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What do misidentified animals mean for zoo education?

Discussion in 'General Zoo Discussion' started by iloveyourzoos, 16 Aug 2022.

  1. iloveyourzoos

    iloveyourzoos Active Member

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    There are several long threads (here, here, and here) that talk about animals that are misidentified by zoo guests. Those threads are fun to read (and sometimes upsetting and scary and mind-boggling too). But I wanted to start this thread to ask a more serious question, without derailing the light-hearted spirit of those others.

    Quite simply: What do all those misidentified animals mean for the state of zoo education?

    Now before you panic, I fully understand that zoos have signs, and that they do classes, camps, tours, talks, and online work as well. I also understand the old saying that you can lead a horse to water... (but you can't assure someone won't call it a monkey).

    Still, the frequency of the reports of misidentified animals does seem somewhat troubling for institutions that talk about being educational facilities. So I guess I'm curious to learn:

    1. I'm sure that zoos realize that signs can only have a limited impact. Have they just accepted this phenomenon, or are they actively seeking new exhibit layouts or interpretation styles or different staffing structures to reach guests at each habitat/exhibit? (I've read "How to exhibit a bullfrog", for example, and imagine it would be hard for someone to walk through that and not know what a frog was by the end).

    2. Is animal identification even much of a priority as an educational objective anymore, or have education departments shifted solely to conservation messaging as their goal? If a guest leaves knowing that they should recycle and should only buy sustainable palm oil, does the zoo care that they didn't learn how to distinguish a lion from a lemur?

    3. Are habitats/exhibits even considered the proper location for education anymore, as opposed to the designated education center, the children's learning annex, or the keeper talk/animal show? (and maybe the website too). Have the proliferation of these designated learning spots created a weird sort of in situ/ex situ situation, where learning is now shifted to one area but less emphasized elsewhere? Or where guests are bifurcated as learners vs. window-shoppers?

    Again, I'm not trying to come down on anyone. I get that only so much can be done and guests will inevitably fall through the cracks. (Some may even race toward the cracks to avoid learning anything!). I'm just wondering how much of a focus this is, how much zoos worry about all of this (if at all), what new innovations they're thinking about to account for this, or whether they just accept that some guests aren't there for the reasons that zoos want them to be there.
     
  2. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    Which is what, exactly?
    Zoos are not universities. Guests are not students. Most guests did not come to the zoo primarily to study animal taxonomy. Every guest who pays admission is a win for the zoo. Every guest who does pick up some new understanding is a win for zoo education.
     
  3. Lafone

    Lafone Well-Known Member

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    To echo this point on a busy day it’s interesting to see how few zoo visitors are bothered by what an animal is, or indeed what it is really doing. The majority are characterising animal behaviour into human or relatable terms often for kids (for example…look it’s making a face like you, it’s playing in the dirt like you, it loves that one, it’s got a ball like (our cat or dog), it’s fighting like you fight with your brother, look away while I laugh with the adults while it’s having sex, look towards it - it’s having a hilarious poo! etc). Half the time people are constructing madly untrue narratives to keep kids at an enclosure (just today someone was telling their kids the polar bears were mummy daddy and baby bear just after a keeper had said they were 3 boys the kids enjoyed the story a lot though). Very few bother to read the signs as they are moving on to the next thing.

    Some people clearly are knowledgeable or seeking knowledge but while I’m sure zoos would like to do loads of education they really want most people to have a quality family day out (they recognise they are in competition with other attractions) so they come back.

    Misidentification is just one of those things. And I imagine the zoo would be pleased if just a few people read the signs and find stuff out.
     
  4. iloveyourzoos

    iloveyourzoos Active Member

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    Thank you for these replies. To be clear, I am coming from a place of truly trying to understand how zoos understand and implement their role, not from a place of trying to attack anyone or any institution.

    The AZA accreditation standards say that "Education must be a key component of the institution's mission". (Other zoo organizations have similar requirements.)

