Book: The Social Value of Zoos

Zoos and aquariums are popular public attractions, but what kinds of learning happen there? Can that learning translate into action for conservation?

by John FraserTawnya Switzer
Mar 29, 2021

Zoos and aquariums across the world have contributed substantially to what experts and the public know about wildlife, animals’ biology and needs, and threats to species. At the same time, these cultural institutions are contested sites that must adapt and think forward to maintain social relevance.

The Social Value of Zoos offers a nuanced tapestry of narratives, perspectives, and understandings with respect to zoos and aquariums (typically grouped under a “zoos” umbrella unless distinguishing between the two makes sense). Traditionally, research in zoos and aquariums has tended to focus on impacts for individuals, single visits, and scripted knowledge transfers. Yet, this approach profoundly limits the opportunities for zoos and aquariums to deliver on their missions. We draw on conservation psychology and other social science research to explore the viewpoints of key groups: those who work in these settings and members of the public who do – and do not – visit.

Notably, awe, wonder, and care are powerful points of entry for humans to build emotional bonds with animals. Bonding with animals, in turn, leads people to experience tensions around the moral and relational implications of human–animal connectedness. These tensions can spark people to engage in profound reflections about who they are and what they value. For these reasons, zoos and aquariums are distinct among cultural venues in their ability to promote meaning making as individuals and groups navigate concepts like compassion, ethics, practical knowledge, identity, and action.

By capturing the many ways the public perceives, values, and uses zoos and aquariums, the book sheds light on how these institutions can develop and deliver learning experiences that translate into conservation action. Ultimately, this is a rationale for and roadmap to action that zoos and aquariums everywhere can use to support a thriving biosphere on which all our lives depend.

Ways to Use this Book

The Social Value of Zoos was created for zoo industry professionals, volunteers, and students worldwide, and will also be of interest to a more general audience of educators and laypeople who want the institutions they care about to do more to achieve conservation-mindset societies. A very wide range of stakeholders – from zoogoing enthusiasts and the docents who interact with public audiences to the professionals who make these institutions run -- have the potential to make zoos and aquariums better. Each chapter examines a key topic, such as morality, identity, and impact, to establish shared language and starting points for dialogue. This book is ideal for groups of readers who want to learn together for professional development or as an affinity cohort. We provide a free discussion guide to get the conversation started:

Discussion Guide

More about the Book Project

This book is part of Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter (WZAM), a long-term research initiative designed to understand how zoos and aquariums contribute to society in the United States. The current WZAM research, called STEM Matters: Investigating the Confluence of Visitor and Institutional Agendas, is supported by National Science Foundation (award #DRK-1612729 and #DRK-1612699). Read more about the WZAM initiative here.

This book would not have been possible without the grant support provided by the National Science Foundation (grants #DRL-1713428, DRL-1612729, DRL-1612699, DRL-1240641, DRL-1115217, DUE-12-39775, DUE- 1043405, ISE-08-40160); the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grants #LG-95-17-0058-17, LG-55-14-0148-14, LG-30-08-0035-08, LG-30-03-0255-03, LG 25-05-0102-05; MA-06-12-0143-12, MG-70-18-0009-18); the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (grants #NA17SEC080001, NA-13-SEC-0080010, NA-10-SEC-0080029); the National Endowment for the Humanities (grant #BK-50017-06); the Environmental Protection Agency (grant #NE00A00338); and a variety of private foundations, individual gifts, and the research partnerships with all of our conservation psychology colleagues.

Photo (c) Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tyson V. Rininger

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