Scripta Varia

Zoos and Public Conservation Education

 Zoos and Public Conservation Education

Gloria Svampa Garibaldi[*]


“Humans are currently inside a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption... In order to pass through the bottleneck, a global land ethic is urgently needed... based on the best understanding of ourselves and the world around us...We will be wise to listen carefully to the heart, then act with rational intention.”


(Wilson, E.O., 2002, pp. 28-29).

The “global land ethic” claimed in The Future of Life by the famous scientist Edward O. Wilson as the crucial solution for the dramatic global crisis affecting the planet is on the same wavelength as the global “ecological conversion” invoked by Saint John Paul II (2001) and recalled by the Holy Father Francis in his Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ (Pope Francis, 2015). As the Holy Father reminds in this important document, the scientific community is seriously concerned about biodiversity loss and the damage caused by human beings, who have managed and consumed nature without consideration for the future. We all are aware that a true conversion is urgently needed. Not only with regard to the ethical and moral meaning of the word, which can be referred to a consciousness raising toward the serious problems and the misery that many populations are facing, but also to its meaning of change in our attitudes and ways of managing natural resources. Biodiversity is disappearing at an unprecedented rate, much faster than the rate with which we can afford to study and monitor threatened populations. To date, we have identified and described only 15% of the organisms living on Earth and, following the assessments of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2018, 2019b), one quarter of them are already threatened with extinction (Larsen et al., 2017). What about the future of the 85% living species that we still do not know? How can we halt and reverse nature loss? We should listen to the heart and then act rationally. From this perspective, zoos[2] could be the best partners to take up the challenge of changing attitudes and day-to-day life, with the goal of preserving a healthy planet. Modern zoo exhibits have a great potential for inspiring conservation (Gwynne, 2007). Moreover, if we really want to achieve more sustainable relationships with nature, decreasing the negative impact of humans, it requires large numbers of people to change their philosophy of life and their consumptive behaviour. Elite units cannot make the difference. Hence, the large number of people attending zoos is relevant to our goal. Moreover, biodiversity protection needs to be addressed through ongoing conservation education (UNESCO, 1997; Hill, 1999), so that environmental understanding and participation become automatic in our lives. Without this, the focus of environmental management will tend to be on repairs and temporary fixes, rather than on long-term solutions. Modern zoos have focused their action plan on integrated conservation activities. Effective conservation education is part of them and it represents one of the most ambitious goals of the international zoo community. Zoos’ potential is unique and immensely large. No office-based organization can showcase conservation as well as zoos (Stanley-Price, 2005). Zoos worldwide welcome more than 700 million people a year, a figure that, even if based on different calculation methods, is confirmed in several published reports (Gusset & Dick, 2011, pp. 566-569; Hildebrandt et al., 2017, p. 54) and very probably underestimated, if we consider that more than 195 million visitors, 50 million of whom are children with their families, have attended the 233 zoos affiliated to the USA Association of Zoos and Aquaria (AZA) in 2016 (AZA, 2016) and that 140 million people visit the 371 member institutions of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria every year (EAZA Strategic Plan 2017-2020, p. 7). Most importantly, the attendance of zoos is composed of visitors of any age, culture, language, religion, social role, and personal story. Each one of these visitors constitutes an opportunity for us to demonstrate the wonders of nature and the products of natural selection and to deliver messages about conservation. If these messages are correctly delivered, each one of these visitors can become aware that he or she can make a difference, act and play a personal role in building a future for humankind and for wildlife (Stanley-Price, 2005).

The large number of people attending zoos is frequently mentioned in presentations regarding the work of these institutions. However, in this contribution I would like to move the focus on the distribution of zoos worldwide, setting here its value. If we look at a global map of zoos, reporting all of them and not only the members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria (WAZA, 2005) or of the above-mentioned regional associations, we would be impressed by the huge number and distribution of these institutions in every corner of the world. This gives them a great potential and a very precious tool for any task force intentioned to work in coordination, for seeking the sustainable and integral development that, we believe, could change the world. Zoos can be considered as “in situ education stations”, powerful “observatories” that, having direct and deep knowledge of the local culture, language, history and politics, people’s relationships with nature, negative or positive attitudes, can help in finding the best and most effective way of delivering conservation messages. We are living in the “communication era”. Despite that, it is evident that till now our educational messages have not been able to reach and, most important, to influence the behaviour of most our recipients. One of the possible answers to this problem could be that we have underestimated the difference of cultures and, consequently, we should enlarge partnerships, involving more and more the local communities. Scientists must communicate more widely with societies, but they need to be educated on how to communicate. In this respect, zoos can be really good partners in this outreach research work.

