What is the Role of Zoos and Aquariums in Communities?

Session Overview

At the 2022 AZA Annual conference, the Social Science Research and Evaluation Scientific Advisory Group (SSRE SAG) convened a session that delved into one of the five priority research questions of the AZA’s Social Science Research Agenda (SSRA): What is the role of zoos and aquariums in communities? This session brought together professionals who develop, facilitate, evaluate, and research the development, processes, and impacts around the roles of zoos and aquariums in communities, including: community expectations, effective strategies and processes for engagement, and how Z/As (zoos and aquariums) contribute to their communities. Through brief presentations, speakers shared what is currently being done in their communities, and what SSRA sub-questions we have started to answer. Breakout sessions engaged participants in discussion about where community engagement can go, what other research questions we have, and how we can answer them in relation to 1) expectations of communities, 2) effective methods to engage with communities, and 3) contributions of Z/As towards communities. Representatives from the SSRE SAG compiled notes from these breakout sessions and have synthesized them here to make them available to the AZA and greater SSRE community.

Session speakers, facilitators, and note takers used the information provided during the session by program participants in the break out sessions to identify themes across groups.

Session Participants

Session participants (including speakers) represented over 70 different organizations, including zoos, aquariums, non-profits, and private companies from around the United States (30 states) and two additional countries. Session participants also held a wide range of positions within their respective organizations, from C-suite officers to Curators, Managers, Coordinators, and frontline staff. Individuals represented various Z/A departments including but not limited to Education, Government Affairs, Membership, and Marketing. High variation of representation across institutions suggests there is broad interest in and support for engaging communities. 

Community Expectations

AR Lopez (Woodland Park Zoo) and Marley Steele-Inama (Denver Zoo) spoke about how their respective institutions are showing up to ask their communities how the zoos can play a role in their lives (i.e. what are expectations). We asked session participants if their institutions have asked what [their] community expects of [their] institution and the majority of organizations (69%) present have asked questions or are starting the process (60 of 87 tallied responses).

There were four prominent themes that arose when we asked participants to share what they had been asking their communities (Table 1). The most common question type encompassed getting to know the community in order to be effective collaborators or co-learners. These included questions about what ideal collaborations look like. The next most frequently asked questions were about what the community wants and needs. Similarly, Z/As asked communities about barriers for engagement, including questions about accessibility which ranged from transportation to costs. The fourth most common type of question was around education, particularly related to program specific feedback. Following that, asking about what the community knows about the Z/A and their expectations, asking about sense-of-belonging and value of the organization, conservation, how can we (the Z/A) be better, and the community’s role/impact. Overall the majority of the questions that Z/As have been asking their communities have just started to scratch the surface of understanding engagement. The majority of these questions are also discreet with actionable answers. 

ThemeExample Questions from Session Participants
Getting to know the communityWhat does a thriving community look like to you?
Wants/needsHow can our resources serve your students?
Barriers/ accessibilityBarriers to spending time in nature/visiting the zoo? What can we share to help you overcome these barriers?
Feedback about programsWhat materials can we develop?
Table 1. What are Z/As already asking their communities?

However, when we heard from participants about what other questions we should be asking communities, participants recognized a need for more in-depth questions (Table 2). Many question types fell into collaborators and co-learners. Additional question themes that arose were about effective strategies for engagement and how the Z/A contributes to community often tied to aspects of building trust. Within the theme of effective strategies for engagement, questions about understanding barriers were commonly identified. Z/As also want to engage their communities in conservation action and supporting resilience. Participants recognized that while this is a high priority for them, conservation action or building resilience might not be a high priority for their communities. Or if these are already a priority in the community, Z/As acknowledged that they need to recognize and support the communities in the work they have already been doing.

ThemeExample Questions from Session Participants
Collaborators and co-learnersHow can we work together to reach even more individuals in our collaboration?
Effective strategies for engagementWhat are barriers to participation? What stops us from coming out to you/you from coming in?
Contribution to community/trustUse open ended questions that allow more diverse voices added to the organization. What can Z/A learn from the community? How can Z/A best honor the community’s efforts and work?
Supporting resilienceConducting an asset inventory → what can Z/As do to fill gaps?
Table 2. What other questions should Z/As ask their communities?

