The days of the Victorian menagerie may be long behind us, but modern-day zoos and aquariums remain popular tourist attractions among people fascinated by wildlife.
Unlike the spectacles of centuries past, however, which were typically open only to royal or noble visitors, today’s zoos and aquariums function as increasingly vital sites of both conservation and learning – and they attract millions of visitors every year.
Some of the world’s largest zoos, such as the Bronx Zoo in New York, are home to thousands of animals representing hundreds of species, providing a unique opportunity for them to positively influence their visitors’ awareness of the issues facing the world’s animals.
In a series of projects spanning more than a decade, a team of UQ researchers has helped zoos, aquariums, museums and heritage sites around the world to evaluate and improve the experiences they offer to visitors, while also positively influencing their visitors’ environmental behaviours.
Professor Roy Ballantyne, Associate Professor Jan Packer, and Associate Professor Karen Hughes from UQ’s Business School have been investigating ways to enhance visitor learning experiences in zoos, aquariums and museums since 2005.
Supported by Australian Research Council funding, the team – known as the UQ Visitor Research team – has worked closely with zoo and aquarium partners across the world, including Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, the Bronx Zoo in New York and uShaka Marine World in Durban, to systematically identify the factors that influence visitors’ adoption of pro-environmental behaviours.
“In our first project, which we conducted at four wildlife tourism sites in Queensland, we established that an average of seven per cent of visitors were able to report a specific new environmental behaviour they had adopted as a result of their visit, so we could see there was a lot of room for improvement,” Professor Ballantyne says.
“Since then, we have focused on ways of increasing that percentage.”
This first study also developed a theoretical model that has guided subsequent research and provided practitioners with useful data on factors that influence visitor learning.
“One of the factors that we have consistently found to be important, through many studies at many different sites, is visitors’ reflective engagement,” Associate Professor Packer explains.
“When you hear your visitors saying ‘it made me think’, you know you are on the right track.”
The team’s research findings are helping eco- and wildlife tourism sites both in Australia and overseas extend, enhance and measure the outcomes of their conservation education initiatives, and ultimately play a greater role in developing a more environmentally literate global community.
“Zoos and aquariums are not like formal school classrooms, where the teacher can carefully plan and structure lessons so they build on and extend their students’ prior knowledge and experiences,” Professor Ballantyne explains.
“People are mostly there to have a fun day out, so we have developed a way to use the zoo experience to motivate people to reflect and take action after their visit.”
The team’s ARC-funded project with the Bronx Zoo, Taronga Zoo, Territory Wildlife Park and Wellington Zoo developed and tested ‘post-visit action resources’ to encourage visitors to translate their good intentions into actual behaviours. These web-based learning materials were designed to reinforce, complement and extend the zoos' on-site conservation messages.
After an iterative process of testing, evaluating and refining the website, a field study with an experimental design was used to test its effectiveness.
“We were able to demonstrate that the treatment group (who were given access to the website after their zoo visit) changed significantly more behaviours than the control group (who only visited the zoo),” Associate Professor Packer explains.
“These included behaviours such as reusing and recycling, picking up litter, and conserving electricity.”
Brookfield Zoo in Chicago now has a better understanding of its visitors’ perceptions of animal welfare thanks to the research Associate Professor Packer and Professor Ballantyne conducted at its gorilla exhibit in 2011.
The researchers investigated what indicators zoo visitors used, consciously or unconsciously, to judge the animals’ happiness, and how their assessments influenced their emotional connections with the gorillas and their satisfaction with their visit.
"Given the significance of their original findings, we have continued the research and today we have a better understanding of our visitors’ perceptions of zoo animals," former Senior Manager of Audience Research Jerry Luebke said.
“We are addressing our visitors’ concern about animal welfare by including more information about the health and welfare of our zoo animals during formal and informal staff interactions with visitors.”
The team’s research has enabled institutions to engage more meaningfully with their visitors, and to advance their global conservation mission.
“The collective body of research, dissemination and partnerships that this UQ research team has produced has truly illuminated new ways to present animal experiences in zoos and aquariums,” Alejandro Grajal, President and CEO of Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, explains.
“Their research has changed how advanced zoos and aquariums conduct environmental education, develop attitudes toward science, and particularly how they communicate conservation messages to their visitors.”
“The UQ team’s decades of experience in understanding zoo and aquarium visitors, mixed with creative research designs, impressive data handling and statistical skills, has resulted in significant advances in zoo education, program design and innovation.”
The team’s most recent project, in collaboration with researchers from The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Human and Cultural Values, and 12 zoos and aquariums in the US, Canada and Australia, is investigating how personal values impact on visitor experiences, learning outcomes, and visitors’ adoption of environmentally responsible behaviours.