Another relevant aspect we should keep in mind is that many people are, for sure, informed and aware of the environmental crisis, but they feel powerless in finding good solutions and in understanding how they could give a personal contribution. Consequently, they resign themselves to fate, hoping to be able to face problems, when they will come out with evidence. Experts in conservation psychology highlight that people are more likely to change behaviour if they see a clear role for themselves and feel that this role is not optional, but critical to the success of an initiative (Kaplan, 1990; Folz & Hazlett, 1991). If we look at current topics and modalities of educational activities in zoos, we can easily verify that they always include and value the active involvement of visitors and that any environmental problem introduced by zoo educators is followed by the recommendation of what “we can” do to halt or to reverse it. In fact, if we want to overcome resignation and discouragement, we can never forget to recall reasons of hope and to emphasize, as the Holy Father has done in his Encyclical Letter (Pope Francis, 2015) that things can still change, if we act with rational intention. Conservation in action is the goal that modern zoos have shown to be able to achieve.

Taking for example the European zoo community, EAZA zoos have run successful conservation campaigns that have always included education and awareness projects and that have been very effective in moving public opinion. Among them, very famous is the “Bushmeat Campaign”, during which zoos have been able to collect over 1.9 million signatures. It has been the largest petition ever received by the European Parliament (West and Dicky, 2007). Educational campaigns spread knowledge and let people understand problems that appear to be very far from our daily life, while they are strongly influencing it. The EAZA Silent Forest Campaign, e.g., tells about the illegal trade of Asiatic song birds with the ultimate goal to save these species from extinction and, in so doing, seeks to safeguard the whole tropical forest ecosystem, which is an irreplaceable natural resource for all living beings of the planet. In this way people become able to make connections and to understand the web of life, discovering that the survival of small beautiful birds, with a musical song, can influence, in the end, even the global climatic changes.

The large distribution of zoos in the world is powerful in spreading correct environmental information and education to new audiences. As a matter of fact, natural history museums and botanical gardens are generally visited by people who are just interested in nature. Zoo public includes also those people who do not currently share our conservation values or who do not have the necessary background to understand the extent of problems and to select the enormous amount of information that nowadays is provided by the media, in particular by the web. If these people do not have the chance to derive information from a reliable source, they are not able to take part in public life and to make informed decisions that are crucial for the environment and for their own future. Zoos, together with botanical gardens, science and natural history museums can represent their competent, independent and respectful reference centers.

The whole zoo staff is, in general, a very good mediator between people and animals. Curators and well-trained animal keepers can play an important role in explaining the zoo’s mission, husbandry and care techniques and also the difficult balance that zoos have the task to meet between animal welfare and species conservation needs. In addition, modern zoos have also dedicated teams, in charge of communication and education. During their evolution into environmental research and conservation centres (World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy, 2005) zoos have in fact empowered their staff with experienced zoo educators. In the 20th century, up until the 50s, zoos were used to pursue their goal in education mainly through the exhibition of their animals and the information that was readable on their signs. They looked like living encyclopedias or natural history cabinets, actually very useful and appreciated by people of those times. About twenty years later, influenced by the shifting historical and cultural situations, as well as on the wave of the developing education science, zoos started to establish educational departments with qualified staff, who rapidly evolved into a specialist group and a true task force, capable of networking at national and international level (e.g. EduZoo in Italy, the European Zoo Educator Association, the International Zoo Educators Association) and to involve school children as well as any other target of zoo visitors. The large range of educational activities offered today in zoos includes animal displays in naturalistic exhibits (at least in most zoos, but this is, in any case, the general trend), behind-the-scenes guided tours, interpretative graphics and texts, publications, workshops, unique and interactive multi-sensorial experiences, technology assisted programs, opportunities for communicating with staff and educators and outreach programs beyond the walls of the zoo (Sterling et al., 2007). This provides different chances to zoo professionals to establish contact with people, thus encouraging positive values and attitudes toward animals and their natural habitats. These values, together with the acquired correct information, are the driving force that should empower people to act (Reading & Miller, 2007).

