Visits to Zoos and Aquaria may enhance Conservation-Related Behavior (CRB) engagement

January 18th, 2017



Through personally meaningful and emotional connections and experiences, zoos strive to inspire their visitors to become stewards for the natural world and care for animals (both in the zoo and the wild).  Research has shown that people are more knowledgeable about and interested in conserving animals and the natural world after a zoo visit, but how often is this intent converted into action? What do we know about behavioral changes inspired by a zoo visit?

Findings from Research & Evaluation

Many potential answers and suggestions come from a body of work researching ecotourism and its short and long-term impacts on the behavior of visitors. This work also looks at ways to improve visitors’ engagement in conservation-related behaviors (CRBs) through multi-sensory experiences, intentional encouragement of reflection, and post-visit support and reinforcement by providing resources and actionable items that are connected to everyday behaviors. Visitors that were encouraged to reflect on their experience and were given post-visit resources were more likely to engage in CRBs months after their experience, and remembered more about their experience.  (Hughes, Packer, & Ballantyne, 2011, Ballantyne, Packer, Hughes, & Dierking, 2007, Ballantyne, Packer, & Falk, 2011)


Turning to the zoo world, visitors that feel a strong connection to their experience at the zoo, such as having an interaction with an animal, a conversation with a staff member, observing animals in a naturalistic setting, and observing animals being active, are significantly more likely to want to take action to conserve animals and wild spaces. Many studies also show that visitors also feel able to make a difference with their actions and consider themselves, and zoos, important to conservation efforts around the world. (Hacker and Miller, 2008, Vernon, et. al., 2007; Swanagan, 2005, Packer & Ballantyne, 2007, Adelman, Falk, & James, 2000, Smith, Broad, & Weiler, 2008)  Those studies that have taken place in zoos or aquariums looking at long-term behavioral impacts have had trouble teasing apart visitors’ pre-affectations, like their environmental orientation and motivations, from their zoo-inspired changes in attitude and action.  Two studies in particular, one at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Conservation Station (Dierking, et al., 2004) and another at the National Aquarium in Baltimore (Adelman, Falk, & James, 2000), found that guests had very high intentions to participate in CRBs in the short-term after their visit– significantly higher than pre-visit levels. In the Dierking study, visitors selected specific everyday-related actions they felt interested in pursuing. However, both studies ultimately found a decrease in intentions and a very small number of realized actions by guests in the long-term (2-3 months post-visit).  In the case of the Adelman study, visitors’ levels of intention and enthusiasm to participate in CRBs returned to pre-visit levels after 6-8 weeks post-visit.

Directions for Future Research

Dierking et al. describe the potential for a more finely tuned instrument to measure long-term impact on behavior by a zoo visit. The researchers used the Prochaska Model of Behavioral Change, which wasn’t sensitive enough to measure significant changes within the behavioral change stages within the model but would have been potentially useful for evaluation of the data.  Any research that can tell us more about long-term impacts on visitor’s CRB engagement is much needed! The research is clear that intent is significantly higher in the short-term (directly after a visit), but learning more about the conversion between short-term intent and long-term impact is in high demand.  



  1. Adelman, L. M., Falk, J. H., & James, S. (2000). Impact of National Aquarium in Baltimore on visitors’ conservation attitudes, behavior, and knowledge. Curator: The Museum Journal, 43(1), 33–61.

  2. Ballantyne, R. & Packer, J. (2011). Using tourism free-choice learning experiences to promote environmentallysustainable behaviour: The role of post-visit ‘action resources’. Environmental Education Research, 17(2),201–15.

  3. Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Falk, J. H. (2011). Visitors’ learning for environmental sustainability: Testing short- and long-term impacts of wildlife tourism experiences using structural equation modelling. Tourism Management, 32, 1243–1252.

  4. Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., Hughes, K., & Dierking, L. (2007). Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: Lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. Environmental Education Research, 13(3), 367–383.

  5. Beaumont, N. (2001). Ecotourism and the Conservation Ethic: Rectruiting the Uninitiated or Preaching to the Converted? Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 9(4), 317-341.

  6. Dierking, L.D., Adelman, L.M., Ogden, J., Lehnhardt, K., Miller, L., and Mellen, J.D. (2004). Using a Behavior Change Model to Document the Impact of Visits to Disney’s Animal Kingdom: A Study Investigating Intended Conservation Actions. Curator: The Museum Journal, 47(3), 322-343.

  7. Falk, J.H., Reinhard, E.M., Vernon, C.L., Bronnenkant, K., Deans, N.L., & Heimlich, J.E. (2007). Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD. Vernon et al. 2007. Why_Zoos_Aquariums_Matter.pdf

  8. Hacker, C.E. and Miller, L.J. (2016). Zoo Visitor Perceptions, Attitiudes, and Conservation Intent After Viewing African Elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Zoo Biology, XX, 1-7.  Hacker_Miller_ZooBio_elephants_2016.pdf

  9. Hughes, K., Packer, J. & Ballantyne, R. (2011). Using post-visit action resources to support family conservation learning following a wildlife tourism experience. Environmental Education Research, 17(3), 307-328.    

  10. Smith, L., Broad, S. & Weiler, B. (2008). A closer examination of the impact of zoo visits on visitor behaviour. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16(5), 544-562.

  11. Swanagan, J.S. (2000). Factors Influencing Zoo Visitors’ Conservation Attitudes and Behavior. The Journal of Environmental Education, 31(4). 26-31.