Can you worry about an animal you’ve never seen? The role of the zoo in education and conservation.

Update: twitter readers have contributed cases where captive breeding programs have saved species from extinction, and have (or are in the process of) released animals back to the wild. Many zoos also hold the last remaining animals of their species. Examples of successful conservation cases include (but are not limited to): Ozark hellbender: salamander, Houston toad, Kihansi spray toad, Socorro doves, Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon, Arnold’s giant tortoise, California condor, and the previously mentioned golden lion tamarin and  black-footed ferret.

“He had black fur and a horn on his head,” my sister said. She came to DC for a few weeks and spent many afternoons visiting our local zoo. After one of those visits,  she hurried to Google Chat to report that a big tall bird was chasing her behind the fence of his enclosure. My sister described the bird as having long fur-like feathers and a horn. She has never seen anything like that before and was genuinely curious. She was familiar with the belligerent bird’s neighbors, the rheas (ratite birds like ostriches and extinct moas). Rheas are native to South America, as are we, and we’ve seen them before while growing up in south Brazil. “Mystery bird” was about to become a perfect example of zoo education.

Rhea at the National Zoo. Photo credit: Rory Harper.

What justifies the existence of zoos? Questioning the goals of zoos.
The role of the zoo has evolved to prioritize research, education, and conservation. Some people still condemn the existence of zoos based on zoo’s past life of pure entertainment. It is true that zoos started as menageries and amusement parks, but they have come a long way since the late 1800s. Currently, laws protect wild animals and guarantee their welfare (e.g., Animal Welfare Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act). Accreditation bodies make sure zoos and aquariums offer great care for their animals.

The field of animal research  benefits from zoo experience. Zoo keepers, researchers, and vets have learned a lot about animal care as zoos evolved. Improvements in husbandry have led to increased longevity of animals in captivity. In his book At Home in the Zoo, published in 1961 and covering the previous thirty years on the Manchester Zoo, Gerald Iles mentions that “animals which were once either difficult or impossible to keep in captivity are not only thriving but breeding. Longevity records are constantly being broken.”

Zoos have an essential role in conservation. Back in the 60’s, Iles already said that “…the animals of Africa have been reduced by 80% within the last hundred years… and 600 species of animals are tottering on the brink of extinction.” Currently, zoos have their own breeding programs to help in cases of dwindling populations. All efforts in captive breeding have led to increased research. Like author Jake Page put it, “many zoos have become places of rigorous scientific research… coupled with an active effort not just to preserve in captivity those creatures that are endangered in the wild, but… to understand, save, and replenish unique natural habitats.” Besides breeding endangered animals (e.g. the successful golden lion tamarin breeding program, or the black-footed ferret breeding program), zoos are also investing in displaying less popular animals.

Still, there are many people and organizations out there who dislike or choose not to believe in this new role of the zoo. People like Peter Batten, who in his book Living Trophies states that “primary reasons for zoo use are only remotely connected with learning.”

Do Zoos actually educate?
A study at the Edinburgh Zoo tracks visitors who enter a primate exhibit ‘Living Links to Human Evolution Research Centre’ in the Edinburgh Zoo. The exhibit is outfitted with a behavioral research center, and on many occasions researchers are present and working with the primates. The study aimed to determine if watching the researchers had any impact on visitor experience.

Behavioral researchers at Primate Research Center, Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Bowler, 2012

The study followed visitors and measured their dwell time in the primate exhibit, in the presence and absence of primate researchers. They found that visitor dwell time increased in correlation to presence of researchers. Bowler and colleagues claim that “…parents were often seen explaining the research to their children … what was happening in the research room.” But are visitors simply drawn by the “activity” (as opposed to passive viewing)? How do we know if the research observation is translated in education?

Another study aimed to identify the effect of animal demonstrations and of interpreters (the docent equivalent in zoos and aquariums). With a similar approach, Anderson et al. followed visitors and measured dwell time on Zoo Atlanta’s Asian small-clawed otter exhibit. In this study, researchers also surveyed visitors before and after they entered the exhibit. The survey attempted to find out if visitors’ perceptions of otters changed after their visit. Did they actually learn?

Zookeepers and interpreters were present in the otter exhibit. They talked to the public about the otters, and showed their natural behaviors through demonstrations (see section about demonstrations below). Some visitors were offered a sea otter demonstration, a demonstration accompanied by interpretation (albeit read from a script), and some were not offered demonstration or interpretation (i.e. signs only). The study attempted to measure the effects of interpreters, animal demonstrations, and signs on visitor learning. They determined that the visitors spent an average of two minutes  passively strolling the exhibit (i.e. with signs only and no human presence), compared with six minutes when animal demonstration was taking place, and eight minutes for animal demonstration plus interpreter. The survey results indicate that visitors preferred to watch the demonstrations. By comparing pre- and post-visit questionnaires, researchers believe that “visitors attending an animal demonstration retained large amounts of the content material weeks after having attended the animal demonstration.”

sea lion and keeper in the training demonstration. Keeper has a whistle and a bucket of fish for rewards. Sea lion is rewarded when she shows her flipper for inspection (for example, during a vet exam). Photo credit: Rory Harper.

Aren’t animal demonstrations just entertainment in disguise?

