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Characteristics of animals used in zoo interpretation: a synthesis of research.


Educational programs that use live animals as teaching tools provide an experience incomparable to that of observing the same animals on video or in print. When used in nonformal educational settings, captive live animals can provide memorable, safe encounters with wildlife, increase relevance of conservation issues, increase program attendance, and allow educators to link environmental messages to specific species (Kloor, 2002; Swanagan, 2000; Zipko, 1993). Likewise, when used in formal (classroom) settings, live animals can be used to teach students about animal care, help eliminate misconceptions, and make science lessons more relevant by providing real-life examples of animals being studied (Greene & Greene, 2005; Page & Coppedge, 2004). In addition to providing an opportunity for handson learning, live animals in the classroom can be used to teach life skills such as critical thinking, responsibility, respect, and teamwork (Greene & Greene, 2005; Page & Coppedge, 2004;Wickless, Brooks, Abuloum,Mancuso, Heng-Moss, & Mayo, 2003). Both formal and non-formal educators who are somewhat uncomfortable with science topics can use animals to integrate student-centered scientific learning into their curriculum, while building confidence in their ability to teach science.

The use of animals in interpretation is a major part of the programming efforts of zoos and aquariums. To capture the attention and stimulate the interest of a diverse visitor base, Brewer (2001) called on educators to determine the most effective ways of translating the science of conservation biology to bring about public action. Using animals in interpretation has been one way to provide this translation. While most studies involving animals as interpretive tools in zoos and aquariums have investigated public perceptions of animals (Dierking, Burtnyk, Buchner, & Falk, 2002), one's perception of an animal can be linked to the characteristics of that animal (Siegel, 2004). However, no examples in the literature exist comparing the characteristics of animals that have been used in zoo interpretation related studies. With such knowledge, an assessment of the utility of existing information to zoo and other non-formal interpreters can be made.

While animals are often described as having the "potential" to influence behavior change among participants of zoo education programs, little empirical evidence can be found linking the two (Dierking et al., 2002). However, those studies that do exist suggest that individuals who participate in programs using live animals are more likely to positively change their environmental behavior. For example, Swanagan (2000) reported that elephants used in live demonstrations significantly enhanced the likelihood that Zoo Atlanta visitors actively experiencing the presentation would support elephant conservation efforts by donating funds. Adelman, Dierking, Haley-Goldman, Coulson, and Adams (2001) found that when zoo visitors were prompted to think about the value of wildlife and made to feel empowered to help wildlife and the environment that they reported engaging in more environmentally responsible actions than prior to their zoo visit. Such actions included picking up garbage, composting, volunteering, putting up a bird feeder, planting trees, and visiting other zoos, nature centers, parks, and habitats (Adelman et al., 2001).

Animals have helped zoo and other non-formal educators influence public attitudes about conservation and stewardship (Davison, McMahon, Skinner, Horton, & Parks, 1993; Swanagan, 2000; Yerke & Burns, 1991). However, what are the characteristics of such animals that help educators achieve the broader mission of zoos and environmental education of moving participants from awareness to action (Cronin-Jones, 2005; Henderson, 1984; Hudson, 2001)? An understanding of the relationship between zoo visitor attitude, likelihood of environmentally-related action, and the role that the characteristics of animals play in facilitating this relationship is thus needed. Comparing the characteristics of animals reported in zoo interpretation studies would not only help evaluate the utility of existing information to zoo and other non-formal interpreters, but would also appraise the current research base, identifying knowledge gaps and areas of overlap.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of this synthesis of research was to (a) identify the characteristics of animals used as teaching tools in zoo interpretation and (b) determine the usefulness of such information to zoo and other non-formal interpreters educating in zoos and in classroom settings. The specific research objectives, stated as research questions, were as follows:

1. What are the characteristics of animals that have been evaluated as interpretive tools in zoo education?

2. How do the characteristics of animals used in zoo and other non-formal education settings influence their effectiveness as interpretive tools?


Sources were gathered through a library systems search at a major land-grant university. The search first included journals related to zoo visitor interactions, including Anthrozoos, Environment and Behavior, and Zoo Biology and was later expanded to include environmental education- and interpretation-related sources such as the Journal of Environmental Education and the Journal of Interpretation Research. Sources were categorized based on three criteria related to the characteristics of animals used in zoo-related education: (a) animal behavior, (b) animal geographic origin and type, and (c) animal size and appearance.

