Communicating Connection

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I sometimes wonder to myself, if urbanization is a way to try to ”grow up and move away from nature”, when in fact – nature is everywhere. The whole planet is nature. Still, if people don’t connect with nature – they might fear it. Nature becomes something we read about but have no intention of visiting.

Well, when it comes to zoo conservation and the different levels of conservation work they perform – I’m often interested in how they present different species. Since we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are – we have a tendency to present and/or view animals with anthropomorphism. We see “ourselves” in animals, and tend to interpret animal behavior with anthropomorphism. Zoo visitors in Sweden often think big cats sleeping throughout the sunny day are bored – when in fact it’s a species specific behavior. But Swedish people love the sun, and are as active as possible during those few sunny months we get.

Zoos have a common conservation mission – but they work as units and they need to function economically and they differ in both space and resources. Some zoos tend to (probably without knowing the possible consequences) demonize some species – in order to attract more visitors through fear and excitement. This often concern animals such as spiders, insects or carnivores. Such a communication strategy might benefit the individual zoo in terms of number of visitors – but not nature or connection with nature (and/or understanding animal behaviors).

So my first thought is – yes zoos play such an important role in peoples connection or re-connection with nature (this also concerns domesticated animal we keep as pets and or animals we keep for food)- but the way we present animals, our “conservation communication” also plays a major part of this connection to nature. I completely agree with Sylvia Earle when she writes “It is hard to care about something you have never seen” (Twenty-First Century Aquariums and Zoos: Windows into the Wild). And, I believe that with an ongoing urbanization, zoos will be even more important in a nearby future when it comes to connect with animals and nature. A lot of species are dependent on the stories we tell about them. And some species are either demonized or romanticized. Marius, the giraffe was brought up by Marc Bekoff (What Zoos Need to Do for Zoo’d) as well, and when Marius was euthanized he probably became the world most famous giraffe. From a conservation genetic perspective I agree with the decision. Yet, that individual was still presented with anthropomorphism and named a human name – which probably made visitors connect with him on a more human/emotional level. There is a communication gap between conservation genetics and individual caring.

Years ago the polar bear was demonized and thought of as a beast that kills everything in sight. Now, it’s the white fluffy teddy bear we must save. They way in which we perceive a certain species can be fundamental for that species chance of survival. In Sweden there is an ongoing illegal hunt of wolfs, and the wolf is demonized in Sweden – which seems to partly moralize taking illegal actions into matter.

As we tend to see the human version of the animal world, instead of the animal world – this puts even more responsibility on zoos, and they must communicate animals without either demonize or romanticize them. But in a way in which helps people connect with animals and understand their behavior and the way they see the world.

Several zoos are almost historical, London Zoo for instance – one of the first (if not the first) zoo in Europe that opened to the public in 1800-Th. Such zoos were built long before we knew of ethology, the need to conserve species and in a time when people wanted to be superior animals. The exhibit design often gives us a clue about “were we are in the society”. When zoos started – as “modern zoos” open to the public, the theme was almost to “capture the wild beast” and keep the dangerous wilderness behind bars. Enclosures were small and often with nothing but concrete floors. Animals rarely thrived. Looking at the zoo development – and in particular the exhibit design we can see a dramatic change. Nowadays exhibits are supposed to be built as “large habitats” – focusing in the animals place in it and their behaviors. But also – focus in the visitors experience in the exhibits. Visitors often want to “be a part of the enclosure” which is one explanation to all the “walk through exhibits” – this is to me a good sign – telling me that there is a public desire to get back to nature. Be a part of nature and animals. So – with this in mind, the exhibit design from now on is of great importance. The typical design, when visitors are looking down on the animal in display – is not only stressful to that animal – but it might give us the idea (or strengthen the idea) that we are superior to animals and nature, that we are on top of the hierarchy. When enclosures that invites the visitor, or enclosures that have the same “design” (grass, trees etc) on both sides of the fences, gives people an idea that they are a part of nature and animals.

So I would like to add this to the discussion – that how we connect with nature in a zoo has a lot to do with presentation, how zoos present the animals and the zoo design – that’s can help visitors connect with nature and feel that they are a part of nature – and not the owners of it.

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