Most zoos offer animal demonstrations. I had a chance to watch sea lions on their training sessions. The zookeepers bring two of the animals out, while the public lines up to watch. The demonstration is in fact a training session for the sea lions: keepers reward the animals for certain behaviors, like rolling over, exposing their fins, allowing themselves to be petted. The sea lions receive rewards of fish and squid after they allow the keepers to treat them with eye drops, or rub their flippers. The goal of this training is not to amuse visitors, but to facilitate animal care. You can’t force a 500 lb marine animal to roll over to ultrasound their abdomen. The training counts on voluntary animal participation and proves very effective for animal care and also for their mental stimulation.

Besides, it is a great opportunity for science education and for spreading a message of conservation. The keepers talk to the public about sea lions in their natural habitat, their anatomy, their innate differences from seals. They also mention that the two older sea lions at the zoo were rescued from the wild as pups when their mothers died as result of sea contaminants. The image of helpless orphaned sea lion pups in a polluted sea is a powerful one.

Zoo keeper puts eye drops in sea lion’s eyes. Sea lion is rewarded with fish for complying. Photo by Rory Harper.

Educating by creating affective connections.

Jake Page mentioned that an affective connection with animals greatly helps conservation:  “It is difficult to be concerned about the fate of an animal you have never seen. Even a two-dimensional film representation of an animal does not have anywhere near the same effect as seeing one in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it. The usual response to such a real-life sight – whether in a zoo or in the wild – is emotional.” Gerald Iles points to an extra benefit of zoo animals to education. According to Iles, animals are individuals with personalities, and allowing the public to see that will have an impact in their emotion: “the public, visiting a zoo, sees many kinds of animal. Each species conform to a set pattern, often based on facts gleaned at school. Elephants are just elephants; lions are just lions; bears are just bears. What the visitor often does not realize is that each animal is also an individual…all my zoo elephants were different from each other, and each one leaves me with a different memory.” Another study reported on the “the positive effects of zoos on students cognitive and affective characteristics.”  As we’ve been saying here on Sci-Ed, education can be maximized if there is an affective connection between learner and object: it’s a moa at the mall, a marching penguin, and stumbling on learning opportunities.

Zoo critics will always exist. Many advocate for phasing out zoos, while offering no suggestion for what to do with the newly-homeless animals. They even disapprove of the role of zoos in education. Peter Batten, the incredulous zoo critic, believes that “the zoo’s contribution to education is minimal, … and most people show no more than casual curiosity about its animals.” As evidence for visitor’s disregard for animals or for learning, he cites “years of hearing visitors call cassowaries ‘peacocks’, toucans ‘fruitloops’, tigers ‘lions’, and otters ‘beavers.’”

At the zoo I’ve heard visitors call an ape “monkey,” and a rhea “ostrich.” It still does not change my belief that correct terminology is not necessarily an indicator of people’s attachment to the animals. Visitors are not expected to arrive at the zoo knowing the names and species of all animals in its collection. And I’m sure they are leaving the zoo with more information than before they walked in. In fact, my sister saw the “black bird with a horn” (or what Batten’s visitors called a “peacock”) but left the zoo with the knowledge of a new animal. I’m sure she won’t forget the rare sighting of the endangered cassowary. That’s an animal only found deep in New Guinea jungles, or in zoo conservation programs, where it helps researchers and visitors alike marvel at nature.

Mystery bird, the cassowary at the zoo. Photo by Rory Harper.

1. Anderson U, Kelling A, Pressley-Keough R, Bloomsmith M, Mapple T (2003) Enhancing the zoo visitor’s experience by public animal training and oral interpretation at an otter exhibit.  Environment and behavior, Vol. 35 No. 6, 826-841
2. Bowler MT, Buchanan-Smith HM, Whiten A (2012) Assessing Public Engagement with Science in a University Primate Research Centre in a National Zoo. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34505.
3. Frynta D, Lisˇkova´ S, Bu¨ ltmann S, Burda H (2010) Being Attractive Brings Advantages: The Case of Parrot Species in Captivity. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12568.
4. Kalof L, Zammit-Lucia J, Kelly J (2011) The Meaning of Animal Portraiture in a Museum Setting: Implications for Conservation. Organization Environment
5. Yavuz et al. Science and technology teachers’ opinions regarding the usage of zoos in science teaching. The online journal of new horizons in education, volume 2, issue 4, 2011
6. Whitworth AW (2012) An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendances in UK Zoos. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29839.

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64 Responses to Can you worry about an animal you’ve never seen? The role of the zoo in education and conservation.

  1. Pingback: Links Relating to Zoos | Filter Blog

  2. Kiera Gavegan says:

    Cassowaries are NOT only found in “the deep forests of New Guinea”. They are also native to Northern Queensland in Australia, the state that I currently call home. Steve Irwin’s father- having been ostracised from his own zoo by his selfish, money-hungry cow of a daughter-in-law, is currently doing great things for the conservation of this beautiful but dangerous bird up there on the Cassowary Coast. I also get pissed when people call animals the wrong names, also don’t do their research for their articles properly!

  3. wondering article thanks.and keep shared like this.

  4. B. Szasz says:

    As for zoos and conservation, on Oct. 4, and initiated by the highly-respected David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the Kenyan elephant orphanage, large marches were held in over 40 cities world-wide., to highlight the need to stop poaching and the ivory trade. At least 1/2 a million people came out.
    And world-wide, only THREE zoos publicly supported this effort. I guess they were paying Dame Daphne back, for her statement that “What you see in a zoo is not an elephant, what you see is a tragedy”

  5. Arthur says:

    Truely, the Zoo is not the way, the way is the protection of the ecosystems, the governments are responsible because they decide their fate, we are responsible because we grow more and more in population and we need to exploit natural resources to hold our needs.