Although much anecdotal data exists on the use of live animals in zoo interpretation, procedures were used to focus this synthesis on empirical studies. Specifically, priority was given to publications employing experimental or quasi-experimental research designs.


Animal behavior

The behavior of animals used in interpretation activities influences the overall learning experience of participants (Bitgood, Patterson, & Benefield, 1988; Bitgood, Patterson, Benefield, & Landers, 1986; Kellert & Dunlap, 1989;Margulis, Hoyos, & Anderson, 2003). Because zoo visitors are often drawn to and seek out active, lively animals (Tunnicliffe, 1995; Wolf & Tymitz, 1980), on-site interpretive presentations provide visitors with the moving and easily viewable animals that they desire (Povey & Rios, 2002). Specifically, visitor interest and exhibit viewing time generally increase when educational animals are more active. Knowledge of the influence of animal behavior on learner interest and engagement is potentially useful to educators using animals as interpretive tools during classroom visits.

Using regression analysis to study zoo exhibit viewing time, animal activity was found to be one of the most critical factors influencing engagement (Johnston, 1998). When marginal changes in animal activity were assessed, increased animal activity resulted in visitors viewing zoo exhibits for longer periods of time (Johnston, 1998). Regardless of exhibit type (outside or inside; with or without viewing windows) and season (spring or summer), Margulis et al. (2003) reported greater zoo visitor interest and number when exotic cats were active. Similarly, Bitgood et al. (1988) found that zoo visitor viewing time at animal exhibits was approximately twice as long when animals were active than when they were inactive. In a study of visitor conversations about the behaviors of zoo animals, visitor comments included noting animal movement, position in an enclosure, feeding behavior, and "attention seekers," such as playfulness (Tunnicliffe, 1995).Wood (1998) examined how visitors responded to chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and found that more active animals sustained public attention for longer time periods with the greatest visitor interest being in animal foraging and object use behaviors.

The specific type of animal activity and its relation to visitor learning was investigated by Altman (1998). She found only partial support for the hypothesis that increases in animal activity increase visitor attention. Finding that visitor conversations differed when polar bears (Ursus maritimus) were active compared to when sloth (Melursus ursinus) or spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus) were active, animal behavior was then separated into animated activity (climbing, running, splashing, and social interactions) and less animated activity (biting, eating, grooming, and walking) and analyzed. Contrary to results previously stated, animal activity, when broadly defined, was found to not necessarily hold visitor attention. Specifically, animated activity elicited the most attention to bear behavior, suggesting that certain types of animal activities may facilitate greater learning due to increased visitor attention (Altman, 1998). If the type of animal behavior influences conversation, perhaps educators could use animals with specific behaviors to generate interest in less appealing science topics.

Animal Geographic Origin and Type: Exotic or Native

The origin of animals used as educational teaching tools seems to influence the overall learning experience, although this was not reported specifically by any study. In fact, no direct comparison has been made between using exotic (from a country or mainland other than that where the education occurs) and native species in zoo interpretation. It is currently unknown whether using either an exotic or native species has an influence on the intended outcomes of zoo interpretation (see Table 1). An examination of the literature revealed that the majority of studies have examined the use of exotic animals in educational programs. The use of native species in zoo education was less prevalent in the literature. Knowledge of the influence of animal origin and type on the learning experience would be useful to interpreters hoping to increase awareness and the likelihood for conservation action regarding local and global environmental issues.

Exotic species seem to be the focus of most publications related to the use of animals as teaching tools. For example, elephants used in live demonstrations enhanced the likelihood that Zoo Atlanta visitors actively experiencing the presentation would support elephant conservation efforts (Swanagan, 2000). The activity level of exotic cats, including African lions (Panthera leo), amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis), amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica), snow leopards (Panthera uncial), fishing cats (Felis viverrinus), and clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) was compared to visitor interest at the Brookfield Zoo (Illinois) and greater visitor interest was associated with more active cats (Margulis et al., 2003). Exotic clouded leopards used in traveling informal presentations throughout Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (Washington) resulted in increased visitor engagement and a more personalized learning experience when compared to leopards viewed in an exhibit (Povey & Rios, 2002). Bitgood et al. (1988) examined the relationship between animal characteristics and learner behavior at 13 different zoos throughout the United States. Of the 24 species included in their study, only four species (17%) were native to the lower 48 states, excluding two from Alaska; the remaining 18 were from countries other than the U.S. (Bitgood et al., 1988). Like Bitgood et al. (1988), Johnston (1998) justified examining visitor viewing time at polar bear exhibits because of the commonality of polar bears in zoos and their popularity with zoo visitors. He reported that longer exhibit viewing times were associated with zoos with greater numbers of large mammal species (Johnston, 1998).

