Conservation education in zoos: a literature review

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DOI: 10.23984/fjhas.66540
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Zoos nowadays often claim that their main objective is nature conservation and that they strive to educate the visitors on this subject. A considerable amount of research has been undertaken on conservation education in zoos. This overview performs a qualitative meta-analysis of the methodology, concepts and results of research articles on zoo visitors, particularly regarding learning, education and conservation. Our main finding is that most of the research uses quantitative methodologies and the qualitative, lived experiences of zoo visits remain under-researched. Based on the articles analyzed, “nature conservation” (the substance of conservation education in zoos) becomes implicitly defined as captive breeding and far-off conservation projects, distancing the visitors and their daily lives from nature and issues of conservation.
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Conservation education in
zoos – a literature review
(Gusset & Dick 2011). Zoos organize
themselves into networks for coopera-
tion, research, certification, monitoring
and development purposes; these net-
works include the Association of Zoos &
Aquariums (AZA), the European Associa-
tion of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the
World Association of Zoos and Aquari-
ums (WAZA). In Europe, the mission of
EAZA is to facilitate cooperation within
the European zoo and aquarium com-
munity towards the goals of education,
research and conservation (www.eaza.
net). In fact, zoos are better conceptu-
alized as a network that circulates and
governs animals and information about
animals (Braverman 2013; 2015).
Zoos have undergone a tran-
sition over the past 40 years, moving
the focus from entertainment to con-
servation-based education (Roe et al
2014; Wijeratne ym. 2014; Bayma 2012;
1 Introduction
Zoos have a very long history: keeping
wild and/or exotic animals captive was al-
ready known in ancient Greek and Roman
times (e.g. Barantay and Hardouin-Fugier
2003; Kisling 2000; Miller 2013). Zoos and
aquaria differ from place to place, but in
general zoos can be understood as areas
designed for the public viewing of animals
(Anderson 1995; 1998). Viewing animals
is usually the main reason for the zoo visit
(Roe & McConney 2015, 879). Thus zoos
can be seen as choreographed and con-
structed places for controlled interaction
between human and non-human animals,
guiding the interaction between the vis-
itors and the captive animals in many
concrete, subtle and practical ways (e.g.
Braverman 2011).
In many of today’s cities, large
areas of land have been designated for
zoos, and annually more than 700 million
people visit zoos and aquaria worldwide
NiNa V. NygreN
Faculty of Management,
University of Tampere
SaNNa Ojalammi
The Nordic Africa Institute /
Research Cooperative Tapaus
trace fiNNiSh jOurNal fOr humaN-aNimal StudieS VOl 4. (2018)
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nygren & ojalammi
Fernandez et al. 2009) to ask if seeing ani-
mals in the flesh contributes to the visitors
becoming more “conservation minded”.
2 Empirical Zoo visitor research and
environmental education
In this review, we look at how the alleged
conservation education in zoos has been
studied in empirical zoo visitor studies.
We have undertaken a qualitative me-
ta-analysis (Zimmer 2006; Evans 2008;
Walsh & Downe 2004) of the empirical
articles on zoo visitors and environmental
education, with a focus on methodology
and the nature of “nature conservation”.
We searched for empirical visitor research
particularly on learning, education and
conservation, and chose 31 articles for
Ballantyne ym. 2007; Patrick et al. 2007)
and this shift is still ongoing. The former
legitimation of zoos as places for view-
ing exotic animals has been increasingly
challenged, and new legitimation claims,
those of education and the conservation
of endangered animals, have been intro-
duced. (Bayma 2012; Beardsworth & Bry-
man 2001, 89; Fennell 2013). These two
are combined in the claim that zoos edu-
cate their visitors on conservation by ex-
hibiting live animals – zoos act not only as
reservoirs of endangered animals but they
also claim to make visitors more “conser-
vation-minded” after their zoo experience
(Fennell 2015; Fernandez et al 2009).
Thus, it is fundamental to the ethics of
keeping animals in zoos (Wijeratne et. al.
2014; Moss & Esson 2013; Fennell 2012;
New signs from the WAZA campaign Biodiversity is us”. Helsinki zoo, April 2016.
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standing and knowledge of actions to
help protect biodiversity had increased
as a result of zoo and aquaria visits (Moss
et al. 2014a). But establishing the leap to
conservation action (behaviour change)
is challenging (Moss et al. 2014a) and
the connection is not simple and linear
(Spannring 2017, 68).