Generally, when we talk about the role of zoos in wildlife conservation, we always mention the importance of their ex situ endangered species populations, as a precious reservoir of genetic pools and as valuable resources for scientific research and knowledge. More rarely we emphasize the importance of the unique heritage of experience that zoos can provide, through their professional staff. These people have a deep knowledge of animal husbandry and biology, but also of human behaviour. Therefore they can be precious in training local professionals and in teaching native people how and why it is so important to protect wildlife. Today the role of zoo educators is not confined inside the zoo borders or the zoo school. They are motivated and experienced professionals, whose contribution is fundamental to make successful zoos and aquaria conservation organizations. The “educational challenge” (see Pope Francis, 2015) that is facing us entails not only a commitment in our own “nature consumer” countries, but also in situ and particularly in biodiversity hotspots, where people risk losing their treasures, before becoming aware of their value.

Measuring the effectiveness of a zoo visit in changing public awareness and behaviour is honestly difficult and it is still one of the most debated topics by conservation psychology and science communication research (West & Dickie, 2007; Balmford et al., 2007). Data collections and scientific investigations are still needed to understand better how environmental values develop, what are the effects of experiences with the natural environment, what zoos could do better or more to help a sustainable future and wildlife conservation. The outcomes of scientific research work carried out so far in the United States and in Europe are encouraging, but sometimes contradictory and highlight the complexity of evaluating levels of awareness and feeling toward nature. Since Aldo Leopold (1933; 1949) argued that an ethic of care was an essential part of humanity’s relationship with the natural world, an increasing number of researchers have been studying how caring about nature can develop the formation of an authentic environmental identity (Kahn & Kellert, 2002) and how strong are the relationships between a psychological connection with nature and environmental sustainability (Schultz, 2002).

In The Future of Zoos and Aquariums: conservation and caring (2006) George Rabb, past Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and President Emeritus of the Chicago Zoological Society, and Carol Sanders, conservation psychologist of Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Zool. Soc.), have defined modern zoos, in their essence, as “institutional centers of caring” with respect to the natural world. Rabb is convinced that zoos, in their role of agents for conservation, should foster caring (Saunders, 2003) in each mode of engagement. They should inform and marshal values of nature (caring that); provide experiences, stimulating the affective axis (caring about); help expressions of caring behaviour (caring for), offering opportunities for direct and indirect action for nature conservation. This work of inspiring care for our planet, that could be so good for giving a positive answer to the Holy Father’s appeal in the Laudato si’ (Pope Francis, 2015), is made undoubtedly easier for zoos by the aspect that makes them unique: the presence of live animals. The direct contact with them has an incomparable power in generating emotions, inspiring a sense of belonging and protection. Seeing live animals can touch people’s hearts and, if people are able to listen to their hearts, they start to act with rational intention, looking with different eyes at nature, becoming able to discover its secret networks and to understand the importance of preserving the delicate balance of all living beings (Wohlleben, 2017).

The presence of wild animals in zoos and their effective usefulness in spreading knowledge, fostering environmental awareness and ethics has been and still is the object of hard debate between animal rights defenders, conservationists and zoo supporters. What it is undoubtful is that we would have never known so much of animal behaviour, biology, wildlife veterinary medicine and so on without studying ex situ populations. It is also clear that ex situ and in situ conservation activities, financially supported by zoo visitors and sponsors, have saved at least a good number of highly endangered species and their habitats from near certain extinction. The positive impact of zoos’ conservation activities is documented by successful stories of species which have had a second chance in their habitats, overcoming risks of extinction or even returning to the wild (see IUCN/SSC/CBSG, 2017).

Just to give an example, very recently the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (2018), using the industry best practice Red List Index (IUCN, 2019a) as an indicator of success of Jersey Zoo’s conservation projects, has evaluated a positive impact of about 150% on the survival of the 14 species that the zoo is protecting in the wild. Many other examples could be taken, regarding not only big and rich institutions, but also small ones. Italian zoos, in the EAZA network, are supporting research and conservation work in Madagascar, South America, Northern and Eastern Europe, which benefit both animal and human populations.

Holding research and conservation in due regard, at the same time we know very well that without a good conservation education and a different approach to nature the positive effects of those activities would last for a very short time. Zoo detractors respond to this proposal by affirming that modern technology can supply all the information and the education we need. Actually, if we look at data, we have the feeling that they could be right and that we are living in a very high cultured world, where people can find almost everything online. It is estimated (see Real Time Statistics Project)[3] that currently more than 1.7 million websites are available in the world and that more than 4 million people are regularly consulting them. The 700 million Google users make 40,000 web searches per second (more than 5 million per day) and view 5 million videos and about 70 million photos per day. Now, if information is not missing, something must be wrong, otherwise we would not be going towards the sixth mass extinction of the planet.