  6. chloe says:

    SAVE the Polar bears because if we bring them to our zoos because of global warming then their going to die. the polar bears are fine just how they are for now. Polar bears live in a very specific habitat. they need the cold,snow and ice of the polar reions.that is why they are called polar bears instead of summer bears.also polar bears are at the top of the food chain and there are no other animals in the north that will threaten the polar bears. so why are they on the threatend/endangered species list? they are on the list for two main reasons. and that is because of how we as humans treat the enviorment and because bioligist think we should bring the polar bears to the zoos because of global warming which they think is going to happen in 2050. but that is soooo long from now so they are making the wrong decision!!!! so please help me make my statement on this one!!
    tell me what you think by emailing me at

  7. rosa says:

    okay people who is reading my comment!!!!!!!! but anyways i just want you to know that the animals in the zoo are not taking good care. they got the Animals from the wild and they dont treat them good care. that my opoion on that. I know that they have zoos for the kids and other poeople to show them how the animals have for living.
    ( IF you have a question please leave a comment)

  8. Mara says:

    Lori Marino,
    You mentioned that there is no scientific peer-reviewed support for the claim that visiting zoo displays are educational in any meaningful sense of the word.
    So, what can you say about this research:

  9. BSzasz says:

    We know the average zoo visitor spends 2 minutes or less at an exhibit. It is claimed that if you add a demonstration, or have an interpreter or keeper present, that this time is increased, and more learning happens. I’d like to add, the time is increased by exactly how long the demonstration lasts, and then, possibly, if the visitor runs to the other end of the zoo, they may see another show. But, for 95% of the exhibits, there will be no staff of any kind present.
    The demonstrations show you how and what the animal eats in captivity. The training sessions show you what behaviours are taught so that the animal can better be kept in captivity. We may be told facts about these animals, but what we see is not a wild animal, an animal going about its life as it does in the wild.
    I don’t believe affective connections happen at all., except possibly between the keepers and their charges. No one gets to know an individual animal. In my city, no one knew the names of the elephants, much less were able to differentiate them, until the controversy of moving them to a sanctuary started information flowing.
    I contrast this with the many thousands of people all over the world who loved Echo, the elephant of Amboseli, because of books and films made by the true field researchers ( And I think about the huge amount of zoo research into A.I., hormonal levels, anti-viral and anti-TB medications , etc. for animals that breed just fine in the wild, and are suffering captivity-induced illnesses ). Many people still follow the activities of Echo’s family, and have learned an immense amount about elephant society because of it.
    The advent of live streaming and “wild cams” is a game-changer. There are huge communities of people, of all ages, who watch these interactive cams, and chat in real time about the animals, and become able to identify and love the creatures they see.
    Just minutes ago, a young man posted on fb a screen capture of “Rudi”, one of the Tembe tuskers – having a mud bath, right now. People not only can identify the individual bulls, they’re learning about bull societies, natural behaviour AND they’re becoming attached. Isilo, the boss bull of Tembe, has a facebook page with over 3,400 followers. People cheer when he appears – and EVERYONE wants to protect him. That’s attachment and education!
    I think most people would agree that San Diego Zoo has one of the best elephant exhibits, and it happens to have one of the best cams for watching them. But what you see are bored, listless creatures, who spend a lot of time looking at the trees they can’t touch, and the mountains they can’t go near.
    Zoos need to redefine themselves – and adjust to the fact that, in many ways, they aren’t needed anymore.

    • Melissa S says:

      They “aren’t needed anymore” because you’ve declared that a fanbase for one elephant is sufficient in education everyone? I find that idiotic. The things you’ve described are positive ways to enhance the relationship of children with animals, but they aren’t the ONLY way. No child wants to be denied the opportunity to actually SEE these animals, and I bet you that many of those fans of Echo had that great opportunity which enhanced their interest in the animal from the start. And some zoos even offer programs where children can learn about caring for animals and touch them. A few storybooks alone and viral success for single species are not enough. But I’d expect your opinion given your incorrect view that all zoo animals are ‘listless and bored’ which seems to originate from an animal rights mindset.

      • B.Szasz says:

        It’s interesting, the level of hostility that arises when some people believe that nothing should interfere with their “right” to see whatever animal they want, whenever they want. ( I would say that 99.9% of the people interested in Echo and her family never saw her in person. ). You DO know that zoo animals spend all the hours that a zoo is closed confined in their concrete cages? If you cannot see the difference between the complete boredom of a zoo animal, in a sterile environment, and the purposeful activities of a wild animal, then that is very sad, for them and you. It is your choice – if you think your two minutes of viewing of an animal is worth a lifetime’s confinement for them, it is clear whose interests come first – and it’s not theirs.

        • Cory Gross says:

          “It’s interesting, the level of hostility that arises when some people believe that nothing should interfere with their “right” to see whatever animal they want, whenever they want.”

          And, inversely, the hostility that arises from animal crusaders who are full of sympathetic, romantic opinions about animals but little in the way of hard facts about zoo management.

          “You DO know that zoo animals spend all the hours that a zoo is closed confined in their concrete cages?”

          Actually that’s not true. Individual policy varies from zoo to zoo, but I’ve been in zoos after hours and generally speaking the animals are no more confined than they were during daytime.

          “the purposeful activities of a wild animal”

          You mean living their lives in constant terror on the verge of starvation and death? Don’t romanticize life in a state of nature… Animals in the wild are not on recreational camping trips.