Many have tried to measure the
change that environmental education
in zoos attempts to make. Interestingly
most of these studies use different names
for the change they are trying to meas-
ure: e.g. “pro-environment sentiment”
(Powell & Bullock 2014), “conservation
ethos” (Catibog-Sinha 2008), “conserva-
tion intentions” (Smith & Sutton 2008;
Miller et al. 2013), “conservation minded-
ness” (Powell & Bullock 2014), “conserva-
tion caring” (Skibins & Powell 2013, 530),
“conservation attitudes and behaviour”
(Ballantyne et al. 2007), “environmen-
tal intentions” (Jacobs & Harms 2014)
and “biodiversity literacy” (Moss, Jensen
& Gusset 2014) were mentioned. These
concepts do not necessarily mean the
same thing and there doesn’t seem to
be a consensus on which concept to use.
Jacobs and Harms (2014) provide a slight-
ly broader interpretation (as compared
to many other authors) incorporating
the different, related concepts, and not-
ing that “values, attitudes, knowledge,
norms, awareness of consequences,
feelings of responsibility, and affect and
emotion” are “psychological antecedents
the analysis (see Tabl e 1 at the end). The
list is not meant to be exhaustive but we
have strived to choose the most relevant
articles regarding our research aim. Most
of the articles were published 2007-2016,
but we have included two older articles
since they were widely cited.
The overall evidence that the vis-
itors learn about conservation and biodi-
versity, and even more importantly, that
this learning results in behavioural chang-
es, remains quite weak. Irus Braverman
(2015) notes that the effectiveness of
education in zoos has rarely been tested
through comprehensive studies. A large
study conducted by the AZA (Falk et al.
2007) was heavily criticized because it
was based on self-reporting and did not
directly measure knowledge or behav-
iour changes, and also had other flaws
connected to the difficulty of surveys
and self-reporting in general (Marino, Lil-
ienfeld, Malamud, Nobis & Broglio 2010).
The authors later rejected the critique
(Falk, Heimlich, Vernon & Bronnenkant
2010). In 2012-2015 WAZA collaborated
with researchers and conducted a global
survey of zoo and aquaria visitors where
biodiversity literacy – “biodiversity un-
derstanding and knowledge of actions
to help protect biodiversity” – was eval-
uated. The results were published both in
a report (Moss, Jensen & Gusset 2014a)
and in scientific articles (Moss, Jensen &
Gusset 2014b; 2015; 2016). The report
concludes that both biodiversity under-
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nygren & ojalammi
but straightforward (Smith et al. 2008;
Spannring 2017).
For this reason, much of the re-
search has focused on which aspects of
the zoo visit might make a difference.
Studied variables include naturalness
and interactiveness of the exhibits (e.g.
Swanagan 2000; Ballantyne et al. 2007,
372; Ross et al. 2012; Lukas & Ross 2014),
animal activity and eye contact with the
animals (Powell & Bullock 2014), animal
charisma (Smith & Sutton 2008), inter-
pretation of conservation (by guides)
(Jacobs & Harms 2014) or duration of
stay (Smith & Broad 2008). The post-visit
material has also proved important (e.g.
MacDonald 2015; Wu et al., 2013).
To summarize the empirical re-
sults of the studies mentioned above,
they seem to indicate that the visitor
learns best if
1) s/he is already a “conservation mind-
ed” visitor,
2) the visit takes place in an interactive
and naturalistic setting
3) the animals are active and/or char-
4) there is contact, such as eye contact
with the animal
5) the visit is comparatively longer
6) the social context (such as that of the
classroom) and the post-visit material
support the learning aims of the visit.
of environmental intentions, and by ex-
tension, wildlife conservation intentions.”