Like Bitgood et al. (1988) and Johnston (1998), Finlay, James, and Maple (1988) used color slides of zebra, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), orangutans, lions, Colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza), gorillas, Oryx antelope (Oryx beisa), and chimpanzees in their study because of the availability of such species, similarity to one another (e.g., orangutans, gorillas, and chimps), and use in previous zoo-related studies. They found that undergraduates perceived each of the animals with various stereotypes (Finlay et al., 1988). Knowing that the type of animal used in education influences learner perceptions, educators could use specific types of animals to address animal-related stereotypes and misconceptions associated with specific species (e.g., snakes and spiders).

Compared to studies involving exotic, more traditional zoo species, fewer studies have focused on the use of native species as teaching tools. Specifically, species often viewed with negative stereotypes and misconceptions seem to be more common in the literature. Native snakes were the teaching tools in a study evaluating the influence of various wildlife education approaches on student attitudes and knowledge regarding snakes (Morgan, 1992;Morgan & Gramann, 1989). The study compared two educational factors relevant to zoo education: the amount of information about snakes provided to children and the level of involvement children had with snakes.

Student attitudes toward snakes were significantly affected by their level of involvement with snakes and the amount of factual information about snakes they were provided (Morgan & Gramann, 1989). In the absence of factual information provided in a slide show, viewing snakes in aquaria and watching an adult handle a snake resulted in more positive attitudes toward snakes. Without the slide show, allowing students to touch a snake was no more effective at improving student attitudes than viewing snakes in aquaria and watching an adult handle a snake. However, students who viewed the slide show, observed snakes in aquaria, watched an adult handle a snake, and were allowed to touch a snake did have substantially improved attitudes toward snakes. This study suggests that the direct contact opportunities with wildlife often provided during zoo animal encounters can be improved if interpreters continue to provide message-based reinforcement through accurate, easy-toremember factual information.

Direct contact opportunities and message-based reinforcement were applied in a study on the use of native snakes as teaching tools with disabled children, adolescents with behavior problems, and the elderly (Shalev & Ben-Mordehai, 1996). Following a structured presentation during an initial visit where a snake was taken out of its cage and offered for touching or holding, a strong affiliation for snake interaction was found (Shalev & Ben Mordehai, 1996).When asked to choose among a snake, rabbit, and dog, a significant proportion of all children chose the snake. Given these results, the authors suggested that pet snakes be integrated into animal visitation programs with populations of varying ages and abilities (Shalev & Ben-Mordehai, 1996). Depending on the educational objectives of the interpretive presentation, perhaps native snakes may be beneficial if used as teaching tools in special education programs.

Yerke and Burns (1991) examined the impact of a flying birds of prey presentation on the attitudes and knowledge of zoo visitors. Although there was no significant difference in the percentage of correct answers to factual questions on birds of prey before and after the show, participants had more positive attitudes toward conservation and the importance of personally acting to protect wildlife immediately after the presentation.

A limited number of studies exist on the effectiveness of zoo outreach programs that use animals to convey environmental messages. Yerke and Burns (1993) evaluated the effectiveness of a zoo outreach program that used trained birds of prey in 30-minute assembly presentations at schools. Results indicated that fifth-grade students participating in the raptor program had more positive attitudes toward conservation (Yerke & Burns, 1993). In addition, more than half of the students reported talking with their families about saving wildlife after seeing the presentation.

Animal Size and Appearance

Along with geographic origin and type, the size of the animal used in education influences the learning experience. Although zoo educators visiting classrooms with animals are more likely to use smaller, easier-to-handle species, information on the effectiveness of larger animals may be helpful to classroom teachers when planning field trips to zoos.

Margulis et al. (2003) reported that larger, more familiar cat species (i.e., lions and tigers) generated higher zoo visitor interest independently of animal activity level. Smaller animals did not capture visitor attention regardless of activity level (Margulis et al., 2003). Similarly, Anderson, Kelling, Pressley-Keough, Bloomsmith, and Maple (2003) found that smaller (24 inches long) Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea), when active, did not increase visitor engagement. Using black-and-white illustrations of non-controversial, indigenous species, Knegtering, Hendrickx, van der Windt, and Schoot-Uiterkamp (2002) reported a positive relationship between species relative size and the attitudes of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) regarding species conservation. Specifically, NGOs in their study judged larger species of birds as most important.