          • Cory Gross says:


            Saying “you are a member of the zoo industry, and therefore your stance is to your own economic advantage” is not a rebuttal to anything I said. You are factually incorrect about the treatment of animals in zoos, regardless of whether or not I now or have ever worked in a zoo. Your rhetorical question about putting a human in solitary confinement is an irrelevant non sequitur, because we’re not talking about putting humans in solitary confinement. We’re talking about the treatment of animals in zoos.

            I’ve noticed that you have a nasty tendency to make emotional arguments that over-anthropomorphize animals on the one hand an dehumanize people on the other.

        • Melissa S says:

          What a stupid, pretentious reply. You are dumber than I thought if you are surprised at my ‘hostility’, as you and your ilk think they can try and destroy zoos and ban pets, killing jobs and dreams on top of all that. I know plenty about zoos. You are making invalid generalizations about all of them. I could begin to argue that many zoo animals are healthy, well adjusted, cared for and happy, which they are, but the fact of the matter they do NOT have rights. I don’t care if that doesn’t sound very Disney or PC. If we can eat them, we CERTAINLY can care for them in captivity. I find it silly that people of your ilk would like to focus on undermining one of the few places that link humans with wildlife. Don’t give me more BS about ‘echo’, which I’ve never heard of. There are other animals in the world besides charismatic elephants.

          • BSzasz says:

            Well, Cory Gross, it is obvious from your statements about after hours at zoos and “the hard facts about zoo management”, that you are a member of the zoo industry, and therefore your stance is to your own economic advantage. I expected that the “safer in zoos” argument would appear – that’s like saying it’s safer in solitary confinement – how many people would chose that? ( Remembering that we ARE animals ).
            And Melissa S., you gain no respect from being abusive. I said “Zoos need to redefine themselves . . ” I said NOTHING about destroying zoos, banning pets, animal rights, or, for that matter, anything derogatory about either of you. Excuse my focus on the charismatic elephants – but their suffering in zoos has been some of worst. I’m sure EVERYONE loves the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphan elephants, right? Well, I agree with Dame Daphne – “An elephant in a zoo is not an elephant, it is a tragedy” Help the black-footed ferrets – do what you do best – don’t put me down because I’m trying to KEEP animals wild and free – by saving habitat, not by helping zoos spend ten’s of millions of dollars on exhibits when the same investment in the wild would save whole species and habitats.

        • Melissa S says:

          Zoos need to redefine themselves alright. According to you, they should become a museum of bones and stuffed plushies. You are not objective in your statements, and I don’t seek your “respect”. I just want anyone who may happen to be reading to know they are dealing with an ideology-driven, non-compromising, zealot, that’s all– applying human rationale to that of simple animals, and being under the belief that unless they are free they are miserable in all circumstances. Do not pretend that you would be accepting of any form of animal captivity–your mind is made up. And fyi, zoos do not have magic money to give to conservation efforts, without donations from zoo attendance. People pay to see elephants, giraffes, dolphins, ect…a zoo full of black-footed ferrets would never elicit the same response.

  10. B. Szasz says:

    The species pointed as conserved by zoos are small to tiny creatures – toads, tamarins, ferrets ( excepting birds – which are generally not conserved in situ, or in public view). Species like elephants and orcas, in fact, lose population in zoos. Species like tigers or lions, relatively easy to breed in captivity, have not the skills to be re-introduced, without a huge effort, if at all.
    If the average zoo patron spends less than 2 minutes at an exhibit, that means that only those exhibits with both interpreters and demonstrators present are said to have achieved anything. If an average of 90% of the exhibits do not have that staff present, at the time a visitor is there, where is the gain? How many people have run across the width of a zoo to get from one demonstration to another? How many people don’t see any?
    I’d say 95% of the visitors to our world-class zoo do not even know the names of the elephants, much less be able to differentiate the individuals. The ONLY way to learn anything was to appear at the once-a-day keepers’ talk – there is nothing but generic info is online. The huge controversy about retiring the elephants to a sanctuary is what taught anyone anything significant about those elephants.
    I contrast this with the devotion people have to Echo the elephant, of Amboseli, because of the books and films. The same devotion to say, Dulary at the Tennessee sanctuary because of the web cams and videos. Or Isilo, Tembe’s pride and joy, on wildlife cam. The knowledge gained about WILD behaviour is striking – the interest is continuing.
    We have that technology – we don’t have to condemn sentient animals to lives of sensory deprivation and boredom. Zoos need to understand – more and more people are learning that there is no joy in watching a lethargic, bored creature.

  11. Moos says:

    I would like to congratulate you with this well-written blog about the role zoos can play with regard to education and conservation. Personally I think that most of the zoos’ education or perhaps better put ‘the education provide by most zoos’ is a bit infantile and too much focused on children. It is about time that zoos will promote themselves as education and conservation institutes by addressing the various individuals that visit their premises. This means that the information provided should be diverse and provides more (scientific) depth when it addresses adults.
    Your blog deserves a broader audience I think, so I posted it on my own website. Many thanks for sharing your thought with us.

    • Lori Marino says:

      Dear Moos: I appreciate the sentiment that zoos should plays a major role in education and conservation. After all, they advertise themselves to be places for both of these to occur. But as I mentioned in my comment, I have done research on the educational claims of the zoo and aquarium industry, published papers on this point and presented this work at numerous professional conferences and can tell you unequivocally that there is no scientific peer-reviewed support for the claim that visiting zoo displays are educational in any meaningful sense of the word. The evidence just isn’t there. The problem is that the surveys and polls that the zoo industry conducts to make the claim are either too methodologically flawed to support that claim or do not directly assess education and attitude change. They assess what people “believe” they’ve learned but not actually what they’ve learned. None of the polls show any long-term retention of information on the animals or evidence that seeing the animals in a display has led to substantive conservation efforts. Again, the evidence doesn’t exist. So while your points about broadening the audience and diversifying the “educational” opportunities are well taken, they are premature because there first needs to be some evidence that animal displays are educational for anyone. Thanks.

