Interpreting Hope, Selling Conservation: The Role of Zoos and Aquariums in Environmental Education

How do you convince people to develop a new relationship with the environment, change their lifestyles, and adopt a different set of values? These are the challenges of environmental education – the lessons beyond natural history and science. Zoos and aquariums- even herbaria and natural history museums – are beginning to recognize their special responsibility to meet these challenges, to broaden their missions beyond husbandry and exhibits, teach environmental stewardship, and engage in environmental politics.

It is not a simple mission. There are no environmental commandments, no tablet of right and wrong behaviors, good and bad products, beneficial and destructive lifestyles. Environmental ethics are relatively recent in Western culture, having developed during the last 100 years as human population growth has overwhelmed the natural world. They represent a growing body of beliefs, based on increasingly compelling data, about limits to growth and the interdependence of human and natural ecosystems. These are new, complex, dynamic concepts that evolve as we learn more about the needs of our expanding humanity and those of the planet on which it depends.

If the messages of environmental education aren’t entirely clear, neither are the best techniques for communication. Just as there is no environmental bible, there is no handbook for “selling” conservation. Educators may cringe at the thought, but make no mistake, educating people about new values is selling. The aim is to raise both the populace’s environmental consciousness and its sensitivity quotient, to convert us from thoughtless consumers to careful stewards.

Aquariums and zoos have little experience with teaching normative values, let alone making revolutionary changes. And they have hardly any experience in marketing. But the new demands for integrating environmental education into the organization’s mission cannot be ignored.

Aquariums and zoos owe their existence (and tax status) to public education. As Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says, “The only justification for an aquarium is to educate the public.” But this mission is often confused with other institutional activities, including husbandry and entertainment. Without a clear educational goal, public support cannot be sustained.

Sustaining public support isn’t easy nowadays. Animal rights activists, among others, raise argue that humans have no right to confine animals for entertainment. Institutions respond that the public benefits of education and conservation outweigh the loss of rights by individual animals. By confining animals, more people have the chance to see them, which presumably leads to more effective efforts to protect their species in the wild. Captive breeding programs enable reintroduction of endangered species into the wild, and zoos and aquariums are supporting more ecosystem research and protection. But because these institutions are so inept at communicating an environmental purpose, it is not surprising that animal rights activists are increasingly successful in convincing the general public that the need for zoos and aquaria is past. And in some cases, they may be right.

Zoos and aquarium administrators often forget that husbandry – the capture and care of animals – is not the same as public education. Seeing wild animals in captivity is the main reason that millions of people visit these institutions. Under the best of circumstances, they see an animal in a replicated habitat; by observation or perhaps from a sign, learn something of its needs and role in the ecosystem; and leave the institution awed, inspired or a little more informed than when they arrived. Under other circumstances – meager budget, old facilities, poor management – they may be appalled to find solitary animals in cramped, unadorned cages, wandering aimlessly if moving at all, their identities and lives a mystery. Or they may be treated to a spectacle in which animals are directed to jump through hoops or otherwise behave in ways meant to entertain.

In between this range of artful education, thoughtless misery, and absurd entertainment is the “typical” zoo or aquarium experience: excitement and laughter. But is this education? What did they – we and our children – really learn? What an elephant looks like? How to attach a name to a face? How to tell a chimpanzee from a baboon? Maybe a vague notion of what an African savanna or kelp forest is like? Do we internalize new environmental values? If not, why, and what can be done to make institutions of nature more effective?

These are difficult questions, but one thing is clear: environmental entertainment is not stewardship. Big animals and pretty fish may make people “oh” and “ah” but viewed in stunning isolation won’t get them to change their behavior or attitudes. The link between individual animal, species, habitat, and threats to that habitat is a complex story not easily or quickly communicated.

In some cases by necessity, in others by neglect, the institution separates us from the animals and their habitats. Bars, walls and tanks create both physical and psychological barriers of proximity. We appear to live in different worlds when indeed we share a common destiny. Moreover, the link between the observer and the observed is temporary and impersonal. “It’s 2 p.m., we’re at the Ape Hall. Aren’t those chimps cute? Hurry now, we’ve got to get to the Lion Den by 2:30 p.m.”

