Research Summary

The role of zoos in fostering environmental identity

Zoos can encourage social connection centered around environmental identity and animals

Ecopsychology
2011

As loss of species and biodiversity from human impacts increases, conservation efforts are essential. Research has shown that empathetic connections with animals result in an increase in pro-environmental behaviors that can encourage species conservation and protection. Zoos can connect visitors with animals in unique ways because they provide an opportunity for social interactions to take place in an environment centered around animals, and are one of the only places in which people can see certain species. This study explored how zoo exhibits can foster a sense of connection with animals and, consequently, impact visitors’ environmental identity and behaviors.

An individual’s environmental identity is based on the sense of connection that they experience with nature and the recognition of interdependence between humans and the environment. In this study, environmental identity was measured using the environmental identity scale (EID), a survey that was created by the authors in a previous study. A stronger environmental identity has also been linked to a stronger sense of connection and empathy towards animals, which requires a belief that animals’ emotions are similar to human emotions. Through encouraging connection to the animals, the authors believed that visitors would have a stronger sense of environmental identity. The development environmental identity can also be built over time, which makes return visitors (often zoo members) of particular interest in this study.

This research included two studies. The first study took place at four zoos in Cleveland, Ohio; Bronx, New York; Central Park, New York; and Prospect Park, New York. The authors surveyed 514 adult visitors who were in groups in which children outnumbered adults and volunteered to take a survey. The surveys asked participants to rate their emotions and environmental attitudes, as well as the EID scale, before and after visiting an exhibit. The survey data were analyzed using statistics. This survey showed that visitors overall had positive experiences at the exhibit and that environmental identity, pro-environmental behaviors, and environmental concern were all related. The surveys did not show a significant change in attitudes before and after visiting exhibits.

After collecting survey data, the researchers conducted a second study and observed the interactions among visitors while viewing animal exhibits at the Bronx and Cleveland Zoos and recorded them on a written data sheet. The researchers observed 805 separate groups of 2-5 visitors. They noted the nonverbal behavior in 409 groups and the verbal behavior in 396 groups. After collecting observations, the researchers analyzed the data for patterns. The second study provided four conclusions. The first was that visiting the zoo to view animals was a social experience shared through both verbal and non-verbal interactions with others. Second, social interactions were centered around the animal, but were primarily descriptive and not educational. Third, the in-group interactions between visitors at zoo exhibits were positive. And fourth, social experiences often involved defining a relationship between the visitors and the animals. All of these positive experiences contributed to a feeling of empathy towards animals.

From the survey results, the authors found that a perceived similarity with the animals had the greatest correlation with visitors’ environmental identity and interest in environmental protection. The study also found that zoo members had significantly higher concern for animals and a higher degree of affinity for environmental identity than non-zoo members. Based on this result, it can be argued that more zoo visits over time resulted in greater concern for animals and greater environmental identity. However, it was unclear whether greater environmental identity is a result of more zoo visits as a member or if people with greater environmental identity are simply more likely to purchase a zoo membership. Participants’ environmental attitudes did not differ significantly before and after visiting an individual exhibit, rather they varied across exhibits. The authors believed that this could be because visitors may view different exhibits or the exhibits evoked varying attitudes in each participant.

The authors used the observational data to explore how participants were expressing a relationship to the animals that could help explain environmental identity differences seen in the survey results. From the observational data, the researchers found that the most common reactions to animals were gestures pointing out the animals, verbal cues toward the animals, and positive comments about the animals. These results support the hypothesis that visiting the zoo exhibits increases empathy for and connection to the animals that potentially caused the zoo members to have a higher survey score in environmental identity than non-members.

This study is limited to the participating zoos; similar research at other zoos may produce different results. In addition, the authors believed that it have been more effective to have entry and exit surveys for the entire zoo visit rather than only specific exhibits. Since visitors may have started identifying with the animals before reaching the exhibit being observed, a survey administered before and after the zoo visit might have produced more meaningful results.

Based on the findings in these two studies, the researchers recommend that zoos wishing to increase visitors’ environmental identity and interest in protecting the animals should pursue methods of fostering a sense of connection to the animals in their exhibits. This connection can be achieved through creating positive social experiences at the zoo, and signage at exhibits can help visitors feel connected with animals by pointing out similarities to human behavior and anatomy. The authors encourage further investigation into how to zoos create and evaluate exhibits that create a sense of connection to animals.

The Bottom Line

A strong connection with animals can increase environmental identity, which may lead to conservation action. The authors conducted two studies to measure how zoo exhibits foster this connection with animals. In the first study, a total of 514 adults were surveyed at the four zoos to measure environmental attitudes before and after visiting a zoo exhibit. Zoo visitors who related to the animals were significantly correlated with a higher environmental identity and interest in conservation. In the second study, the researchers observed 805 visitor groups viewing an exhibit in two zoos. This study concluded that participants visited the zoo primarily for a social interaction centered around connections to the animals. Overall, personal and social connections to the animal were correlated with greater environmental identity. The researchers recommend that zoos foster connections with animals in order to increase environmental identity among zoo visitors.