Modern human psychology confirms that nothing can influence our behaviour more than personal experience. People are inclined to care and to protect things they love and it is not possible to love things we do not know directly. Modern times are not at all favourable to direct experiences and this happens mainly in big cities, where most zoos are located and where they benefit the future and the welfare of human populations and not only of wildlife. When we think of human impacts on the environment, usually we think of consequences such as the loss of biodiversity. However, we are losing not only components of the natural world, but also experiences with nature. Pyle (1993) speaks of the “extinction of experience” as humans have fewer direct, personal contacts with living things. This can lead to environmental generational amnesia, where each generation regards the degraded environment they inherit as the “normal” experience (Kahn, 1997). It is this highly risky adjective “normal”, that zoos would like to cancel, joining their forces with all the institutions that are sharing their same vision and mission. If it is true that memory can be awakened by the view or the contact with something special for us, zoo animals, “ambassadors” of the ones still living in wild, can tell stories and can generate emotions able to rouse people and to affect choices that determine our behaviour.

What can we do better? What are the strategies that, with a focus on education, zoos could adopt in order to improve their commitment to conservation?

The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria has defined Conservation Education Standards in order to address its membership: “To mitigate the extinction of biodiversity through quality conservation education that raises awareness, connects people to nature and encourages sustainable behaviours in the millions of people that engage with zoos and aquariums annually” (EAZA, 2016, p. 2).

In a recent publication Sarah Thomas, Head of Discovering and Learning at the Zoological Society of London and past chair of the EAZA Education Committee, has highlighted that education in zoological institutions is not confined to programs for schools and children, but includes a wide range of opportunities and experiences for diverse audiences (Thomas, 2016). Conservation education can be thought of as an umbrella term for a whole host of educational programs that contribute to biodiversity conservation. These can be on-site at an institution (Hughes & Allan, 2016), as part of an outreach program in the local community (Jacobson et al., 2006; Cureg et al., 2016) or at a conservation field site (Crudge et al., 2016; Squires et al., 2016).

Modern zoos can strengthen their support to nature conservation and their contribution in changing attitudes and influencing decision makers by including in their master planning “focused legislator, lawyer, and conservation support exhibits as specialized and imaginative as those for children, and also for far more vigorous efforts to reach the people where zoo wildlife actually live” (Conway, 2007, p. 14). Those “education stations” or observatories spread around the world, that could be so useful in changing public attitudes and values, sometimes need to be supported in developing their standards, in training and qualifying their professionals, in learning new communication tools. Zoo education should be focused also on this goal and the international zoo community should take care of it. This would be an important step forward in achieving the Aichi Target 1 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 that provides helping people to be “aware of the values of biodiversity and of the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably” (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010).

The project is ambitious. Therefore zoos, botanical gardens, and natural history museums should really join their forces. The City of Rome is proud to able to quote an early example in its history of this “joint venture” in favour of nature conservation. In fact, a few years after the foundation of the Zoological Garden of Rome in 1911, it was decided that it would be important for research and educational goals to complete the zoo project with a Museum of Zoology. This was the background of the foundation of the present City Museum of Zoology of Rome, which is still preserving precious collections of the Cabinet of Zoology of the Pontifical Archiginnasio. In 1978, the Rome Zoological Garden and Museum of Zoology established their Educational Department, that since that time is successfully running activities for visitors of any target and that today is playing an important social role in cultural integration and in building, under the umbrella of a project financed by the European Union, a “new cultural democracy”, that is using science museums as a tool to engage adults and to promote learning opportunities and social inclusion for disadvantaged groups of people. Hopefully, this small example taken from the history of our city will be a positive and auspicious illustration for the outcomes of this meeting.

The Italian Zoo Association and the Museum of Zoology of Rome are honored to have been involved in the “Noah’s Arks for the 21st Century” Project. They declare their commitment to achieve the goals that will be identified and to involve all the national institutions that could contribute to the success of this initiative.


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[*] City Museum of Zoology of Rome & Italian Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
[2] In this text the word “zoo” always refers to zoological gardens, aquaria and other parks falling within the definition of the World Zoo Conservation Strategy (1993) and of the European legislation.


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