By Judy Mann
Around the world, zoos and aquariums invest heavily in their primary tasks – animal care, research, education and conservation. In fact, the role of a zoo or aquarium is to be a powerful centre for conservation through focussed research, practical conservation and effective education. However, the opportunity to do conservation work, through providing our visitors with a strong conservation message, is predicated by our ability to attract enough visitors to remain financially viable. But, even as we strive to find what we assume is a balance between our guests’ entertainment need and our need to alert them to the need for more sustainable living, we have very little actual data on which to base our assumptions.
This is where the new research field of Visitor Studies has emerged; generating real data on who our visitors are, what do they do when visiting us, what they learn during the visit, what they remember after the visit and, most importantly, what the impact of a visit to a zoo or aquarium is on their behaviour at home.
It was only in the early 1970’s that zoo and aquarium professionals started to question the educational value of a visit to a zoo. In fact, the comment that Sommer (1972) made – ‘We must learn the extent to which the zoo serves to develop a proper environmental ethic’ – is probably even more relevant today than it was in 1972. Although the last 20 years have seen a substantial increase in the type of research that investigates the zoo or aquarium visitor and the impact that a visit has on their short- and longer-term knowledge, behaviour and attitudes, the field is still in its infancy, with great potential for expansion.
The conservation imperative for zoos and aquariums is clearly explained in the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy (WAZA 2005). Central to achieving many of the strategy’s conservation goals is the ability to reach our visitors’ hearts and minds, to influence their behaviour. It is only by understanding who our visitors are now, and what it is that they are currently getting out of a visit to our facilities, that we will be able to improve their experience sufficiently to ensure that our behaviour-change goals are achieved in the future. After all, with a combined visitorship of over 700 million people per year – zoos and aquariums are perfectly positioned to make a significant contribution to the global movement for a more sustainable future for our planet.