Overall, larger, more active animals attract the most attention. Longer exhibit viewing times were associated with greater numbers of more visible, larger animals such as polar bears (Johnston, 1998). As reported by others, Bitgood et al. (1988) found that larger species of animals generated longer zoo exhibit viewing times than smaller species and reported a 0.88 correlation between average animal relative size and average viewing time.

The appearance of animals used during interpretation also influences the learning experience (Kellert & Dunlap, 1989; Knegtering et al., 2002; Tunnicliffe, 1995). Although NGOs tended to judge larger species as most important, Knegtering et al. (2002) suggested that smaller species with a charismatic appearance (such as butterflies) can elicit greater feelings of conservation importance when compared to other taxa. Tunnicliffe (1995) examined the conversations of elementary school students and accompanying adults when viewing animal exhibits in zoos. Exhibit viewers commented often on the appearance of the animals, including their size and overall body shape (Tunnicliffe, 1995). Specifically, children and adults were drawn to parts of the animals that disrupted the body outline, including the tail, head, legs, and horns.

Larger, more traditional zoo animals are most often cited in studies involving the effectiveness of animals as interpretive tools. In addition, larger, more aesthetically appealing animals, sometimes referred to as "charismatic megafauna" (Rohlf, 1991), are most often evaluated. The use of local, native wildlife in educational programs has been cited less often.

Conclusions and Implications

This study identified and compared the characteristics of animals involved in zoo interpretationrelated studies. Table 1 compares the literature discussed in this synthesis based on the animal characteristics examined in each study (animal behavior, animal geographic origin and type, and animal size and appearance) and whether the characteristic made a difference in the dependent measure of each study. An examination of Table 1 reveals that while clear associations exist between animal behavior and animal size and appearance and the intended outcomes of zoo interpretation, it is unclear whether animal geographic origin and type has an influence on such outcomes. Specific conclusions have been identified below for each initial research question.

What are the characteristics of animals that have been evaluated as interpretive tools in zoo education?

Most animals that have been evaluated as interpretive tools in zoo education were exotic to the location where education occurred. Most of these animals were large mammals such as bears and large cats. In fact, the focus of most studies was on the experience of the participant/ visitor and not on comparing one species as a teaching tool to another. Information on the types of animals involved in many studies was found following review of the research methods employed. Few studies have focused on the use and effectiveness of native, locally relevant species in interpretation activities and programs. Studies reporting on the use of native species in education often focused on animals likely to have strong misconceptions associated with them (such as snakes and birds of prey).

How do the characteristics of animals used in zoo and other non-formal education settings influence their effectiveness as interpretive tools?

Much research exists on the relationship between the behavior of animals used in education and the overall learning experience of participants. In general, participant interest and exhibit viewing time increase when educational animals are larger and more active. Although not tested, whether an animal was exotic or native seemed to influence its effectiveness as a teaching tool and the overall experience of participants/visitors.

Although large, active animals used in educational settings such as zoos are more visible and attract more attention, results of such studies are of limited utility to zoo and other non-formal educators who use animals in classroom presentations. These educators are more likely to use smaller, easier-to-handle animals that pose few if any safety concerns and information on the effectiveness of such animals at improving attitudes and eliciting positive behavior change would be helpful.


Although this study revealed that most research on the use of animals as interpretive tools in zoo educational activities and programs has focused on the effectiveness of larger, exotic, more traditional zoo species, such information is not helpful to the classroom teacher, extension agent, or zoo educator with classroom visitation responsibilities. More useful information to these audiences would include research on the effectiveness of animals more likely to be easily and safely handled or studied in a classroom aquarium, such as smaller amphibians, reptiles, and fish. Although much anecdotal, practitioner-based documentation exists on the use of various classroom animals in improving attitudes and enhancing the likelihood of environmentally responsible behavior change, is an animal with a particular characteristic more likely to improve attitudes and elicit positive behavior change over another? For instance, controlling for the influence of the educator, would an animal with a noticeable injury (injured animals are often used in zoo education programs) be more likely to influence attitudes and bring about behavior change over the same species of animal without a noticeable injury? Does species origin and type (exotic vs. native) have an influence on the intended outcomes of zoo interpretation? More research comparing the influence of individual animal characteristics on participant knowledge, attitude, and behavior change is needed.

