Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

The `Nature Dispositions' of Visitors to Animal Encounter Sites in Australia and New Zealand

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

The `Nature Dispositions' of Visitors to Animal Encounter Sites in Australia and New Zealand

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper analyses the results of a survey of visitors to nine animal encounter sites in Australia and New Zealand to assess whether visitors' orientations to nature are related to the extent of `naturalness' or `authenticity' of the animal encounter. A concept of `nature dispositions' was adapted from Bourdieu's (1984) notion of aesthetic dispositions for this purpose. Visitors' nature dispositions are not simply related to the extent to which the animal encounter is authentic or wild. Rather, tourists' attitudes also reflect the messages of the sites visited, messages embedded either in the site operators' programs or in wider social constructions of animals found there. Visitors to Antarctica and Warrawong have the highest conservation orientation, reflecting the ecotourist orientation of these sites' operators. Visitors to Monkey Mia have the highest moralistic orientation, possibly reflecting the social construction of dolphins as animals with which humans have a close affinity and Monkey Mia as a site which promotes communion with dolphins.

Introduction

Attendance at zoos far exceeds that at professional sporting events; the amount of money spent by pet-owners on their animals exceeds that spent by parents on baby food; and the amount of mail received by the US Congress regarding the protection of animals exceeds that received in relation to Vietnam (Arluke 1993: 5). It is claimed that wildlife programs attract higher audience ratings than soap operas, and natural history books are always high on bestseller lists (Davies 1990: 74). Animals are important to people in the West, but what do they `mean'? This paper focuses on the interpretations of animals(1) and `nature' by visitors to animal encounter destinations, both in the wild and in more zoo-like environments.

In 1994 and 1995 questionnaires were administered to visitors at nine animal encounter sites in Australasia. Animal encounter sites are locations which tourists visit, at least in part, for an interaction with animals. It was hoped that sufficient questionnaires would be distributed (by either rangers or volunteer workers) to produce at least 50 completed questionnaires from each site. At some sites, questionnaires were placed in specially marked boxes; at others they were posted back to the researcher. Because I was relying on the goodwill of workers at each site, the response rate was variable, producing a total useable sample of 384, the numbers from each site being indicated in Table 1.

Table 1: Education and occupation by site

                                     Great
                                   Australian   Seal   Monkey
                      Antarctica     Bight      Bay     Mia

N                         22           11        65      48
% tertiary educated       85           82        49      48
% professional            65           73        37      40
% managerial              20            0         8       6

                      Warrawong   Monarto   Cleland

N                        93         27        45
% tertiary educated      43         33        27
% professional           45         30        25
% managerial              8          4        11

                                  Auckland
                      Currumbin     Zoo      TOTAL

N                        17          56       384
% tertiary educated      24          32        41
% professional           24          27        36
% managerial             12          21        10

The questionnaire tested the hypothesis that visitors to more `authentic' animal encounter sites have different nature dispositions to those visiting more staged animal encounter sites. In fact, the hypothesised relationship is mediated by the different meanings sites had, beyond the issue of whether the site was an authentic or staged encounter site. These meanings were expressed in part by site managers' projects and the interpretative frameworks offered at each site, particularly the extent to which the site pursues an ecotourist orientation. …

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