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The Truth about the Educational Value of Zoos

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Most former public school attendees in the U.S. have fond memories of the zoo field trips that take place towards the end of the year during the long-awaited spring transitioning-to-summer climate.

Zoos are educational” “Zoos inspire generations of children to care about wildlife and conservation—many sources claim. In fact, most nature centers, private animal holding facilities, and aquariums will boast about their educational value whenever their existence is challenged.

This notion is often questioned by (mostly) animal rights activists who disapprove of keeping certain animals in cages. Perhaps the biggest source of debate amongst the public has stemmed from the documentary Blackfish about the apparent lack of education contained within the dazzling animal shows and falsified information for the sake of avoiding dissenting opinions (i.e. killer whales live longer in captivity). Does the presence of living animals present learning opportunities?

Are Zoos Educational? Common Criticism Aimed at Zoos

  • Visitors spend on average 10-117 seconds at each exhibit
  • Performing animal shows teach children that animals are clowns
  • Zoos promote human dominance mentalities/keeping wildlife as pets
  • What children do learn at zoos can be learned from other sources
  • There is no evidence that children learn from zoos
  • Zoos focus more on entertainment

What do the studies say?

A popular peer-reviewed study that addresses the educational impact of zoos is this one; Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium, which was published in 2007. This study was conducted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and funded by the National Science Foundation. Information for the study was gathered by surveying zoo visitors.

Given the origin of the people behind the study, the findings presented aren’t surprising:

“We found that going to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums in North America does have a measurable impact on the conservation attitudes and understanding of adult visitors”

...a conclusion that is beneficial to the study’s contributors. The study suggested that visitors had a change in attitude toward conservation, biodiversity, and ecological education.

This study has not gone unchallenged. As an obvious threat to opponents of zoos, Lori Marino (who was featured in the documentary Blackfish and other anti-captivity media) responded with another peer-reviewed study that was created to discredit the zoo-affirming study ("we address whether this conclusion is warranted by analyzing the study’s methodological soundness"): Do zoos and aquariums promote attitude change in visitors? A critical evaluation of the American zoo and aquarium study.

The study includes pretty damning implications such as labeling zoos “generally accepted forms of entertainment, with little thought given to their purpose or the trade-offs associated with the capture and confinement of animals” and “….rebranding themselves as agents for species preservation and public education.

The introduction must be read in its entirety to fully appreciate the searing rhetoric-infused scientific approach. But Marino makes sound points.

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"Marino’s criticisms, however valid, illustrate the issue with nearly every study of this nature and the sheer impossibility of designing the perfect study that can help us find ‘proof’ to the answer of whether zoos are educational or not."

Criticizing studies that confirm educational impact

She came up with the following conclusions (my condensed version) There is no compelling evidence to support the claims of the study because the methods of which the study utilized involved:

  • non-random sampling (because participants were self-selected),
  • did not compensate for the fact that zoos are a novel and exciting experience with comparisons to other captive animal-free novel environments
  • lack of proper assessment to other alluring features of zoos
  • the propensity of the responder to answer how they think they’re suppose to (one I really agree with),
  • lack of discussion about the non-responders in the study
  • and the ever popular yet truthful causation doesn’t equal causation.

Marino’s criticisms, however valid, illustrate the issue with nearly every study of this nature and the sheer impossibility of designing the perfect study that can help us find ‘proof’ to the answer of whether zoos are educational or not. Every stitch of that question is horrendously complex and grounded in immeasurable psychological variables which human beings are endlessly subjected to.

Early childhood learning?

Another study by Brady Wagoner and Eric Jensen, called Science Learning at the Zoo: Evaluating Children’s Developing Understanding of Animals and Their habitats provides interesting findings for the zoo’s role in early childhood development.

To obtain an understanding of the change in thinking that the young students went through after their zoo visit, they were asked to participate in a drawing task involving animals and their habitats. The study found that the zoo visit ‘refined the children’s previous knowledge’ from an educational lecture that they attended before the zoo.

Others studies/papers about zoo education

1972- What Do We Learn at the Zoo?” (Robert Summer)

“The sight of caged animals does not engender respect for animals”

“…a visit to a zoo will reveal a great deal about the adaptation of animals to captivity”.

2000- Factors Influencing Zoo Visitors’ Conservation Attitudes and Behavior” (Jeffrey S. Swanagan)

2004-“Effects of a Conservation Education Camp Program on Campers’ Self-Reported Knowledge , Attitude and Behavior” (Cara K. Krus and Jaclyn A. Card)

“Results indicated that conservation knowledge scores increased over the study period, as did attitude and behavior, though patterns of change were varied in each level of camp. Campers' self-reported knowledge, attitude, and behavior also increased with increased levels of animal husbandry.”

2007- “Zoo education: from formal school programmes to exhibit design and interpretation (L. L. Andersen)

“The use of signage, interpretative graphics, worksheets and presentations by staff increase awareness and knowledge for children and adults alike and result in a stimulating visit to the zoo. Education and interpretation will increasingly utilize modern information technology, allowing direct links to in situ conservation programmes which zoo visitors help to support".

2010- “Visitor interest in zoo animals and the implications for collection planning and zoo education programmes(Andrew Moss and Maggie Esson)

“In this, zoo learning is a very personal construct, develops from the previous knowledge, and experiences and motivations of each individual.”

“In this article, we make the assertion that learning potential, although difficult to quantify, is very much related to the attractiveness of animal species and the interest that visitors show in them”.

Educational opportunities that zoos offer


Introduction to living animals, ecology, and conservation topics

Guided educational tours

Captive animal holding facilities for wildlife that needs rehabilitation

Zoo camps that offer educational talks, introduction to animal husbandry

Exposure to uncommon species

A prospective way to study animals that are elusive or hard to study in the wild

Potential to inspire a future career with animals

Career opportunities, internships

Studies on captive animals can assist researchers doing field work

Fostering An Appreciation of Conservation and Nature

I vividly recall volunteering at a nature center about 40 minutes outside of the New York City area. I was asked with the other volunteers to bring the tortoises outside to sun themselves and eat grass in the front lawn. An older woman visiting the center seemed enthralled by the animal, gazing at it for an extended period while I unenthusiastically engaged her, not finding tortoises very interesting (being a reptile owner). She remarked of how amazing it was to see such an animal up-close and how she was rarely exposed to such animals in her city dwelling, which she obviously must have lived in her whole life.

John Ball Zoo, Grand Rapids, Michigan // Zoo school student presentations