Research Summary

Zoo Visitors' Affective Responses to Observing Animal Behaviors

The Emotional Impact of Zoo Animals

Visitor Studies

Zoos provide unique settings for environmental education. At the zoo, visitors can see charismatic rare and/or endangered animals, and they can experience those animals, and others, in an up-close-and-personal manner. Visitors also have relative freedom to structure their zoo visit how they wish.

Prior research suggests that zoos may serve as important places for learning about biodiversity conservation and inspiring action among visitors. Scholars have proposed that, as visitors encounter animals and their behaviors, they develop an emotional or affective connection to the animal; reflect on the encounter; and may be motivated to adopt environmentally responsible behaviors. Little is known, however, about the circumstances under which this process might occur.

Motivated by this knowledge gap, researchers surveyed visitors to three zoos. They investigated the visitors’ emotional responses to animal behaviors and how visitors made meaning of the experience. The researchers surveyed 717 adult visitors as they exited the giraffe exhibit and African lion exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago; the cheetah exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park; and the red panda exhibit at the Central Park Zoo in New York. The researchers first asked participants about their feelings toward animals, the environment, and conservation actions. Then, the researchers asked about the types of animal behaviors that visitors saw at the exhibit, their emotional responses to that experience, and the meaning they derived from the experience. Visitors answered questions using a scale from 1 to 7. To accommodate differences across sites, the researchers made slight adjustments to the survey. Ultimately, researchers hoped to map the direct and indirect paths from observed animal behavior and visitor predispositions to emotional responses and meaning-making.

The researchers found that, when visitors observed a range of animal behaviors, they reported more positive emotional experiences. Specifically, visitors who reported seeing more active animal behaviors, coming face-to-face with animals, and establishing eye contact with animals were more likely to report feeling positive emotions and engaging in meaning-making through the experience. This positive emotional experience strongly predicted how much the exhibit contributed to the visitors’ understanding of conservation issues. The researchers found similar results across all zoo sites and with different types of animals.

The Bottom Line

Zoos are important environmental education settings, as they facilitate interactions and experiences with animals. Those experiences may foster visitors’ positive emotional connections with animals, improve their understanding of conservation issues, and inspire subsequent conservation behavior. Educators and practitioners wanting to facilitate more meaningful zoo experiences should strive to provide opportunities for visitors to witness a range of active animal behaviors, see the animals up close, and interact firsthand with animals, when possible.