Research Summary

Connecting to nature at the zoo: implications for responding to climate change

Connecting Zoo Visitors to Climate Change

Environmental Education Research

Communication of climate change issues has notoriously been difficult due to a high degree of politicization and trouble with making the topic relevant. Zoos and aquariums can address these challenges by presenting climate change as a relevant issue in a politically neutral space. The authors of this study predicted that visiting the zoo would correlate to feeling more connected to nature, which would relate to increased thought, interest, knowledge, and concern for climate change. The authors hypothesized that feeling connected to nature would correlate with having a more liberal political identity, engaging in pro-environmental behaviors, and having higher trust in zoos as sources of information.

To test their predictions, 7,182 visitors to 10 zoos and 5 aquariums were surveyed. Visitors were given one of two surveys, focused either on attitudes or behavior. The attitudes survey included 15 questions from the ‘Six Americas’ study on global warming (Leiserowitz, Maibach, & Light, 2009), an ongoing study about perceptions of the health consequences of global warming and key beliefs held by people living in the United States. The survey also included questions and statements about zoo experiences, connection to animals and nature, and general tendencies toward environmental behavior; for example, “Seeing animals at a zoo or aquarium makes me think about my concern for animals in the wild;” and, “Do you think that global warming is happening?”

The behavior survey contained eight questions related to climate change mitigating behaviors. Additionally, this survey included questions about perceived control over climate change (self-efficacy), trust in the zoo or aquarium as an information source, awareness of climate change threats, sense of connection to animals at the zoo or aquarium, concern over climate change effects, religious and political opinions, and technology use.

Generally, zoo and aquarium visitors reported a moderate level of connection to both nature and zoo/aquarium animals. Those who were members of the zoo or aquarium reported a higher sense of connection, as did people who visited the zoo or aquarium often. People who reported a greater sense of connection also said they had a greater concern for climate change and felt a greater responsibility to take action. Furthermore, zoo and aquarium visitors who felt a greater connection to animals also had higher self-efficacy and a stronger belief in climate change. Individuals who reported a higher connection to nature and animals also tended to identify as more liberal and were more likely to see zoos as trusted information sources.

These results suggest that zoo visits can positively contribute to peoples’ views on climate change by increasing their feeling of connection to animals and nature, and also making nature and climate change relevant. This information is important to consider when designing interpretive signage or exhibits; zoos and aquariums might consider building these experiences to encourage a sense of personal connection.

The Bottom Line

Zoos and aquariums are politically neutral spaces where visitors can form and cultivate connections to nature and wildlife. When surveyed, people who said they visited the zoo or aquarium often, or were zoo or aquarium members, were more likely to feel this sense of connection and generally more concerned about climate change. Furthermore, a higher sense of connection was correlated with several positive cognitive and behavioral feelings toward climate change. These institutions can use this information to curate experiences that increase a sense of connection with animals and nature, thus also increasing concern, interest, and responsibility for broader global issues such as climate change.