Research Summary

How do zoos ‘Talk’to their general visitors? Do visitors ‘Listen’? A mixed method investigation of the communication between modern zoos and their general visitors

Global Study of Zoo Education Communication and Effectiveness

Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Today, most zoos around the world undertake messaging around environmental conservation and conservation-related action. Previous research at zoos has suggested the effectiveness of using a range of communication strategies—such as signage, zookeeper talks, and docents—to deliver these messages to visitors. However, little research has investigated what communication strategies are currently being employed at zoos around the world and whether these strategies are enhancing visitors’ knowledge, motivation, and actual behavioral outcomes. This study aimed to address that research gap by using a two-phased, mixed-methods approach. The project’s first phase used an online survey; and the second phase involved in-depth zoo case studies, which revolved around direct observation and interviews with zoo staff and visitors. Given the near-ubiquitous use of signage at zoos, the case studies also investigated the level to which visitors engaged with exhibit signage.

The results presented in this paper were one part of a larger study on zoo education conducted by the authors. The first phase of the research was comprised of an online questionnaire that was distributed to zoos worldwide. Zoos were recruited to participate through direct email to zoo education associations and contacts listed in the International Zoo Yearbook. In total, staff members from 176 zoos, representing 50 countries, responded. The zoos were categorized geographically into three regions: Asia- Pacific (n=24); Europe, Middle East, and Africa (n=107); and North and South America (n=45). The questionnaire consisted of 62 questions, 7 of which were analyzed for this paper. One key question focused on the types of printed media used (e.g., signs at the animal enclosures, pamphlets/brochures, and/or worksheets). Another key question focused on the types of educational activities offered at the zoo, such as animal feeding demonstrations with verbal presentation, zookeeper talks (other than animal feeding), animal shows, animal contact areas, and/ or docents (volunteer tour guides).

Regarding printed media use at zoos, the findings from the first phase of the study showed that 97% of the participating zoos use signs at animal enclosures. In addition, 72% reported using pamphlets, and 69% use worksheets; 1.5% reported they do not use any signs, pamphlets, or worksheets. Regarding educational activities, 95% of the zoos reported using at least one type of person-to-person education strategy with their visitors. The most frequently offered activities were animal feedings (83%), zookeeper talks (74%), animal contact areas (78%), and docents (74%). The least commonly offered activity was animal shows, which were offered by 54% of zoos; however, animal shows were more commonly used in the Americas (75% of zoos in North and South America).

The second phase of the research involved in-depth case studies at nine of the zoos that had participated in Phase 1 of the project. Two questions were examined in this study, based on the case-study data: (1) How do zoos’ self-reported educational communications compare with direct observation? (2) To what level do general visitors view exhibit signage? The lead author collected data during seven-day visits to each of the zoos. The participating zoos were selected based on geographical location and size. To facilitate data collection from a large number of visitors, only zoos with annual visitation of 500,000 or more guests were considered. In an effort to mirror the proportion of zoos from each of the three geographical regions that responded to the survey, two zoos were selected from the Asia-Pacific region; four were selected from the region that includes Europe, Middle East, and Africa; and three were chosen from the North and South America region.

For the case studies, the authors interviewed 28 staff members across the 9 case study sites. In all cases, the head of education at each zoo was interviewed; in 2 cases, the zoo director was also interviewed. The additional interviews were conducted with both paid and volunteer zoo educators.

The case studies revealed a high degree of consistency between the responses of zoo personnel to the online survey and what the researchers observed during the site visits. Of the few discrepancies found, most involved education communication devices that were observed at the zoo by the researchers but omitted in the survey. In other words, when completing the questionnaire, it was more common for zoo personnel to omit education strategies they were actually employing than to include one that was not observed. Overall, however, the authors concluded that the survey was a relatively reliable representation of the number and type of educational strategies being employed at the zoo.

One of the main findings from the case studies that the authors discuss is the large variation in the quality and quantity of person-to-person education observed at the zoos. In particular, while 95% of the zoos reported using some kind of person-to-person education, upon visiting some of these zoos, the authors found that the educational content or quality of communication device was lacking.

Three of the zoos that reported using animal shows for education, for example, were observed to include very limited educational content in these shows. The animal shows, instead, appeared to be mainly for entertainment.

Another example regarding the varying quality of person-to- person education at the zoos was that only one of the zoos in the case study provided its docents and volunteers with extensive training. Those particular staff and volunteers were able to offer extensive knowledge about the animals on display and were actively engaged with visitors. At some of the other zoos, by contrast, docents were noted to be friendly and approachable, but “lacked even basic knowledge about the animals or facilities within the zoo.” The researchers noted that docents were sometimes observed to act more as crowd control at busy exhibits than as educators.

The lead researcher also conducted interviews with 60 random zoo visitors at each location, for a total of 540 interviews. The researcher selected visitors at random locations deep in each zoo to maximize the likelihood visitors had already spent time at one or more exhibits. The interviews focused on the reading of signage by visitors and, specifically, the researchers asked visitors how many signs they had read at the animal enclosures, based on five scaled options: all, most, half, some, or none.

The results of the visitor interviews showed that 95% of participating visitors read at least some of the exhibit signs. About 5% of visitors reported reading all the signs, 33% of visitors reported reading “most” of the signs, 20% reported reading “half,” 37% read “some,” and 5% read “none.” With the exception of visitors who reported reading all the signs, respondents were asked, “What were the reasons you did not read some of the signs?” Many visitors noted they only read the signs to discover what animal was in the enclosure. The most common reason for not reading all of the signs (33% of responses) was watching animals. Other reasons included insufficient time (14% of responses), already being familiar with the information (13%), difficulty reading or accessing the signs (10%), attending to children (7%), and not finding the animal interesting (6%).

The lead author also made in-person observations of the signage at all the zoos. A wide range in the quality of the signage was noted in terms of educational content, ease of readability (e.g., large enough text), design, and general condition (old/faded or new). The placement of the signs, such as high or low, also made a big difference as to how many people the author observed reading the signs. In particular, at some busy exhibits, signs placed too low and near the front of the exhibit made the verbiage inaccessible to all but a few of the visitors. The authors also noted that the content of signage deserves further research regarding how to best highlight key conservation messages.

The Bottom Line

Zoos worldwide employ a range of educational media for teaching about animals and conservation, including printed media such as signs and brochures, and person-to-person approaches such as zookeeper talks and animal shows. The quality and quantity of these, however, can vary dramatically. This research suggests, in particular, that zoo educators should focus on the quality and effectiveness of educational content included both on signage and also in person-to-person educational strategies. Providing more training to zoo volunteers and docents is also beneficial so they have the knowledge and skills they need to be effective educators at the zoo.