      • Thank you both for your comments. In my post I’d like to stay within the topic of education, and I mention some peer-reviewed papers in that subject. I’d gladly read the ones you point out, please feel free to leave the links!

      • Moos says:

        Dear Lori, thanks for your response. The fact that you say there is no scientific peer reviewed support for the educational results claimed by zoos, does this mean that the claim zoos make is based on not-so-good methods to prove this claim (which you say you have researched) or is there also research with a scientifically sound method that proves that there is no educational worthwhile result. As these are two different things, aren’t they. You can prove that something has been done wrong but that does not prove that the claim is wrong. Don’t take this the wrong way, I just want to understand correctly what you say. So, I would like to second the question of Cristina about the peer reviewed papers you mention. Glad to read them. Many thanks

  12. GoddessReborn says:

    A man I know once said “zoos do not SAVE animals from extinction, but because of zoos, many animals are SAFE from extinction”. I think how true and tragic those words really are when I hear arguments like this. The purpose of zoos is to bring the public closer and gain a better appreciation for these magnificent animals with which we share our world. Can you learn about these animals from a textbook or a video online? Yes. But this isn’t just about learning, it’s about the impact of the experience. I actually witnessed the comparisons in two very different scenarios. Both were children roughly 10-12 years of age. One was at a marine life park, the other on a whale watching tour. The kids who watched the killer whale show and got splashed by the whale came back to their parents soaking wet, exclaiming “THAT WAS COOL!” After a two hour tour on the water, watching a pod of killer whales for 30 minutes, and keeping our distance of 400 yards or whatever is the law, a parent asked her child how he liked the trip. He shrugged and went “yeah, it was cool.”
    So, while both experienced the same animal, and learned the same things about each animal, let me ask a hypothetical question. If you were to tell each of those kids about how they could help protect orcas in the wild, which one do you think would be more inclined to act in a positive way to help protect orcas and other marine animals?
    THAT is why zoos exist. Because moments like that happen every single day at a zoo. A life is changed, and the world is instantly made better because of it.
    Another good friend once said, and I beleive it is so poignant, “everyone talks about making a better planet for our children. Why don’t we make better children for our planet?” That is the type of message I see taken away from visiting a zoo. People want to do better, and be better for the planet.
    Why is that such a horrible thing for zoos to strive to achieve? Why can’t they utilize their animals in entertaining and fun ways to bring their message across? What’s wrong with that? Do you really belive that nature shows show every boring detail about animals’ lives? Or do they show interesting, heart racing scenes to get an audience? Why is that okay for TV, but not for zoos? It’s okay for a film crew to harass a wild animal for months and months to get 1 hour of footage, but to utilize animals raised around humans to get the same message across, that’s horrible.
    I will stay with the zoo, thank you.

    • My point on this post is that by creating an affective connection with an animal, people (and children) will be more likely to engage in conservation. Which you reiterated on your comment.

      I support well-regulated, serious zoos, but I don’t support the orca shows (which happen mainly in theme parks and not on zoos). I’m also ambivalent about other cetaceans and apes in captivity. It is a very tricky situation though: how to successfully release such animals into the wild? Where to house injured animals?

      I don’t think there is a perfect solution in any situation, and we should strive for a balance, no the extremes.

      • Lori Marino says:

        Dear Christina – I wish it were the case that seeing animals in zoos promotes an affective connection that results in increased conservation. That “equation” seems to make sense except that there is no evidence for it. Consider the exception of dinosaurs. No child has ever seen or touched a dinosaur and yet they are beloved throughout the world. This point shows that there are other effective ways for an affective connection to be made than through captivity.

        • I just want to point out that the dinosaur analogy is a little off: dinosaurs are already extinct, so there is no way to measure the conservation efforts by adults or children who love dinosaurs. It is easy to love animals (dinosaurs, penguins, etc), but to actively do something about their conservation is something else. We need to do a lot more for conservation of species.

          In this post my goal was to discuss education. Other issues are much more complex (and beyond the scope of this blog, which is about science education). Besides, I strongly believe there is no perfect solution in either extreme.

          • Lori Marino says:

            The dinosaur example shows that children can develop an affective connection to an animal that they’ve never seen. I think that is relevant. However, it is true that we don’t know if that would translate into conservation on the part of dinosaurs if they were alive. Point taken. But the fact remains that there is still no evidence for the claim that seeing an animal in captivity leads to conservation of any sort.

        • Cory Gross says:

          I apologise for the belated reply, but I just came across this article today…

          Dinosaurs are a particular case that does not translate easily into an analogy to live animals.

          First of all, I would point out that many children around the world HAVE seen and touched real dinosaurs by virtue of museums displaying their fossils. There is a real, multisensory experience of dinosaurs that is accessible to people that does spark further lifelong interest in those with the disposition towards it. Love for dinosaurs is not ONLY based on media representations.

          However, dinosaurs have also enjoyed a media presence that not only is not enjoyed by living animals today, but OUGHT NOT to be enjoyed by living animals today. The overriding media narrative about dinosaurs is “Jurassic Park” and the preceding century of movies in which dinosaurs are the violent, bloodthirsty modern scientific replacement for mythic dragons. Learning about dinosaurs as real animals occupying real ecosystems is always secondary to the immediate emotional impact of seeing T. rex terrorize everything around it.

