Conveying Field Research and Conservation Efforts to Zoo Visitors

By Guest Blogger Christina Clagett Significance

The purpose of zoos has evolved a great deal over their history. The role of the animal in the zoo has been steadily shifting from a source of objectified amusement to that of ambassadors of their wild counterparts. In the past few decades zoos have increasingly worked beyond their boundaries; researching and reaching out to the native habitats of animals. It is common for reputable zoos to have multiple research and conservation efforts simultaneously underway across the world. The future of zoos and related wild populations depend on these projects, with the ideal result being a combination of efforts inside and outside of the zoo to stabilize and eventually restore native populations.

Zoo visitors of all ages understand that what they are seeing in an exhibit is not the “real thing” despite even the best thematic efforts. However, as they watch a live animal on exhibit, do they understand the role of this ambassador animal in the larger scope of research and conservation? Or do they see a member of a collection there for their viewing enjoyment? The success of conveying deeper meaning varies in zoos across the world; however, a vocal minority opposed to zoological organizations is just one example of a group that currently sees the latter. With so much progress being made in the field directly relating to the future welfare of a species on exhibit, more has to be done to help visitors make a connection between the two. This will add lasting meaning to their visit.


For better or worse, attention spans of visitors are getting shorter. Overly wordy interpretive signage hardly commands significant attention and visitors move on quickly if an animal is not engaging at the moment. However, this does open the door for interactive ways to communicate the message. Interactive in this context means any medium from which a user can have a unique experience whether it is a knowledgeable person at the exhibit or a cell phone application. Many of the following strategies are already being utilized to varying degrees in zoos across the world.

In-Person Interpreter

The most simple and cost effective method to convey field efforts to visitors is to have a knowledgeable person, whether it be a trainer or volunteer docent, at the exhibit to literally recount the efforts being made. They could present artifacts sent directly from the field and visitors could have a sensory experience by touching or smelling them. However, it is not practical for a person to be in an exhibit during all operating hours so the message only gets to those visitors who happen to be there at the right time.

Role-Play Areas

A role-play area can mimic field conditions which relate to an exhibit. The scale of these play areas can vary from simple to elaborate or immersive. Most important with this strategy is to celebrate the work being done and encourage conservation by having visitors “play” for the same team as the researcher or conservationist in the field. Viewing areas could mimic the vantage point of the field researcher as the visitor studies the ambassador animal in the zoo. They could collect data with simplified versions of the field research. Real world progress can be chronicled as it happens by sharing information from the field researcher and the game could evolve concurrently with the field work.

Implementation: Technology

The following strategies all depend on the researcher in the field having access to technology to chronicle their work in real-time. Although the information they capture does not have to be shown up-to-the-minute, visitors feel a stronger connection when the content is fresh.

Media Wall/Video Screen

It would be impactful for visitors to see the field work happening on a screen adjacent to the exhibit. For example, having the experience of a close-up encounter while the wild counterpart is visible on a large screen could be very powerful. The researcher could film clips regularly that play on a loop at the exhibit, chronicling recent progress and findings. This would provide a unique experience for even habitual visitors each time as the exhibit avoids becoming static. An added benefit is they come to have an understanding of the field research and will relate it to the animal ambassador in the exhibit.

Social Media

Along the previous topic, the field researcher could take the content they have created and use various social media to share with a larger audience. There could be advertising for this content at the zoo entrances or specific exhibit to spread the word initially and it could be available on YouTube, Facebook or chronicled in a blog. Imagine how it would impact an elementary school science class to follow a particular blog over the school year and see firsthand the real pace of progress; whether quick or painfully slow. Content visitors consume at the exhibit could be reviewed at home on YouTube and shared with friends, convincing them to head to the zoo for themselves.

Animal Apps

As more parents take their children to the zoo with a smart phone or tablet in their bag, the opportunities to share information multiply. Utilizing this technology, all of the data and media collected from the field researcher could be programmed for an experience unique to each guest or group. There are many possibilities to create an interactive experience which combines the exhibit happenings with the field work. Imagine being able access information on demand, and even be able to interact with parts of the exhibit or field researcher with your phone or tablet. In the exhibit, you could control media and interactives with the phone. To go even further, imagine pressing a button on your phone to interact with the animal on exhibit: i.e. controlling an element within the exhibit itself such as a stream current. Not only would this be memorable for guests but could serve as enrichment for the animals as well, as long as it is programmed to prevent getting out of hand. Perhaps there is a limit on how many times such an interactive could be engaged in a given period of time. It should not be ignored that these applications could be a revenue source for the zoos as well.

Game applications which relate to the field work in a similar way to the role play games described earlier could be a huge hit with visitors. Once again, this is something they can engage long after leaving the zoo: it would succeed in keeping guests invested with the animals beyond their visit and create a lasting connection. If kids and parents alike can spend so much time playing games such as “Angry Birds” they could surely get into a game which relates to something they have personally seen or been involved with at the exhibit.

Utilization of an Opportunity

People, particularly children, are often emotionally affected by animals. This is especially true at the moment they connect with an animal in person. We cannot afford to squander the fleeting opportunity of this emotional connection. When a visitor moves on the emotional connection will diminish. We should use the moment to tell them the rest of the story and get them involved and engaged. We as zoo designers should do everything we can to nurture that connection and concern, and integrate the world-wide happenings from the field. We can nurture the formation of future attitudes towards animals and conservation in a more meaningful way than is currently being done on a mass scale.

Christina is a member of the PGAV Zoo Design Specialty Development Team.  She has been working at PGAV since 2008.  She has a Masters Degree in Architecture from Kansas State University, and is especially proud of her work on the currently under-construction Sea Lion Sound at the St. Louis Zoo.