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Zoo review sheds light on visitor learning

22 May 2007

A new report entitled ‘Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium’ has just been produced by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).  The report, from a study to find out if zoos and aquariums successfully promote conservation, results from a three-year, US-wide review of the impacts of a visit to a zoo or aquarium. The researchers found that going to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums in North America has a measurable impact on the conservation attitudes and understanding of adult visitors.

The AZA is using the study results, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and developed through partnerships with the Institute of Learning Innovation (ILI) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to better understand and predict their member institutions' contributions to public understanding of animals and conservation. The findings contribute insights into the overall impact of a zoo or aquarium visit – both immediately and in the months after the visit. They also provide an analysis of how seeing wildlife at these institutions affects the way people think about conservation and their own role in helping protect the environment.

Key Results

  • Visits to accredited zoos and aquariums prompt individuals to reconsider their role in environmental problems and conservation action, and to see themselves as part of the solution.
  • Visitors believe zoos and aquariums play an important role in conservation education and animal care.
  • Visitors believe they experience a stronger connection to nature as a result of their visit.
  • Visitors bring with them a higher-than-expected knowledge about basic ecological concepts. Zoos and aquariums support and reinforce the values and attitudes of the visitor.
  • 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 derive from the experience.

The visitor impact study shows that zoos and aquariums are enhancing public understanding of wildlife and the conservation of the places animals live. The AZA believes these results will help institutions develop even more effective exhibitions and educational programs that help connect people with nature and encourage attitude and behavioral changes that help conservation.

Over a three-year period, more than 5,500 visitors and twelve AZA-accredited institutions participated in the studies. The authors drew on various quantitative and qualitative methods, including written questionnaires, interviews, tracking studies, and Personal Meaning Mapping (PMM), which identified individual changes in visitors' thinking by allowing them to respond to a series of questions prior to and after their visit.

Fifty-four percent of the individuals surveyed offered comments about the elevated awareness of their role in conservation as a direct consequence of their visit. Forty-two percent commented on the important role that zoos and aquariums play in education.

Further research involved calling a subset of the participants seven to eleven months after their visit to determine the impact of the visit over time. Sixty-one percent of visitors were able to talk about what they learned from their previous visit, and 35% reported that the visit reinforced their existing beliefs about conservation, stewardship and love of animals.

Visit the AZA website for more details and to download a copy of the report.

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