          Dinosaurs also have an inherent fascination because they already are extinct. People are often interested in things because they no longer exist, be they dinosaurs or ancient Egypt or the Titanic or what have you. This option isn’t open to sparking interest in living animals. We have to engender an interest in and concern for animals that, so far as most people are concerned, are merely “normal.” At least, they are “normal” until they get to see these things first-hand and make a connection with them.

          Several times you’ve brought up the lack of peer-reviewed scientific literature on the effect zoos have on education. That does not mean they do not have an effect: that simply means the effect has not been reliably quantified. Qualitatively, those of us working in the museums and heritage field know this to be true.

          I work in the field in a city large enough to have a sizable arts/culture museum and a zoo, but small enough that by virtue of working at both I am frequently recognized by kids all over. When I meet a child who recognizes me, I always ask them where they saw me and what program I taught them, and I start quizzing them on the key messaging. So far, I have a 100% success rate in retention of that key messaging. Just today I met a girl who recited to me, almost verbatim, the narrative conservation messaging we have about one of our animals.

          We all have stories like this. Anecdotally we know that people ARE learning things. That study of how they retain more if they have engagement with an interpreter and real objects is one of those moments where you had to wonder why they would bother to study something so obviously, intuitively and experientially true. Yes you have to get used to people using an animal’s Disney name (“Look, it’s Simba!”) but that is just telling you how they are making a connection to something. Your job as an educator is to build on that connection to help deepen and inform it.

          Those connections are the hook. People WANT to have real, meaningful connections to things that are not mediated by technology. They WANT to see real animals (even “dull,” “ordinary” ones), real artifacts, real art, real fossils, and given the opportunity, real places or at least something close enough. “Authenticity” is a relative and negotiable commodity, but the majority of people are going to put greater cachet in seeing a live giraffe than in seeing a giraffe video on YouTube.

  13. Lori Marino says:

    I am a neuroscientist at Emory University who has studied animal intelligence for many years and, for the past ten years, have published on a number of topics relevant to this issue, including the education claims of the zoo and aquarium industry and the effects of captivity on highly intelligent large social mammals such as cetaceans, elephants and great apes. I would like to comment on what we know about these issues. First, there is currently no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that animal displays in zoos and aquaria are educational or promote positive attitude change in visitors. I have published this conclusion in several peer-reviewed papers and also presented it in testimony before Congress in 2010. The evidence simply is not there. Second, an abundance of peer-reviewed scientific evidence reveals that captivity is not conducive to the welfare of many animals, including dolphins, killer whales, elephants and others. The statistics on stress-induced illness and high mortality in these species in captivity are unequivocal. For an example of how captivity affects cetaceans, please see Marino and Frohoff (2011) Towards a New Paradigm of Non-Captive Research on Cetacean Cognition in PLoS One 6(9): e24121. In this paper we review the substantial scientific evidence for physical and psychological abnormalities and shortened lifespan of these animals in captivity. Finally, zoos and aquaria spend a tiny fraction of their revenue on real conservation projects and there have been only a handful of captive-breeding/reintroduction successes. For instance, zoos claim that captive breeding of elephants serves a conservation purpose but no elephant has ever been reintroduced and elephant experts know that it is not scientifically feasible to do so. Given the paucity of evidence for any educational or conservation value to zoos and aquaria and the abundant evidence for poor welfare of many animals in captivity there is, in my opinion, no reason to support them.

  14. Pingback: Can you worry about an animal you've never seen? The role of the zoo in ... - PLoS Blogs (blog) | Positive Impact of Zoos |

  15. Kaylee says:

    Thank you for a great article with strong supporting facts!

  16. Billy Martin says:

    Just FYI, there are wild cassowaries in northern Australia as well as New Guinea.

  17. WK Lindsay says:

    The idea that zoos themselves can actually prevent the extinction of wild species can be argued successfully for only a handful of species, in a handful of zoos. People who are serious about conservation, rather than those who are simply interested in finding reasons to keep zoos in business, are aware that the overwhelming majority of effective captive breeding operations take place in countries of the species natural range (“in situ”), not in cities in western Europe or the US (“ex situ”). Elephants, noted in one of the comments here, are a particularly bad example of ex situ conservation: zoos cannot provide healthy conditions in which elephants survive as well as in the wild, and breeding (usually attained only by artificial insemination) cannot keep up with the decline in numbers. If zoos are serious about captive breeding for conservation, they should concentrate on endangered invertebrates, which can be kept successfully, and stop pretending that their big animal exhibits are anything but entertainment for children.

    • I agree that success happens for some species and not others. There is a big debate on which species should zoos focus their conservation efforts on. Here’s a great article:

      Sophie’s choice? It is difficult to say. It seems to me that zoos keep some charismatic species to attract the public, who will became interested and support the zoo and conservation. Then funds are allocated to conservation efforts in many cases “ex situ”, like you point out. That was the case of the golden lion tamarin (brought back in the rainforest of Brazil), and the current work with red African ostriches (African conservation program by the National Zoo).

      It is unrealistic to say that every single species in a zoo is a target of conservation. It would be ideal, but in the real world there are many constraints. Picking and choosing species still seems better than watching them all go extinct.