    Maybe I'm just reading too much into what it means for something to be a "key component of the institution's mission"? To me, it sounds very strange to say education is a key component of a zoo's mission -- and to make that a required part of accreditation -- but then to subordinate that to a great day out for the family, or say it's satisfied because people may (or may not) pick up some knowledge along the way.

    If a zoo is putting up signs, but otherwise allowing guests to do what they would without the signs (have some family-friendly entertainment), does this really qualify as a "key component of the institutional mission"? To me, it starts to sound like a secondary or supplementary or optional component, rather than a key one. But again, maybe I'm reading too much into it.

    I gave a few options in the original post that might explain this. (And there may be others as well). The responses make me think that option 2 is part of it -- ie. that animal identification or taxonomy is simply not a prominent goal of the syllabus, but rather that education is focused on recycling, etc.. In such a context the signs about the animals at exhibits feel supplementary, like optional reading outside of class, rather than the key educational goal. (Which may be totally fine, by the way. Not every class can teach every topic. I'm just trying to understand if that is indeed how zoos think about them).

    Another part of these responses make me think that option 3 is part of it too -- ie. that habitats/exhibits aren't the primary place where zoos try to do their education components. That they reserve that for their camps, classes, shows, talks, lectures, etc.., and have bifurcated out learners (those who choose to attend those special programs) vs. guests (who just want a nice day for the family). I suppose that they could still say that makes education a key component -- but maybe not so much an integrated one. Almost like the institution is running two different entities -- their educational program on the one hand, and their family-oriented entertainment zoo on the other. (Again, this may be totally fine if that's what a zoo is intending to do or all the standards require, but I'm trying to understand if this is indeed all that they're intending?)

    I ask all of this trying to get a better understanding of what seems at first glance to be a real mismatch between the high priority that education is given in mission and publicity documents, and the casual acceptance that many guests are there for other reasons and may not actually learn very much. I get that a zoo is not a university, and that there is a limit to what can be done in a one day visit. But if the average guest isn't necessarily expected to learn very much (if we assume they're there just to have a family outing, or if there's not much that can be taught and retained in a single day, or that we'd be lucky if they even bothered to read the signs), then does it really make sense to list education as such a "key component" of the mission and a strict requirement of accreditation?

    Or is the idea of this key component really just a more minimalistic requirement that a zoo should have signs and offer separate classes/camps/talks, but not necessarily measured in terms of how much "gets through" to the average, family entertainment focused guest? Is it simply that a guest has "seen" some animals and "walked by" some signs, and if so how is that really any different than saying that the institution's mission is about display or exhibition, as opposed to education?
     
  5. Lafone

    Lafone Well-Known Member

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    A lot of U.K. zoos support school and group visits and that’s an important part of the educational component of their work. Those often include talks with keepers, quizzes and interactive games. Although I highlighted adults making some generalised comments above I’m sure other people have heard as I have kids telling adults things they learned on a school trip to the same zoo (up at whipsnade you can often hear kids talking to their parents about their previous school trip).

    Most zoos also have keeper talks which do have an educational / informational element for people attending them and a lot of money is spent on signage etc. Keepers and volunteers also offer a lot of great information when people talk to them. I found out some stuff I didn’t know about hyena groups from a keeper at YWP yesterday (partly why I read this thread!).

    Education as a requirement is going to be met by offering it in a lot of cases. I’ve not visited a collection which isn’t trying to do that.

    I’d suggest both of those are how they’d be measured on education etc. They couldn’t really be objectively measured on how general visitors are educated as there wouldn’t be a sensible way of gauging what they knew before and it’s a case of you can lead a horse to water etc.

    It would be interesting to know how you think zoos could educate more strongly.
     
