Shaping the Narrative: How Does My Zoo and Aquarium Compare to Other Institutions?

We have been sharing results from studies of how Zoo and Aquarium (Z/A) personnel and visitors think and talk about these institutions. In the last post we focused on the results from survey modules that assessed personnel and visitor perceptions of Zoos and Aquariums in terms of Z/A conservation efforts and opportunities they provide for STEM learning. That post covered the perceptions that these two groups have in common and areas where they diverge.

For this post, we focus on findings from two survey modules designed to understand how visitors view their local Z/A compared to other cultural institutions, including Z/A, in general. In one of them, we asked participants to rate their home institutions on a series of items in comparison to other institutions on a scale of 1-3, where 3 meant their home institution was better, 2 meant their home institution was about the same, and 1 meant their institution was worse. Out of 93 institutions that received this ask, 53 participated institutions participated in this module with 397 visitors completing the survey. On average, respondents rated their local institutions as better compared to other Z/As. Also, respondents were more likely to describe their Z/A as an iconic cultural institution for their area or town.

In another module, we asked participants to compare their Z/A to another informal science learning center (science center, nature center, or natural history museum) that they had visited recently. We chose these three cultural institutions because like Z/As, they also keep live animals. Out of 93 institutions that received this module, 58 participated with 319 visitors sending in responses. The results show that most visitors (67% of respondents) feel that visiting Z/As are a better way for families and friends to spend quality rather than visiting science centers, natural history museums or nature centers. Most visitors (59% of respondents) felt that Z/As offer more opportunities for interacting with educators compared to the three informal science learning centers that were the focus of the study.

We also found more visitors felt that their Z/As were better at helping to conserve species in the wild (53%), and made money to support conservation (49%) compared to three types of informal learning centers that we asked about. Meanwhile, most respondents (48%) felt that the Z/As were better at providing animals with proper medical compared to other institutions, and the bulk of visitors (45%) felt that their local Z/As were better at letting them know when animals were relocated to other facilities.

There was one area where respondents rated Z/As roughly on par with other informal learning centers. Our results showed that 36% of visitors felt that their Z/As inform the public about global climate change better than science centers, natural history museums, or nature centers. However, we found that another 35% of respondents felt that all these institutions keeping live animals are equally good at informing the public about climate change.

We suggest two potential implications from these findings. It’s important that messages aimed at promoting conservation and STEM topics are tailored to local visitors. These individuals already express a strong preference for their local Z/A – 87% of respondents think of the facility that they visit as “their” Z/A – and are more likely to be open to learning information that reinforces their favorable perceptions. To encourage stronger support for conservation activities, Z/A educators should use teaching strategies that leverage visitors’ feelings about their local institution, and emphasize ways through which they can support conservation goals.

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