Kreger and Mench (1995) made several recommendations regarding the use of common species in educational programs that are applicable to zoo and other non-formal educators and this study. When conveying messages related to the protection of a rare species, they suggest using a related common species because participants are more likely to care about and express fewer negative stereotypes toward a locally relevant animal (Kreger & Mench, 1995). Gippoliti and Amori (1998) argue that a greater emphasis on more common species in educational programs would allow participants to receive a broader view of the animal world (not being dominated by large, exotic animals as currently emphasized in zoos) and biodiversity. When used in zoo interpretation, common species have the potential to help educators address locally relevant conservation issues. However, more research is needed on the use of locally relevant species in interpretation. In addition, information on the effectiveness of native, readily available species would be useful to interpreters lacking the resources of larger zoos and using injured/imprinted local wildlife in education.

The findings from this synthesis of literature suggest several recommendations for practice. If animal activity significantly influences participant viewing time (with more active animals sustaining more interest), perhaps the interpreter should become more active (using more hand gestures or increased body movement) when using inactive, docile animals in interpretation. Given Altman's (1998) findings concerning animated animal activity, an interpreter should reveal stories about an animal's social interaction behaviors when using the animal in education to sustain participant interest. Finally, based on the findings of Kreger and Mench (1995) and Gippoliti and Amori (1998), when faced with the choice between using exotic and native species in zoo education, interpreters should strive to use more locally relevant, native species as ambassadors of the messages they promote.


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Anderson, U.S., Kelling, A.S., Pressley-Keough, R., Bloomsmith, M.A., & Maple, T.L. (2003). Enhancing the zoo visitor's experience by public animal training and oral interpretation at an otter exhibit. Environment and Behavior, 35(6), 826-841.

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Davison,V.M.,McMahon, L., Skinner, T.L., Horton, C.M., & Parks, B.J. (1993). Animals as actors: Take 2. Annual Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 150-155.

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Nicholas E. Fuhrman

Assistant Professor

Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and


University of Georgia

116 Four Towers Building

Athens, Georgia 30602-4355


Phone: (706) 542-8828

Fax: (706) 542-0262

Howard Ladewig

Professor (retired)

Department of Agricultural Education and Communication

University of Florida

305 Rolfs Hall

Gainesville, Florida 32611-0540


Phone: 352-392-0502

Fax: 352-392-9585
Table 1. Summary of studies cited by animal characteristic, dependent
measure examined, and whether the characteristic had an influence on
the dependent measure.

Author(s)                Dependent measure examined        Whether
                                                           the charac-
                                                           teristic had
                                                           an influence

Characteristic: Animal behavior

Altman (1998)            Visitor engagement                No
Bitgood et al. (1988)    Visitor engagement                Yes
Johnston (1998)          Visitor engagement                Yes
Margulis et al. (2003)   Visitor interest and number       Yes
Tunnicliffe(1995)        Visitor conversations             Yes
Wood (1998)              Visitor interest                  Yes

Characteristic: Animal geographic origin and type--Exotic or Native
(in parentheses)

Finlay et al. (1988)     Perceptions of animal             Unknown
                         stereotypes (exotic)
Johnston (1998)          Visitor engagement (exotic)       Unknown
Margulis et al. (2003)   Visitor interest and number       Unknown
Morgan (1992)            Participant attitudes and         Unknown
                         knowledge (native)
Morgan and Gramann       Participant attitudes and         Unknown
(1989)                   knowledge (native)
Povey and Rios (2002)    Visitor engagement (exotic)       Unknown
Shalev and               Perceptions of snakes (native)    Unknown
Ben-Mordehai (1996)
Swanagan (2000)          Support for conservation          Unknown
                         efforts (exotic)
Yerke and Burns          Participant attitudes and         Unknown
(1991; 1993)             knowledge (native)

Characteristic: Animal size and appearance (animal type in parentheses)

Anderson et al. (2003)   Visitor engagement (otters)       No
Bitgood et al. (1988)    Visitor engagement (various)      Yes
Johnston (1998)          Visitor engagement (polar         Yes
Knegtering et al.        Attitudes toward conservation     Yes
(2002)                   (various)
Margulis et al. (2003)   Visitor interest (lions and       Yes
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH
Author:Fuhrman, Nicholas E.; Ladewig, Howard
Publication:Journal of Interpretation Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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