Captive nature: exploring the influence of zoos on visitor worldview, knowledge, and behavior
Zoological parks are a complex place of human-animal, animal-environment, and human-environment interactions; as the global population becomes more urbanized, zoos are one of the only places in which urban dwellers can learn about and experience the "natural" world. Zoos now act as key purveyors of public conservation education, shaping the ways in which visitors understand and situate themselves within local and global conservation issues and natural environments. Zoos educate the public on these and other topics through the implementation of informal education programs (IEPs) within their institutions, but the effectiveness of these programs in positively altering visitor knowledge, attitude, and behavioral is not well understood. Through interviews, questionnaires, and participant observation conducted at the San Antonio Zoo I explored (1) how zoo visitors interacted with and perceived of a zoo animal species, the white-cheeked gibbon; (2) how zoo visitor perceptions of animals were influenced by visitor-animal interactions in various zoo contexts (e.g. within and outside of IEPs); (3) what zoo visitors were learning about animal and conservation within these various contexts; and (4) the effectiveness of an IEP in inspiring zoo visitors to actively participate in conservation initiatives. I framed my inquiry into visitor and zoo animal relationships within post-humanist theories and explored visitor perceptions of animals, the environment, and conservation through the lens of virtualism, resulting in a novel view of visitor experience and learning within the zoo setting. In this thesis I discuss the results of this research and their implications for conservation education efforts within zoos.