      • WK Lindsay says:

        If zoos did anything significant for conservation of wild ecosystems (=”in situ”, not “ex situ” conservation as you have termed it), then there might be some justification for keeping charismatic animals as hostages of fortune, to interest people in supporting conservation, instead of just supporting the zoo (i.e. keeping it profitable). The truth is that zoos contribute very little to conservation in the wild, apart from a few small projects in selected areas, compared to serious conservation organisations which must (and do) raise the millions needed through their own PR campaigns that have nothing to do with captive animals. The fact is that conservation can, and easily does, exist without zoos but zoos are now using conservation to justify their continued existence.

        • artiofab says:

          I’m sorry to pick on only one sentence of your comments, but with so many things said in your comments, I wanted to focus on one:

          “The fact is that conservation can, and easily does, exist without zoos ”

          How is this statement a fact? We live in a world in which zoos exist, so there’s no way to test whether people would give more or less money if zoos didn’t exist. Maybe you’re saying that conservation programmes independent of zoological gardens exist, which is true. But I don’t think that’s what you’re trying to say; I think you’re trying to say that conservation programmes are able to be financially supported without any help from zoos. But how is that statement testable?

          Maybe I’m reading more into your statement than I should. What do you mean by your claim that “conservation exists without zoos”?

          • WK Lindsay says:

            Thanks, artiofab, for pointing out my lack of precision. I should have said “By the available evidence, conservation can exist without zoos”. This lack of evidence was acknowledged recently in a symposium volume “Zoos in the 21st Century”, in which Sarah Christie of the Zool Soc of London noted “The lack of good information within the zoo world is extremely frustrating if one wants to make a case for the significance of conservation funding supplied by zoos.” Most zoos don’t keep records that can be used for this kind of evidence, and double-counting and staff costs are often fed into the mix. She described one case study of tiger conservation funding for 1998-2002, which noted that 16% of a $25m funds total came from zoos (but of that almost 10% was from WCS, which is independent of the Bronx Zoo). For 2 other felid subspecies, zoos made a bigger % contribution to a much smaller total fund, although again WCS and one other zoo were the main donors. There is little evidence for any other taxa. If statements are being made about the contribution of zoos to conservation, then the onus is really on the zoos to start collecting the data, and in a transparent way.

          • artiofab says:

            I will have to check out that volume before I try to tackle this topic again.

        • Evee says:

          Take a look at the financial backers of any major conservation organization. Among that list, you will see several zoos. While the amount of projects that are funded and run exclusively by a zoo are small, the amount of support that zoos give to organizations is huge. Take Snow Leopard Trust. This organization has been vital in preventing the poaching of snow leopards. It is not run by any zoo and of course is fairly well-known as far as conservation projects are concerned. However, the project was STARTED by someone at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and is currently SUPPORTED by zoos all across the country. I’m currently wearing a pair of slippers from Snow Leopard Trust that I bought at my zoo’s gift shop. To say that zoos do not contribute to conservation in any meaningful way is completely false.

    • Cory Gross says:

      If it wasn’t for 9 of the 31 Przewalski’s Horse in captivity in 1945, they would be extinct today. The Przewalski’s Horse (or Takh) went extinct in the wild in 1969, and in 1977 the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse coordinated breeding between zoo herds. Their efforts led to the reintroduction of the horse to the Mongolian steppe in 1992, and since then the IUCN has upgraded their status from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered.” Right now there are approximately 1,500 individuals in the world, 300 of which are living in the wild.

      These animals are particularly dear to me because they are the closest relatives to the horses that used to live here in North America until the end of the last Ice Age, having gone extinct along with mammoths, sabre-tooths, giant sloths and their ilk, which I am fascinated by. Our local zoo was involved in the Takh recovery program and some day I hope I may even get to Mongolia to see them in the wild. So if you ask me, if the existence of zoos are legitimized for no other reason, literally saving the Takh from extinction is more than good enough.

  18. Pat Cuviello says:

    If viewing animals in zoos, or even circuses, helped to promote conservation the term endangered species would be unknown to us. However, zoos have not stopped extinction nor stemmed its tide. In fact zoos were a major source for poached animals such as gorillas and chimpanzees where up to eight animals would be killed to bring one to a zoo. In less than 20 years West African chimpanzees in Ivory Coast went from 12,000 to about 1,200. At the beginning of the 20th century there were between one and two million chimpanzees living in 25 African countries. Even in 1960 when Dr Jane Goodall began her famous research in Tanzania, there were thought to be at least a million. Today only some 125,000 are thought to remain. There were approximately 200,000 Asian elephants in the world in 1900. Today there are around 35,000. In 1930, there were between 5 and 10 million African elephants. Today there are a mere 500,000. An estimated 5,000-15,000 gorillas lived in the eastern Congolese rainforest around 1960. Today only about 2,500 remain in the wild. There were up to 200,000 lions in Africa 100 years ago. That figure has now fallen to between 23,00 and 40,000, with lions extinct in 26 countries. A century ago, Borneo had more than 300,000 wild orangutans. Today, the number has fallen to about 50,000, most of which live in Central Kalimantan. Only 3,200 tigers remain throughout Asia, where 100,000 of these magnificent animals roamed a century ago. Although people rallied to save whales and Canadian seal pups, which most people had never seen in person, zoos have utterly failed to save the charismatic species they hold captive from being driven towards extinction. Zoos exist fro one reason-entertainment; not conservation.

    • Thanks for pointing out all the species in decline. That is exact the reason why so many people (including all of us here in this comment section) are passionate about animals and conservation.