The findings will assist zoos and aquariums to design educational materials and communication strategies that appeal to and connect with people from a range of different values perspectives, not only those who are already pro-environment.
Another outcome of the team’s research has been the development of a specific tool to measure, evaluate and compare the experiences of visitors across 15 dimensions, including attention, aesthetic engagement, compassion and reflective engagement.
Called DoVE for short, the Dimensions of the Visitor Experience tool has been successfully implemented in numerous visitor attractions around the world, including Denver Zoo and St Louis Science Center in the United States, Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand and Museums Victoria, Australia.
Staff from Shedd Aquarium in Chicago say DoVE has helped them to "better understand the variability of the visitor experience”.
By using DoVE to gather feedback from visitors to their Amphibians exhibition, Shedd staff were able to check for alignment between visitor experience and design intent, and make changes to enhance their visitors’ experience.
“In collaboration with our animal care staff, we began to alter lighting, habitat design, and even the animals on exhibit to help create a better experience that allowed for a less tense and more satisfying search,” they said.
As well as supporting ecotourism sites and attractions to engage more effectively with their visitors, the UQ Visitor Research team is also working with visitor research practitioners around the world to raise the profile and professional standing of this important area of research.
For example, the team has run a number of workshops for visitor research practitioners at leading zoos and aquariums around the world, contributed to short courses offered by the Visitor Studies Association in the US, and co-hosted nine annual Visitor Research Forums with the University of Canberra.
By up-skilling other researchers in these evaluation and engagement strategies, UQ researchers are helping ensure that wildlife tourism sites – and the millions who visit them each year – can play a central role in safeguarding wildlife and conservation efforts for many generations to come.
The team believes that the environmental problems facing the world today need to be addressed not only by the physical sciences, but also the social sciences.
"Education is the key to empowering individuals to make small changes to their everyday behaviours that can have a cumulative effect on the wellbeing of the planet," the team says.
"We believe lifelong learning in leisure settings, particularly those that rely on visitor interactions with animals, is an important part of this process, and this motivates most of our research."
The story so far
2005: The Visitor Research team is established at UQ in the former School of Tourism.
2005–2011: Associate Professor Packer and Professor Ballantyne serve as co-editors of the international journal Visitor Studies – the only academic journal in the field, published by Routledge in the USA.
2005: Professor Ballantyne and Associate Professor Packer are awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project titled Investigating the educational impact of wildlife-based leisure experiences in supporting visitors’ adoption of environmentally sustainable practices. They also commence work on their ARC Linkage project titled Learning for sustainability: The role and impact of Outdoor and Environmental Education Centres.
2006–2007: The team undertakes collaborative visitor research projects with the Burnett Shire Council (Queensland), Ocean Park Aquarium (Hong Kong); and State Library of Queensland, as well as Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre projects on Visitor information preferences and use of Visitor Information Centres and Designing best practice navigational and interpretive roadside signs.
2007–2009: The team assists the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda breeding in developing interpretative materials and training staff in visitor research methods.
2009: The first annual Visitor Research Forum is held at UQ, attracting nearly 60 participants from around Australia and New Zealand.
2010: Professor Ballantyne conducts a major visitor research project with zoo and aquarium partners in the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
2010: Associate Professor Packer commences development of the DoVE instrument to measure 15 dimensions of the visitor experience, which is now used by institutions globally.
2010: The team conducts collaborative research with Adelaide Zoo, investigating the impact of the arrival of giant pandas; the National Capital Educational Tourism Project, investigating the impact of school visits to the national capital on student learning and engagement in Civics and Citizenship; and with Canterbury Cathedral (UK), exploring visitor needs and interpretive strategies.
2011: The team is engaged to conduct a survey of staff and student perceptions of the UQ Art Museum.
2012: Professor Ballantyne and Associate Professor Packer are awarded an ARC Linkage Project titled Translating zoo visitors’ behavioural intentions into conservation actions using evidence-based post-visit experiences.
2013: Associate Professor Packer and Professor Ballantyne are awarded an ARC Discovery Project titled On being Australian: Exploring the role of ANZAC museum and heritage interpretive experiences in developing visitors’ sense of national identity.
2013: The team contributes to an AusAid Short Course for Myanmar, Built Heritage – Management and Conservation.
2016: Professor Ballantyne, Associate Professor Packer and Associate Professor Hughes are awarded another ARC Linkage Project titled Improving zoo/aquarium conservation learning outcomes: a values approach.
Image credits: alexisstock / Getty Images, Holger Link / Unsplash, Lance Anderson / Unsplash, William Warby / Unsplash, Dima Visozki / Pexels
The Visitor Research team: (left to right) Dr Chelsea Gill, Associate Professor Jan Packer, Professor Roy Ballantyne, and Associate Professor Karen Hughes.
This article was last updated on 20 March 2019.