Shifting stigmatized perceptions of wild animals using environmental education

Wu, M., Yuan, T. -C., & Liu, C. -C. (2020). Changing stigma on wild animals: a qualitative assessment of urban pupils' pre- and post-lesson drawings. Environmental Education Research, 26, 830 - 848.

A stigma is defined as negative attitudes, beliefs, values, or regards imposed on a particular group. While stigmas are most often associated with people, they can apply to animals as well. For example, though attacks are rare, sharks are widely perceived as threatening and aggressive towards humans. Little research has been conducted that focuses on the stigmatization of wild animals. However, researchers have found that people's stigmas can hinder wildlife conservation efforts because they lead to discriminatory behaviors, the spread of misinformation, restrictions on resources, and cause unwanted benevolence. Environmental education programs designed to address stigmas and correct associated myths may be a helpful tool in destigmatizing wild animals. This study aimed to determine what types of stigmas urban children attach to wild animals and whether an environmental education program designed to address these stigmas was effective.

The study took place at a public elementary school in Taipei, Taiwan. The researchers focused on urban children because they tend to have fewer direct experiences with nature, and since these experiences are often formative for children, researchers wanted to explore the stigmatization of wildlife in this context. One class of 27 sixth-grade students participated. This age group was selected because their developmental stage was appropriate for the study design. Participants attended a 90-minute environmental education (EE) program. They completed a pre-program drawing prompt four weeks before the lesson, and a post-program drawing prompt as homework after the lesson. For both program drawing activities, students were asked to draw and describe a scene involving themselves and wild animals. The EE program itself used a combination of the education and contact approaches to educate students about six local Taiwanese species. The education approach aimed to correct stigmatizing myths by presenting fact-based information, and the contact approach aimed to reduce stigmas through interactions with the stigmatized species. In the study, the education approach was a series of lecture-style modules including games, videos, and short quizzes, and the contact approach was a ten-minute presentation where participants were able to interact with live snakes and learn about their habits. Researchers analyzed pre and post program drawings for common themes.

Four themes were present in the pre-program drawings: physical abuse to wild animals, wild animals as hazards, ignorance of wild animals, and wild animals as pets. Each of these themes was broken down into subthemes for further analysis. Examples, respectively, include students drew a young person killing a snake, lions hurting people, pigs as wild animals, or people feeding dogs.

For the post-lesson results, the researchers established themes that corresponded with those seen in the pre-lesson drawings: not hurting wild animals, not viewing wild animals as hazards, noticing the presence of wild animals, and not regarding wild animals as pets. The researchers found that the post-lesson drawings overwhelmingly did not indicate stigmatized behavior. In fact, almost all students' post-program assessments included the theme that countered their stigmatized behavior. For example, out of the 10 students who drew physical abuse to wild animals in the pre-program drawing, 8 focused on not hurting wild animals in their post-program assessment. A similar pattern was observed for the other themes: 8 out of the 10 participants who originally drew wild animals as hazards did not show wild animals as hazards; all 15 students who initially exhibited ignorance of wild animals included wild animals in their post drawings; and 8 of the 9 participants who drew wild animals as pets drew wild animals in a more natural context. These results showed that the students experienced a shift in perspective and reduced their stigmatizing attitudes and behaviors from the pre-lesson to the post-lesson drawings.

This study had limitations. The researchers designed the program after reviewing the pre-program drawings, which influenced the themes they focused on. Students were also allowed to draw any animals they wanted to, which limited the scope of the lesson to the included animals, leaving out some taxa such as insects. Some participants may not have been able to communicate their thoughts through drawings alone, which may have restricted the themes and results observed. Also, the program included only one class of sixth grade students, which limits the study's generalizability.

These results have implications for those teaching about wild animals. Environmental educators should know their students may have stigmas towards wild animals that their curriculum should address. The education and contact approaches used successfully in this study model methods that can be used in other lessons about wild animals, such as animal role-play games, student contact with live animals, and the drawing reflection activity. The researchers note destigmatizing wild animals can improve human and animal relationships, and therefore push forward environmental education's conservation efforts.

The Bottom Line

<p>Stigmas are often applied to people, but can be associated with animals as well, and can negatively affect wildlife conservation efforts. This study aimed to determine what types of stigmas urban children attach to wild animals, and whether an environmental education (EE) program designed to address these stigmas was effective. Study participants included 27 sixth grade students in Taipei who participated in an EE lesson focused on six local species and completed pre- and post-program drawing assignments. Four themes were revealed in the pre-program drawings: physical abuse to wild animals, wild animals as hazards, ignorance of wild animals, and wild animals as pets. The themes identified in the post-lesson drawings indicated that students experienced a shift in perception from stigmatization to destigmatization, leading the researchers to conclude the EE program was effective in reducing stigmas associated with wild animals. The approaches used in this lesson can be a model for other programs aiming to improve human and wild animal relationships and conservation efforts.</p>

Research Partner