Expert Voices

Do Zoos Really Teach Visitors Anything? (Op-Ed)

meerkats, cute baby animals, fun facts
The Elephant Crossing exhibit is now alive with the pitter-patter of tiny feet. (Image credit: Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This Op-Ed is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Zoos (including aquariums) exist worldwide and are visited by millions of people annually. Whether or not they provide any significant educational experience has long been debated, despite claims by zoo supporters, workers and administrators that they do. The recent killing of a young and healthy giraffe named Marius at the Copenhagen Zoo, who was viewed by the zoo as a disposable object because he couldn't be used as a breeding machine, has brought a good deal of attention to these businesses. I call this "The Marius" Effect," and many people who never were actively or critically vocal about the goings-on at zoos have gotten involved because of their revulsion at the unnecessary and heartless killing of this youngster.

What do zoos do?

This week a number of people alerted me to a new international study called "A Global Evaluation of Biodiversity Literacy in Zoo and Aquarium Visitors." It's important to note that the report was not published in a peer-reviewed professional journal, but rather in-house by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). It is not surprising that it has received a lot of attention in the media, and an article on the study — featured on ScienceDaily and entitled "Zoos, aquariums do teach us about biodiversity, largest international study proves" — provides the following summary:

"Zoos and aquariums do teach the public about the delicate balance between animal species and their habitats, a new international study shows. More than 6,000 visitors to over 30 zoos and aquariums across the world took part in this landmark study. Participants filled out pre- and post-visit surveys to evaluate their biodiversity understanding and knowledge of how to help protect biodiversity. The study found there was an increase from pre-visit (69.8%) to post-visit (75.1%) in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding."

In response to my posting the study in my Psychology Today column, fellow columnist Mark Derr sent me the following note: "In reading this self-serving survey, it appears fewer than 10 percent of people who go to the zoo come out with a greater awareness of biodiversity than they had when they went in, but only about 4.5 percent leave saying they can support biodiversity by supporting zoos — and that represents an increase of about 1 percent. People clearly do not view keeping animals in cages for public display as defending biodiversity. They look to environmental groups to do that."

What does "evidence of biodiversity understanding" really mean?

The "proof" provided by this study is a mixed bag. Many people have jumped on the bandwagon claiming something like, "See, we were right and zoo critics were wrong, zoos do educate people." However, the increase "in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding" as noted in the report (my emphasis on the word "some") was only slightly more than 5 percent of a large sample, and in no way does it show that what people learn about biodiversity really means anything at all about how they then contribute to future conservation efforts.

It's critically important to carefully look at this study, because it is all too easy to claim the data provide the final word — the much needed but heretofore lacking proof — on the value of zoos. There is a lot of variation in the data, and just because the before and after percentages are statistically significantly different does not mean that they are significant in meaning something beneficial for the animals held captive. And, in their discussion of what their results mean, the authors write (page 31):

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"'Some positive evidence' in this case would indicate knowing that biodiversity is related to biological phenomena with no evidence of understanding the breadth or variety of plant and animal species, the interdependency of species, the genetic value of biodiversity, the importance of biodiversity for humans or the need for biodiversity conservation." (I placed the emphasis on the word "no".)

So, what visitors learn is limited in scope in terms of what their new knowledge means, in any practical sense. I'm all for knowledge for knowledge's sake, and I'm glad some people felt they learned that "biodiversity is related to biological phenomena." However, learning about biodiversity, and perhaps some about the lives of the animals who are locked up in cages, without learning about the "need for biodiversity conservation," doesn't convince me that zoos are really doing much at all.

Do the data justify keeping animals in captivity and using them as breeding machines? No. Do the data justify what zoo workers call "management euthanasia" — what I call "zoothanasia" rather than euthanasia — of the numerous individuals called "surplus animals" who don't fit into a zoo's breeding program? No. Do the data justify keeping animals in zoos, even those that are accredited by the United States' Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) or other organizations? No.

Could zoo visitors gain the same knowledge in others ways rather than at the expense of the animals who are kept in zoos? We don't know, but it seems likely that there are better ways not only to show them that "biodiversity is related to biological phenomena," but also that there is an urgent and dire need for biodiversity conservation, and they need to do something right now. The visitors need to put their newfound knowledge to work.

I'm glad to see an effort, in this case a large-scale study, is being made to learn about what zoos actually do, but this study leaves open many questions, and we must await an impartial evaluation of the results and their publication in a peer-reviewed journal. We also need to see if the new knowledge that some visitors acquire is used on behalf of other animals and their homes.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "As Prisoners Learn of Animals' Compassion, They Connect" This article was primarily adapted from the post "What Do Zoos Teach About Biodiversity and Does it Matter?" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.