The studies also utilize different
methods of empirically operationalizing
the studied change in the analysis. Swan-
agan (2000) uses the evidence of visitors
signing a petition as a sign of commit-
ment to conservation, but mostly self-re-
porting has been in use, as when Powell
and Bullock (2014) ask about the visitors
emotional responses and willingness to
change their behaviour (e.g. change daily
activities or donate to conservation or-
This wide variety of concepts and
operationalizations probably reflects the
fact that measuring learning and tracing
behavioural changes is notoriously diffi-
cult. Learning is not a fast, simple, one-
way process, but complex, slow and inter-
active. Many writers admit that it is not
really possible to study the effects of zoo
visits per se since information and experi-
ence of the visit is processed differently
from individual to individual, depending
on different background knowledge and
attitudes (e.g. Ballantyne et al. 2007,
375). For example, Davidson et al. (2009)
conclude that learning during a student
field trip depends strongly on the soci-
ocultural context of the classroom and
is less dependent on the zoo educator’s
agendas. The most important thing for
the students is the social context – being
with friends. Even if the visitor learns, the
step from learning to action is anything
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Fundraising for snow leopard conservation. Helsinki zoo, January 2016
Snow leopard. Helsinki zoo, January 2016
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nygren & ojalammi
The material and methods vary in the
articles under analysis, but surveys and
self-reporting connected to quantitative
methods are common. The data from
surveys and structured interviews used
for quantitative analysis, however, give
only a narrow view of the different mean-
ings and experiences of zoo visits, and do
not seem a good measure of conserva-
tion education in zoos. We feel that qual-
itative, interpretive analyses of visitor ex-
periences are needed to understand this
aspect better.
3 What is “nature conservation” ?
Environmental and often more specifical-
ly conservation education and learning is
the objective of zoo education, and many
articles strive essentially to measure the
effects of this education. But how does
this volume of research envision nature,
nature conservation and the zoos’ role in
Nature conservation spans a
broad field of practices big and small,
ranging from protected areas to inter-
national conservation agreements, to
zoos and the managing of biodiverse
gardens. Zoos have long advocated their
conservation role as genetic reservoirs
and captive breeding centres, and refu-
gia for species of animals whose natural
habitats are severely threatened (Dickie
et al. 2007), in addition to conservation
education. Some zoos have stronger con-
nections than others to in-situ conserva-
tion (see Gusset & Dick 2010) and many
have developed conservation campaigns
around select species, hoping to raise
public awareness and action for con-
servation among zoo visitors (Skibins &
Powell 2013, 529). The ongoing debate
between “new conservation” and tradi-
tional conservation (see e.g. Braverman
2015a; Gusset & Dick 2010; Soulé 2013)
makes defining conservation even more
difficult: if there is no wilderness and
pristine nature “out there”, what is nature
conservation all about?
Anderson (1995) and Braverman
(2012; 2014) have shown how zoos sepa-
rate humans from other animals and from
non-human nature. Zoos place humans
above and separate from non-human na-
ture, as a threat or a saviour, a learner, a
visitor, a tourist. Braverman concludes
that in zoos the public is educated about
the definition and identity of nature, as
well as the proper human relationship to
this nature. A zoo’s nature is juxtaposed
with modern urban life and it is seen as
a pre-existing entity that “reinforces the
notion of humans and nature as separate
and remote”. (Braverman 2012, 837; also
Braverman 2014; 2015.) “Zoo nature” –
“wild” animals – is portrayed as different
from non-wild nature such as pets but also
as inferior to the in situ nature of conserva-
tion projects. Zoos may separate the visi-
tors from non-human nature, rather than
connect them to it. The articles analyzed
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Perkins 2016). The research cited by Bal-
lantyne et al. (2007, 377) and Smith et
al. (2008, 547) suggests that in general
zoo visitors are already convinced that
conservation problems exist (the only
conservation related information often
provided by zoos), and they would want
to learn about solutions and actions they
can undertake themselves.
2. As a consequence of the above, (in situ)
conservation and endangerment is often
implicitly displayed in the articles as hap-
pening somewhere else, somewhere far
away from the city or country where the
zoo is located.
Zoos have a colonialist history, display-
ing exotic animals (sometimes even hu-
man animals) from faraway countries,
and this heritage is still alive today (An-
derson 1995). Most of the articles do not
take this into consideration at all. As an
exception among the articles studied,
Chalmin-Pui and Perkins (2016) note crit-
ically this same omission in the informa-
tion provided at the London Zoo’s BUGS
3. If visitor post-visit actions were meas-
ured (i.e. asked to self-report), these ac-
tions would appear rather modest (e.g. re-
cycling paper for hawk conservation as in
Smith et al. 2008) when compared to the
seriousness of the biodiversity crisis.
here do not take a critical stance on the
portrayal of nature in the zoos.
The “conservation” or “nature” of
“nature conservation” is often not explic-
itly defined in the articles studied. Implic-
itly, however, they reflect the zoos’ own
narrow view of conservation: zoos are
portrayed as reservoirs and as captive
environments for nonhuman and often
exotic and charismatic animals, involved
in in situ and reintroduction projects.