      However, I think it is a little bit naive to assume that the sole cause for animal’s extinction is existence of zoos. The great majority of those animals you pointed out are poached for tusks, ivory, pelts, and trophies (not counting habitat loss, which is a significant cause for extinction).

      About zoo’s success in conservation, see my comment above.

      • WK Lindsay says:

        I believe the point made by Pat Cuviello was not that zoos were always responsible for animal extinction. Certainly collecting for zoos did harm populations of some species in the past, but that practice has been largely discontinued — although there is some concern about elephants being taken from the wild in Thailand so that they can then be sold to foreign zoos even now. The stronger point made by the comment was that the precipitous declines have occurred while zoos have kept tending their collections, having zero effect on those losses.

    • artiofab says:

      Saying that two things are related to one another doesn’t actually prove that they are related to each other, as Christian Russo points out.

      Also “zoos have not stopped extinction nor stemmed its tide” is just plain not true.

  19. Elke Riesterer says:

    Animals do not belong into captivity. When no choice is offered to a species how to live and where to live we should call it an enslaved existence. The terminology of
    having an animal ” collection ” shows the cultural status an animal has. It goes along with a common phrase like: ” see our collection of precious stones “. Are we evolving, are we able to free ourselves from the addiction to dominate other creatures?

    • I agree, and I’d love if all animals were still able to live safely in the wild. Many animals are rescued from the wild, where they were injured or orphaned. Those animals had no condition to survive in the wild, even when re-introduced (e.g., the bald eagle at the National Zoo was released, but found again helpless due to injured shoulder – he can no longer fly). For those animals, the other option would be death. I know of animal activist associations that prefer that, perhaps it is a question of opinion?

      • WK Lindsay says:

        It is rather obvious that a bird with a broken wing would have trouble surviving in the wild, and I don’t think anyone is arguing (on this page at least) that zoos should just open their doors and “let the animals free”. But you have set up a straw man — it is clear to me that Elke Riesterer’s point was in favor of allowing wildlife to live their lives in their native ecosystems instead of as objects in collections created by us. I believe he statements were consistent with the belief that captive populations should be phased out through natural attrition, without captive breeding, and no more animals should be taken from the wild.

    • Thanks for posting your link. Unfortunately, there are zoos that are not as regulated as others. I do not advocate for animal cruelty and inhumane conditions. But like you point out, we know most caretakers are doing the best to bring in more funds and improve animal conditions on those cases. I don’t think there is a perfect solution – should we release those animals and make them homeless? (defenseless in the wild)? I truly think this is a very complicated case.

      • WK Lindsay says:

        In the shorter term, yes there is a problem over what to do with the abused animals in inadequate zoos (i.e most of them). But it is not complicated. There are sanctuaries for some species, including primates, elephants and some carnivores, where the animals can leave zoos and live out the remainder of their lives in more humane conditions. The solution in the longer term is to phase out these inappropriate exhibits, in places where the funds to care properly for animals’ welfare are lacking, and for some species never bring them into captivity in the first place.

        • GoddessReborn says:

          You realize that of the hundreds of sanctuaries there are for all these unwanted exotic animals (90% of their intake are pets that the owners didn’t want anymore or were abused) live in sub-par conditions to that of even zoos. In fact, MOST sanctuaries attempt to send their surplus populations to zoos in order to make room for other animals.

  20. BabyBoomerWriter says:

    Research centers that study animals and sea creatures are not the same as zoos and should be discussed separately. With the advent of live video streaming and the remarkable cinematography now possible, we can watch a living creature behaving normally in their own habitat. Keeping animals in cages unable to continue their instinctive activities in the wild is wrong unless that species no longer has a natural environment. Zoos and animal performances are an entertainment holdover from the days of sideshows and should gradually be phased. More scientific knowledge of non-human brains will be influential here.

    • OfAFailed Species says:

      I agree with BabyBoomer except for the part where it is found acceptable to harbor species in a cage if their natural environment is lost. What purpose other than anthropocentric reasons would there be for harboring a species that is no longer found in the wild? With that reasoning we are back to menageries – which zoos basically still are differing only in that we now say they are provided with more “realistic” habitat within their ‘exhibits’ and are provided with enrichment (i.e., a ball, a rope). One maybe two zoos in the continental U.S. provide active conservation measures and efforts. The rest of them…dressed-up menageries.

      • artiofab says:

        “What purpose other than anthropocentric reasons would there be for harboring a species that is no longer found in the wild?”
        To prevent the species’ extinction.

        I know that not all “zoos are bad” arguments are that badly thought out, but, fairly often, people who have issues with zoos don’t actually think about pretty simplistic concepts, such as how extinction is a bad thing, how education is a good thing, and how zoos prevent the former by enacting the latter.

        If the captivity of elephants in zoos helps prevent the extinction of elephants in the wild then that’s a cost that should be paid, no?

      • Rory Harper says:

        “One maybe two zoos in the continental U.S. provide active conservation measures and efforts.”

        This is a gross mis-characterization.

        I can understand a critical view towards zoos, but just making stuff up is still just making stuff up.

      • Linda Lombardi says:

        Far more than one or two zoos in the US do active conservation work. Here’s eight, and all of the programs mentioned involved other zoos as well:

      • artiofab says:

        PS the faster answer to your question
        What purpose other than anthropocentric reasons would there be for harboring a species that is no longer found in the wild? is:
        Ask the California condor.

        • Right, or bald eagles, or black-footed ferrets. Golden lion tamarins were disappearing when I was growing up in Brazil. They are safe now, due to conservation efforts at the National Zoo.

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