Fostering Resilient Relationships between People and Wildlife: The Influence of Zoos and Aquariums on Culture

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In an idealized world, where society and nature are in perpetual harmony, would there be a need for zoos and aquariums? Is the underlying assumption of the question that prompted this series that zoos and aquariums are in direct opposition to a harmonious relationship between society and nature and, as such, cannot foster cultures of care and conservation? As with any social institution, zoos and aquariums are products of their times: They reflect society’s ever-changing relationship to wildlife. Whether this relationship is idealized or not, twenty-first century zoos and aquariums are uniquely poised to develop cultures of care and conservation for wildlife. In fact, they may be our best hope of doing so.

Returning to our question, in a utopian balance of society and nature, is there a need for zoos? Zoos have transitioned from being displays of power and domination (over both animals and peoples), to living dioramas, to fully immersive experiences of curated nature. These institutional paradigm shifts parallel our evolving understanding of society’s relationship with wildlife. Royal menageries gave way to taxonomic groupings, and concrete cages were replaced with multi-species exhibits. Today, zoo visitors can explore fully functioning coral reefs and rain forests, wander through a desert, or go on safari game drives.

These transitions demonstrate the roles zoos play in reflecting our growing understanding of how humans relate to, impact, and interact with wildlife. They also demonstrate zoos’ and aquariums’ institutional ability to respond to change. The ability to not only weather change, but persist and even flourish after change is a property of socio-ecological systems known as resilience. Resilience is a measure of the nature of relationships within a system—how these relationships absorb change and still endure.[1]

Zoos and aquariums have the ability to reflect the relationship between society and wildlife. This relationship has demonstrated great resilience over time. Broad societal trends regarding our relationship to wildlife have included hunting, both for sport and sustenance, entertainment, curiosity, and reckless extinction. Today, we seek to embrace a more harmonious relationship with wildlife through conservation, preservation, and the breaking of extinction cycles. Zoos and aquariums have not only been able to manifest these more harmonious relationships, but adapt and persist across cultures, indicating high levels of resilience.

Patrons walk through the Wilhelma ZooSo what? Why does it matter if zoos and aquariums are highly resilient socio-ecological systems? High resiliency allows zoos and aquariums to drive, and not just reflect, a new harmonious relationship with wildlife to better connect society to nature, in short, build cultures of care and conservation. And what makes their work even more effective is that zoos and aquariums do all of this in densely populated urban centers, far removed from the animals’ natural habitats.

As drivers of the relationship between society and wildlife, zoos and aquariums take on a new role—that of conservation centers. As conservation centers, zoos and aquariums build and expand stakeholder networks and embrace a more holistic approach to wildlife conservation.[1] None of this would be possible if zoos and aquariums were not part of a highly resilient system. One major contributor to this system’s resiliency is the relationship between urbanized zoos and aquariums and far distant natural habitats.

The continued growth of ecotourism speaks to the fact that most people are eager to see animals in the wild. But how many of us have the ability to visit Lemurs in Madagascar, Pink Dolphins in the Amazon River, or Orangutans in Borneo even once in our lives, let alone on a regular basis? Conservation centers can help visitors connect exhibits to ecosystems, society to wildlife. Mark Twain is credited with saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Could the pseudo-travel experience created by zoos and aquariums be fatal to apathy?

Unlike ecotourism destinations, zoos and aquariums are in the enviable position of being able to provide encounters with the unique and exotic on a regular basis. Furthermore, zoos and aquariums can guarantee experiences that do not always occur in wild settings. Intimate up-close encounters, targeted and relevant interpretation, and occasional physical contact all foster strong emotional connections between visitors and wildlife. Recent studies provide evidence that these emotional connections are also strong predictors of pro-conservation behaviors. In other words, visiting zoos and aquariums can connect people to wildlife and this connection motivates them to action.

The connection visitors often describe having with an animal has three distinct parts. The first is the cognitive or fact-based portion, which deals with the visitors’ objective knowledge. The second is the affective or emotional element, as visitors regularly report feelings of empathy, connection, or bonding with the animals. The third is action-oriented, behaviors visitors are willing to perform on behalf of the animal. Researchers describe this three-part response as conservation caring.[2] Many zoos and aquariums are exploring how to nurture stronger levels of conservation caring in order to strengthen connections to wildlife and conservation actions.

Zoos Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, is one agency at the forefront of exploring ways to strengthen visitor connections with wildlife and drive public participation in pro-conservation behaviors. Across their three zoos, conservation initiatives are linked with specific exhibits. For example, “They’re Calling on You” highlights how recycling mobile phones helps gorilla conservation; “Don’t Palm Us Off” teaches visitors how purchasing sustainable palm oil products saves Orangutans; and “Wipe for Wildlife” demonstrates the positive impact of purchasing recycled toilet paper on Australian wildlife. All of these campaigns are dependent, in part, on visitors forming a connection to wildlife during a zoo visit.

Zoos and aquariums provide an easily accessible gateway into nature for hundreds of millions of visitors. The ability to enter exotic ecosystems and encounter wildlife face-to-face is not only a proven method for developing connections, but also a necessary one. As conservation centers, zoos and aquariums are intentionally highlighting the interconnected nature of conservation and providing visitors the opportunity to feel and act. The zoo experience is a call to action: Will we the visitors take up the gauntlet? Will we respond with empathy and action to save wildlife? As willing partners with zoos and aquariums, we have the opportunity to continue shaping our relationship with wildlife to build a culture of care and conservation.

[1] Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual review of ecology and systematics, 1 – 23.

[2] Rabb, G. B., & Saunders, C. D. (2005). The future of zoos and aquariums: Conservation and caring. International Zoo Yearbook, 39(1), 1 – 26.

Image Credit

“Krislorenz” by DSC2190. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Jeffrey Skibins

    Dr. Jeffrey Skibins is an Assistant Professor in the Park Management and Conservation Program at Kansas State University. His research uses conservation psychology theories to explore people’s connection to wildlife and how this influences their pro-conservation behaviours.

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