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  6. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    Zoo education departments do indeed survey and evaluate what guests learn.
    But I am concerned that the tone of your posts suggests that guest learning be somehow mandatory. Education at zoos is both casual and formal. Different people learn in different ways. Individual visitors learn differently than people in groups. Do you want to grade visitors and assign homework to those who can't distinguish between two species of Birds of Paradise? If a visitor can't tell an Asian elephant from an African elephant will she be refused reentry at a future date?
    What, specifically are you wanting zoos to be doing to the paying visitors to meet your understanding of the importance of education?
     
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  7. GaryA

    GaryA Well-Known Member

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    A family goes on a day trip to a zoo to be ENTERTAINED. They want to see cute and fuzzy doing silly things.

    They don't give a damn if they misidentify an animal. It won't have any effect on them for any reason.

    An hour's learning class for schoolkids as part of a school trip or a keeper show and tell doesn't relate to scholarly learning.

    You are massively overthinking things. Zoos are commercial enterprises not academic centres.
     
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  8. iloveyourzoos

    iloveyourzoos Active Member

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    Thank you all for your helpful and thoughtful responses. It's very helpful for developing my own understanding!

    I worry a little that my lack of knowledge may be causing me to step on some landmines that I don't even know are there, and that this may be what's giving the wrong tone. If so, please know that it's not intentional -- just clumsy.

    I hear you loud and clear that I've been too literal and too gullible in my reading of the AZA requirement that "Education must be a key component of the institution's mission". I personally don't think I would use such strong language if the intent was simply to retreat to the family entertainment reasoning so quickly in practice. But my goal was to understand what zoos mean and how they are explaining their decisions, and you've all explained that very well. I'll simply learn to translate that language in my head and take it with a pinch of salt.
     
  9. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member

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    Education is, as it should be, a core part of the mission statement of any good zoo. However, I think it's important to consider what a good zoo education program entails. For this post, I'm talking specifically about regular zoo visits- school programs, zoo camps, animal encounters, behind-the-scenes tours, and the like are all important but aren't directly related to the topics of this thread. So the question I'm asking, from an educational perspective, is what should visitors get out of a visit? Is what we want for visitors to simply be able to list the animals they saw, or state some simple facts about the animals, and how will that translate into the real world? Rather, the focus of zoo education should, and usually is, focused on bigger environmental concepts and an overall appreciation for nature and wildlife. It doesn't matter if someone knows what the animal they're seeing are if they don't also gain a deeper appreciation for the animals, a deeper desire to conserve wildlife and appreciate nature as a whole. And frankly, I think most zoo educators would agree that signs or simple 2-D graphics are not the best means of conveying these concepts and important ideas to guests. Personally I'm a big fan of interactive graphics- as more visitors will interact with them and hopefully retain some of the information. Having docents or other interpreters present at various exhibits and stations throughout the zoo is also a very good means of educating the public when done right (I know many on here have stories of these types of programs "gone wrong"- but there are also a lot of highly effective zoo volunteers and interpreters that are doing tremendous education work). One thing I'm surprised I haven't seen more often is education through other forms of media- such as videos and audio. And while education centers, nature play areas, etc. are important aspects of any zoo, education is not something that should be pushed off to one corner of a zoo- it is something that should completely encompass the zoo-going experience. Especially as profound experiences and appreciation of animals and nature IS education.
     
  10. GaryA

    GaryA Well-Known Member

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    I still think, unless you offer a free "show and tell" presentation, you are unlikely to engage family groups with anything more than fleeting knowledge.
    You are better off with younger kids getting engaged in talks/on site education as part of a school trip, but this does depend on who funds it.
    Plus I have a problem with using "animal ambassadors" when they would be happier and more suited to being kept with their own species.
     
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  11. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member

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    A lot of animal ambassadors are in fact kept with other members of their species. And for ones that aren't, would that really make them "happier"? There are a lot of snake species commonly used as ambassadors, for instance, and would that kingsnake you see a zoo use as an ambassador really be happier kept with another kingsnake?
     
