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.

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