This “cattle market” mentality is reinforced by the institutions. Too often their focus is more on turnover and people movement than educational impact and level of understanding. If the goal is simply to accommodate an increasing number of visitors, to expand the gate, then the educational mission is lost. Zoos and aquariums must seek a better balance.

Visitors also lack an environmental context. A bear in a cage with a sign identifying its common and scientific name and perhaps its geographic range is accepted as adequate. The educational paradigm is a graphic with limited information. Very rarely will we learn that many of the things we see are disappearing; very rarely will we learn that their lives depends on how we live our own lives. The important message of interdependency is not to be found. Out of context, out of mind.

This reveals the largest problem of all. Except for the cutest of critters, live exhibits of animals do not by themselves create an emotional connection to the subject or, more importantly, to the subject’s habitat. Like watching television, watching animals in person is passive observation, and passive observation does not sustain motivation. It doesn’t condition us to act any differently. We gain no environmental self-awareness by being animal voyeurs. A concept such as conservation is difficult to sell without an emotional cue.

None of these problems is insurmountable, though they will demand much more creativity and innovation of zoos and aquariums. The first problem, that of structure, is at the very core of the institution’s identity. After all, confinement defines a zoo or aquarium, pits, tanks, and cages. But this is a very narrow view of their educational role or possibilities. Structural confinement applies to wild animals, not to the talented people these institutions employ.

One of the most promising educational functions of a zoo or aquarium is outreach: taking children, families, adults out into the natural world, drawing connections between what they are seeing inside and what really exists around them, and expanding their knowledge about the environment in which they live. This also addresses, in part, the problems of time and emotional connection. Presumably a good teacher can give us the tools so we can learn about the environment ourselves and the positive feedback for doing so.

Surmounting the structural problem is in many ways much easier than surmounting the historical focus on husbandry. Zoos and aquariums perceive themselves as scientific institutions communicating facts, not fiction or stirring emotion. But when it comes to raising consciousness about the environment and changing people’s behavior, emotional cues – inspiration, wonderment, joy, fear, guilt – are what motivate people to act. It’s been said that you have to get your audience to cry before you can get them to care and to care before they will act. Zoos and aquariums must learn to understand and manipulate these cues.

It should come as no surprise that media – video, multimedia interactives, and film – elicit powerful emotions. Images and sounds affect us like nothing else. They demand attention. It is one thing to see a frolicking harbor seal in an aquarium. It is quite another to see a full-screen, close-up of a fur seal, its soulful eyes in contact with yours, then cut to a furrier wielding a bat above the seal, the muscles on his arms tensing as he swings the club down in slow motion. The harbor seal makes you giggle, the fur seal makes you gag. But is there any question which one makes you less likely to buy a fur coat, to support the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Act, or to learn more about status of seal populations?

A number of zoos and aquariums have recognized the power of media in selling environmental values. Institutions are beginning to develop a range of experiential programs, media, entertainment, and outreach. Using different media, trying a range of styles, communicating to a broad audience is important because different people respond to different cues. In melding videodisc and computer technology, for example, multimedia can provide an exciting, visual educational experience. An even more ambitious use of interactive technology brings the real world into the institution.

As rates of species extinction accelerate, zoos and aquariums face moral dilemmas: how to represent wild inhabitants of a rapidly diminishing natural world, how to justify confining animals while they are becoming natural artifacts, and how to involve themselves as environmental educators and stewards. Times are changing, and with them the ethics instilled in public education.

Selling conservation and exploring new techniques for environmental education are important and necessary roles for zoos and aquariums. Their challenge is to bring us hope for the fate the planet, enable us to see our connections to our animal companions, and motivate us to change our ways of living. These institutions can play a critical role in changing our perceptions and with them our environmental ethics.

[Manuscript published in The InterpEdge, March, 1995]