos have lofty goals, but we need to critically examine how well they are achieving them, and question if they are really fulfilling their mission. But most importantly, I think that we need to examine these issues, and then, address the hard part: if they are falling short, how can this be remedied? What are the best solutions?

And on that note, I'm off to New Mexico. I'm hoping to visit the Rio Grande Zoo while I'm there, and I'll keep ruminating on these questions while I'm there.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010