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

By Roe, Katie; McConney, Andrew et al. | Australian Journal of Environmental Education, December 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Roe, Katie, McConney, Andrew, Mansfield, Caroline F., Australian Journal of Environmental Education


Considering our present ecological situation, environmental education is a pertinent tool for addressing environmental change and encouraging sustainable living (Hungerford & Volk, 1990; Keen, 1991; Newhouse, 1990; Patrick, Matthews, Ayres, & Tunnicliffe, 2007). Zoos receive hundreds of millions of visitors each year (Smith, 2013; World Aquarium and Zoo Association [WAZA], 2012) and are typically located within densely populated areas (Packer & Ballantyne, 2010). Given these visitation rates and accessible locations, zoos are a valuable resource, ideally positioned to provide conservation and environmental education to large groups of people (Gutierrez de White & Jacobson, 1994; Hancocks, 2001; Miller et al., 2004; Patrick et al., 2007). However, offering conservation education to such a broad range of people with different entering motivations and personal identities does not necessarily mean that they will engage with the messages being provided (Falk, 2006; Fraser & Sickler, 2008; Morgan & Hodgkinson, 1999; Sommer, 1972).

Within their mission statements, zoos around the globe claim to educate their visitors by promoting conservation action and encouraging visitors to actively contribute to environmental action (Patrick et al., 2007). To determine the validity of these claims, it is important to understand the zoo experience both from the visitor's perspective and in terms of zoos' ability to engage visitors via the various education communications experienced during zoo visits. In short, it seems necessary to understand what types of communications zoos are using today to 'talk' to their visitors and in what ways their visitors 'listen'.

It is well documented that people visit zoos for different reasons (Dierking, Burtnyk, Buchner, & Falk, 2002; Falk et al., 2007; Kellert, 1979; Kohl, 2004; O'Connor, 2010; Peart, 1993; Vernon & Boyle, 2008). Falk (2006) proposed that visitors may be: explorers, facilitators, experience seekers, professional hobbyists or spiritual pilgrims. Vernon and Boyle's (2008) research expanded on Falk's identity-related motivations and found that while most visitors gave multiple identity-related reasons for their visit, almost half gave a single, dominant reason. These authors suggested that zoos explore this further to ensure they offer 'multiple layers of experiences to appeal to the broad array of visitor motivations' (Vernon & Boyle, 2008, p. 9).

Historically, zoos provided visitors with information about animals via a species, or taxonomic sign. Then, during the mid-20th century, to complement the development of naturalistic enclosures, zoos explored the use of interactive educational experiences and basic forms of electronic media, such as push button audio (Anderson, 2003; Peart, 1993; Smith & Broad, 2008). This led to the development of immersive exhibits, which enabled visitors to 'enter' an enclosure and be surrounded by the plants and animals on display (Anderson, 2003; Coe, 1994; Smith & Broad, 2008). Enhanced by soundscapes, lighting, weather effects and sensory stimulation (Larsen, 2002), these holistic environments were designed to motivate visitors into reading signs and learning about the creatures within the exhibit (Anderson, 2003; Coe, 1994; Smith & Broad, 2008). Larsen's (2002) research, however, showed that many visitors did not make the connection between the landscape environment and the animals, highlighting the need for interpretive staff or more effective signage.

More recently, some zoos have invested in purpose-built discovery centres where general visitors, particularly family groups, could touch, observe and ask questions about the animals (White & Marcellini, 1986). Interpretive graphic signs were also created to appeal to family groups, tapping into visitor curiosity, encouraging discussion and free choice learning (Anderson, 2003). Anderson (2003) discussed two successful models employed for interpretive graphic signs: the first type provided answers for anticipated questions (such as Why does that monkey have a purple bottom? …

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