Effective Methods and Processes for Community Engagement

Ashley Terry (Oakland Zoo), Shuli Rank (Wildlife Conservation Society), and Amy Niedbalski (Saint Louis Zoo) spoke about the strategies used at their institutions to study and encourage community engagement. Respectively they spoke about co-designing educational curriculum with teachers, using a mapping strategy to identify partners, and using family engagement sessions to design and reimagine a new exhibit space.

Participants offered ways they are currently reaching out into their communities.  Recurring themes were ensuring the Z/A was accessible for schools and families through free or reduced price tickets and programming. Z/As also regularly participated in community events, partnered with other local organizations and cultural institutions for celebrations, and had opportunities to hear feedback from audiences through surveys, focus groups, co-design processes, and workshops.

There were many overlapping themes when participants were asked to reflect on other methods to engage communities. These methods included discounts/incentives for visitation or programming, having onsite community events/programs, and going into the community for events/programming. While these were mentioned frequently in the first question, they featured less in the second question. It seems the realization that these more simplistic ways of approaching and giving to communities through “freebies” or “one-offs,” though important, are not enough. The discussion of what is still to be done is moving toward more complex ways of thinking about community roles through ongoing, consistent partnerships and authentic relationship building. This goes as far as suggesting that Z/As go into communities to understand their community’s needs and interest, to building onsite community centers, to the utilization of institutional power to lift up a community, to advocacy for environmental justice, and even to placing community needs before the (current) missions of Z/As.

There were many mentions to both questions about gathering feedback through focus groups, surveys, open houses, listening sessions, and advisory councils. We saw the discussion shift towards gathering of information through relationship building by talking with others, asking community members to speak to us, truly understanding community needs and also understanding how a Z/A’s assets may be leveraged to help meet these community needs.

Other themes that emerged from what Z/As are already doing to what they could be doing included increasing emphasis on hiring practices, staff and volunteer training, communications improvements and advocacy through governmental agencies. Among hiring practices, items mentioned include hiring locally, hiring more diverse staff, paying interns, creating career pathways, hiring dedicated community engagement staff, improving volunteer opportunities and reducing hiring requirements (e.g. requiring 4-year degrees). Training and professional development ideas for staff included bias and inclusion training, integration of community engagement into all staff roles, reciprocal professional development offerings with community organizations, and providing staff with paid volunteer time to support community organizations. Communication barriers that Z/As must recognize are not only verbal language barriers between staff and community members, but also the potential barrier in all communication platforms, such as apps, signage, social media, and websites. Finally, there is evidence of a shift toward the discussion of advocacy for and with communities through Z/A participation in state and federal legislature, and other local governmental bodies.

Overall, the current methods of engaging with communities and what may be used in the future are not surprising. And it is reassuring that there is now qualitative evidence of the awareness of needed ways for Z/As to be reconsidering, reimagining, and reinvigorating their roles within a community and how to best engage.

Contribution to Communities

Emily Yam (Aquarium of the Pacific) and Amy Niedbalski, representing Louise Bradshaw (Saint Louis Zoo) spoke about multi-year work that their respective organizations are doing with their communities and the impact that that work has had on those communities, specifically how Z/As can collaborate to support climate resilience education and support immigrant communities.

Participants in the session noted that their Z/As most frequently contribute to their communities as a destination (e.g. safe spaces, place-based learning, school field trips, green spaces), a partner (e.g. with school districts, social service organizations, science festivals), a service provider (e.g. educational programs, community science), an employer (e.g. jobs, internships, professional development), or an agent of positive change (e.g. support understanding of conservation issues, be a place for wellness, building empathy, building connections with nature).


Answering research questions about the role of Z/As in communities is a process that simultaneously asks important questions while engaging the communities Z/As hope to engage with. While mechanisms for some types of engagement may be regularly embedded in Z/As, such as increasing accessibility to the Z/A through free and reduced price visits and programs via schools; deeper engagement through enhanced partnerships, repeat experiences, and civic action with non-school community groups is where the role of Z/As in communities seems to be headed. This additional or enhanced form of engagement has been slow to spread both across Z/As and at individual Z/As. Based on feedback from this session it seems the next two to three years of research should focus on the most pressing questions for moving forward answers about the role of Z/As in communities. These are:

  • Where do Z/As have legitimacy with the community (i.e. building trust);
  • How do Z/As serve as collaborators and co-learners; and
  • How can Z/As positively support communities to take environmental action and develop resilience?

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