Examples of this separation in the
articles include the following:
1. Conservation is often implicitly por-
trayed as something that is done by some-
one else, not by the visitors.
This is evident in the way conservation
learning or behaviour changes are meas-
ured: in the surveys, conservation often
means donating money to a conservation
programme or signing a petition. Only oc-
casionally does it mean something more
personal and active, e.g. recycling (Smith
et al. 2008). This also seems to reflect the
expectations of zoos – Roe & McConney
(2014, 876, 881) found that the zoo rep-
resentatives believed their visitors are
least interested in learning about what
they can do themselves to help save the
animals. Some studies address the issue
of connecting visitors’ everyday lives and
the fates of endangered zoo animals (Bal-
lantyne et al. 2007, 377; Roe et al. 2014,
538; Smith et al. 2008; Chalmin-Pui &
In general, however, there seems to be
a move towards more effective actions
such as lifestyle changes as reported in
the more recent literature.
4. The role of human-animal relationships,
specifically the role of emotion and affect
between human and nonhuman animals
is mentioned in a number of articles, but
mostly these are studied quantitatively
and from survey material.
Analysis of the role of non-human animals
in zoo encounters and the relationships
between animal and human individuals
is largely missing. The so-called “animal
turn” is also slowly surfacing in environ-
mental education research (Spannring
2017) and clearly it would also require
more attentive and qualitative research
in zoos (see Ojalammi & Nygren, forth-
4 Conclusions
Our conclusions based on the literature
review are that the studied zoo visitor
literature doesn’t take a critical enough
stance on the zoos’ own conservation
views, which point to a rather narrow
set of practices and to a narrow view of
human-animal relationships. Research
based on surveys and quantitative meth-
ods also give little, if any, room for a di-
versity of meanings concerning zoo visits
and more-than-human practices in zoos.
We believe that more qualitative methods
should be used in visitor studies, and that
it is urgent to widen the view of nature
conservation, human-animal relations
and environmental education in zoos.
This review stems from a project be-
tween the Helsinki zoo and research
cooperative Tapaus. The authors would
like to thank the director of Helsinki zoo,
Sanna Hellström for collaboration. In ad-
dition we would like to thank the editors
for helpful comments and Michael Ow-
ston for checking the language. The pho-
tos have been taken during the collection
of empirical material at the Helsinki zoo
in spring and summer of 2016.
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Reference Object of study Material and methods
1Moss, Jensen & Gusset
knowledge and self-reported
proconservation behaviour
Global survey of zoo visitors
2Moss, Jensen & Gusset
Contribution of zoos and
aquaria to Aichi Biodiversity
Targ e t 1 .
Global survey of zoo visitors
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Table 1. Articles analyzed in this literature review
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nygren & ojalammi
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21 Wagner et. al. 2009 Measuring conservation
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22 Davidson et. al. 2009 Interaction of the agendas and
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and zoo educators
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Grounded theory approach.
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23 Mony & Heimlich
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  • ... Major criticisms of conservation education evaluations that examine changes in knowledge, attitudes, and behavioural intentions warn that: knowledge is a minor factor in predicting whether visitors undertake conservation actions ; changes in intentions do not always translate into actual conservation actions (Ballantyne & Packer, 2005;Smith, Broad, & Weiler, 2008); and that measures of changes in conservation actions are seldom informative about the benefits to wild species or habitats, which are the truer measures of conservation success (Ferraro & Pattanayak, 2006;Hughes, 2013;Smith et al., 2010). While research does repeatedly detect small positive changes in visitor knowledge and attitudes (Khalil & Ardoin, 2011), persistent behaviour changes due to this education, or direct benefits to conservation, are rarely evaluated or confirmed (Nygren & Ojalammi, 2017). For example, recent research has persuasively demonstrated that zoo and aquarium visitors leave with an increased understanding of biodiversity and knowledge of actions to help protect it (Moss, Jensen, & Gusset, 2015), but over a longer time frame it is difficult to attribute persistent changes to the visit (Smith et al., 2008). ...