  12. Batto

    Batto Well-Known Member

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    Yet they often advertise themselves as the latter...;)
     
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  13. Batto

    Batto Well-Known Member

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    To make visitors a little bit more than less educated after their zoo visit?
    Maybe zoos (or at least some of them) will have to further distance themselves from the public conception of idle family-friendly mass entertainment centres. It works well for me and WdG.
     
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  14. iloveyourzoos

    iloveyourzoos Active Member

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    Very interesting to read all the perspectives on this! I'm starting to get the sense that there are really distinct approaches to why (and whether and how) education is used in zoos. I'm detecting four approaches from what I'm reading in this thread (though there may be others too).

    I can imagine that each of these approaches could be done very well (or very poorly), so that zoos that share a rationale may be very different in quality, while zoos that are very similar in quality might have very different rationale for why they're doing that!

    1. Education as an external requirement. The implementation and quality could be very different from zoo to zoo (meeting just the minimum requirements versus feeling pressure to meet a higher standard), but the key is that the rationale is coming from elsewhere in some way. That could be from an accrediting body, or to support a zoo's public relations or governing requirements, or simply to keep up with an external image of what a "good" or "modern" zoo is supposed to be.

    2. Education as a programmatic element. Again, this is independent of quality and could cover a zoo that has extensive educational programming or one that has just a few classes. But it's thought of as a distinct area/department/focus and isn't necessarily integrated or driving decisions about other areas/departments/foci that aren't considered "educational".

    3. Education as a necessary part of meeting some other institutional goal. That other goal could be mass family entertainment (believing people will have a more enjoyable day if they learn something about the animals they're seeing) or conservation (guests won't take action unless they know why they should) or a different goal entirely, but the key is that education is viewed as a way of making this other goal possible, rather than a goal in itself.

    4. Education as an integral and independent cornerstone of a zoo's mission. Like a zoo that designs its mission around the three co-equal and non-negotiable goals of animal welfare, conservation, and education. Quality might still vary depending on funding, resources, and capacity among zoos of this type, but they would at least recognize education as something to aspire to in and of itself, and would likely view misidentification of animals as at least a concern that they'd try valiantly to address.

    Again, I've tried to think of these rationale separately from achieved quality or available resources. So it's possible that zoos from the four different rationales might have nearly identical signage, or types of classes/talks -- but they would think about why they're doing this differently, see the relative importance of education differently, and judge their success differently. Similarly, there might be a very small or very poor zoo that truly does take education of each and every guest seriously as central to its mission, but due to resources it is being outpaced by a larger and richer zoo that has more programs, even though the larger zoo is really only doing it to meet an external requirement.

    Not sure if this is helpful to anyone other than me, but it's what I was thinking about this evening, so thought I'd share.
     
  15. JVM

    JVM Well-Known Member

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    To focus on the title question, I don't think the misidentified animals mean anything about zoo education and the endless threads complaining about misidentification on zoochat simply represent members frustrated their admirable specialized knowledge is not relevant to the average zoo guest who will never need to know such things.

    I do not want to address the broader question of what education means in a zoo, but I do not think taxonomy is an honest part of that. You do not see signage at most zoos explaining the differences between species or subspecies of gorilla or tiger. Signage will often be about the threats facing the environment and how they affect animals broadly. So the state of zoo education is fine because it is focused on other things.

    The relationship between animals and guests is much different than it once was. The animals are ambassadors for their environments and the guests are there to help fund caring or these animals and their environments. It is more of a symbolic relationship where both sides represent something else.
     
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  16. Batto

    Batto Well-Known Member

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    Never say never. Maybe that knowledge will save your life one day. I was glad to know what a coastal taipan, banded krait, Pacific rattlesnake etc. looks when I met my first ones in the wild...;)
     
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  17. OkapiFan

    OkapiFan Well-Known Member

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    A lot of zoos have docents (usually volunteers) that will be stationed at an exhibit or group of exhibits with the sole point of talking to the guests about the animals, answering question, etc. This is what I do, and I'm able to tell people what the animal that they are looking at is, and hopefully tell them all about it!
     
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