Zoos have come very far from their original purpose since their beginning as menageries displaying foreign animals to the masses, while conveniently also showcasing the wealth and power of the menagerie’s owner. Today, the focus of many zoos have turned away from engaging their visitors curiosity with fearsome entertainment towards appealing to their attendees interest about animals, their habitats, and how we can preserve these unique creatures and their environments.
In 2008 a study by Coral Bruni, John Graser, and P. Wesley Schultz Zoo found experiences at zoos support an increased implicit connection with nature, showing an unconscious adjustment of attendee’s behavior. This was discovered by performing an Implicit Association Test (IAT) known as FlexiTwins on participants before and after they experienced the zoo (Visitor Studies, 208, 11(2) 139). With our highly modernized and technology based world this implicit connection to nature is not often nurtured, and therefore seems an important purpose for Zoos to embrace. The desirability of visiting a zoo depends upon people’s interest in nature. However, much of the revenue derived by the zoos is from people seeking to be entertained, not just those looking to learn. How then are zoos to bridge this gap between their emerging purpose as research and conservation institutions, while still maintaining a similar level of resources available from their entertainment revenue?
One possibility is that zoos might seek accreditation to become educational institutes such as universities or colleges, which would enable them to seek federal or state funds to help support their students and to create new educational programs. Many institutions already have an educational component for those seeking specialized training, but they are often highly selective programs with few spaces available. Also, it is not known at this time if the funds received for educational support would be consistent with the amount generated by the zoos today. However, providing a place for students to seek a comprehensive education in conservation would encourage a greater spread of knowledge and provide more places for people to receive the highly specialized training needed. Additionally, a greater pool of students would enable the zoo to utilize students for demonstrations, exhibits, and as staff, possibly reducing costs in those areas. However, turning a trip to the zoo into a solely institutional educational experience would remove the fiscal benefit of the immersive entertainment for visitors, and may even result in restricted access to zoos for the public as students and those willing to take classes are prioritized.
In order to remain relevant to the public at large it seems likely that zoos will need to contain some form of entertainment beyond the merely educational. Many zoos have already done an excellent job combining education with amusement as they have transitioned into a more modern purpose. However, with the public focus on rare and exotic animals such as tigers, whales, gorillas, and other popular creatures the cost of acquiring, caring for the animals, building and maintaining exhibits, and recreating their natural environments in places that may not support those choices is an expensive and time consuming task. Additionally, it turns the resources of the zoo away from conservation and protection of the local wildlife towards transforming localized environments into exotic gardens that take the visitor to faraway lands. While the draw of those exhibits does generate public interest, and revenue, a focus change towards conserving the native environment and showcasing the unique features of the local area would capitalize on the recent increase in interest in native plants and will bring attention to the rapid urbanization that is often a problem in the large cities that have zoos (San Diego, Baltimore, and New York for example). Bringing the entertainment focus back to the unique features of the local area would also reduce the cost of hosting exotic animals in areas that are not designed to support and increase interest in and conservation of neglected local areas.
There are no clear cut solutions for zoos to achieve their ever changing role from entertainment focused to one focused on conservationist and educational growth of the attendees. However, it seems clear that the incorporation of more educational resources, utilizing local wildlife, and working to support local efforts to conserve native species rather than focus on bringing in exotic animals for show.