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    Zoos and public aquaria globally display numerous wild harvested, threatened species. To validate conservation credentials, displays are often associated with research projects, educational interpretation, or conservation-related activities. However, accompanying conservation benefits are rarely assessed. In this study, an approach to evaluate conservation benefits of captive wildlife experiences is modelled by assessing four Australian aquarium displays of the Critically Endangered largetooth sawfish Pristis pristis. Conservation impact scores were calculated for research, education, and conservation-related activities. In a novel approach, sawfish-related education (gaining knowledge, changing attitudes, and intentions to change behaviours) was evaluated using a before and after study design (n = 2 229), and conservation impact scores were calculated using effect sizes. Although visitors to all aquariums demonstrated significant positive attitudinal changes, and at one site gained knowledge, no significant change in behavioural intentions were detected. Educational messages addressing attitudes and behaviours were mostly generalised and untargeted. Formative and ongoing evaluations are needed to develop and maintain targeted and relevant messages. With one exception, research projects and conservation activities were unlikely to contribute substantially to sawfish conservation due to limited support from the aquaria. We recommend that increased support is directed to projects that are targeted towards impactful conservation goals.
  • ... As a part of our research, we reviewed literature on zoo visitors (Nygren & Ojalammi, 2018) and concluded that most studies used quantitative methods and failed to critique the understanding of conservation in conservation education. The fundamental problem with conservation education research in zoos is that zoos create visual spectacles of animals in captive environments and present them as representative of their wild counterparts (c.f., Braverman, 2015;Spannring, 2017). ...
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    The theoretical perspective of this study is to integrate Visitor Environmental Learning (VEL) into the Theory of Planed Behavior (TPB). The Xiangjiang Safari Park, which is one of the largest theme parks in Asia, was selected to test the conceptual model to examine whether Post-Visit Action Resources (PVAR), Ease of Behavior (EB), and Sunk Cost (SC) have the mediate/moderate effect on the relationship between short-term pro-environment intentions and long-term behaviors. The sample consisted of 269 tourists who have travel experience with the Xiangjiang Safari Park. Findings from a Structural Equation Model analysis show that post-visit action resources partially mediate the relationship between tourists’ short-term proenvironmental intentions and behaviors, and that ease of behavior and sunk cost both have moderating effects on this relationship. These findings indicate that a high level of post-visit action resources, ease of behavior and sunk cost are instrumental in encouraging visitors’ pro-environmental intentions to turn into behaviors.
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    There is great benefit in using measures of environmentally significant behaviour - rather than just behavioural intentions or self-reported behaviour - if we are to advance our understanding of the individual and structural factors that influence environmental decision-making. Along these lines, to supplement the use of behavioural intention and self-reported behaviour measures in environmental decision-making research, we identify and validate a simple measure of one form of environmentally significant behaviour: financial support for environmental movement organizations. Using the values-beliefs-norms theoretical framework, we conducted an experiment to examine the performance of this measure of actual behaviour. This behavioural measure meets multiple dimensions of validity - including face, concurrent criterion-related, and construct - as a measure of environmentally significant behaviour in environmental decision-making research. As would be expected, we find that actual donations are smaller than hypothetical donations; hypothetical donations overestimate what would actually be donated by approximately 27%. Also, while environmental beliefs better predict hypothetical donation and willingness to act, key values measures (i.e. biospheric altruism and self-interest) better predict actual donation. We suggest that scholars consider using actual behavioural measures such as the one we test here in future scholarship on environmental decision-making.
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    Zoos potential to facilitate visitor conservation behavior is commonly articulated. Few studies, however, have quantified whether zoos’ conservation messages result in visitors implementing the behavior. To test if zoo conservation messages are adopted at home, I implemented a persuasive communication campaign which advocated keeping cats indoor at night, a behavior that is a potential solution to cats depredating native wildlife. Furthermore, I tested if a public commitment (signing a pledge card) strengthened the relationship between on-site intention to engage in the behavior and actual implementation of the behavior at home. The conservation behavior was included in the twice-daily animal presentations in the amphitheater. A sample of 691 visitors completed a survey as they exited the amphitheater that measured their recall of the conservation behavior and intention to engage in the behavior at home. The last 311 visitors to complete the survey were asked to sign a pledge card which was publicly displayed in the amphitheater. Six weeks after their zoo trip, visitors were contacted and asked if they had implemented the behavior. Recall of the conservation behavior was high (91% for control, 100% for pledge group) and the entire pledge group had implemented the behavior whereas just half (51%) of the control group did. Furthermore, signing the pledge card strengthened the relationship between onsite intention and at home behavior (r = 1.0 of for the pledge group and r = 0.21 for the control group). Overall, the zoo's conservation message was recalled and behavior implemented at home. Zoo Biol. 9999:1–7, 2015. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.