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Zoos and intermediate to advanced level animal studies - a weakness in communication?

Discussion in 'General Zoo Discussion' started by overread, 5 Jan 2016.

  1. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    So something that has niggled at me for many years and I felt would be interesting to discuss.

    When visiting zoos in the past I've always felt that many are great at very basic information - this is a tiger - this is a cheetah etc... Most will also have information boards listing standard info such as basic diet, stats, numbers left in the wild, distribution etc... Some also have interactive boards as well.


    However in general this level of information exchange is often at a very basic level. It entertains the casual viewer, but lacks any depth or build into depth for someone who might already know these facts, or might want to know more detail regarding them.

    Now sometimes you can snag a zookeeper in a chat, however many are often busy with their own work when on site and sadly you can't take them home for reference. So whilst it is a very fine option its haphazard and often unreliable that you'll meet them or that they'll have time for a long discussion.


    Now you might think the gift shop could be a haven, but in my experiences most of the books on show are the standard ones you find in most book shop naturalist sections. Comprising of a couple of "bird ID" books along with a slew of picture books with only slight annotation. Sometimes there's a few more in-depth ones hiding around, but nothing of any weight in a variety of subjects (and its my observation that you've more chance to get something more intermediate in the world of plants than in birds beasts or bugs).




    Now I know some zoos, like London, are more strongly tied to research and might have a reading room or on site library or access to one through memberships; however these tend to be institution aimed. The prices and access methods reflecting that its really aimed at people with Dr in their name and a university behind them rather than average Joe the Naturalist.


    So I'm wondering why this is the case. Why is it that zoos are neglecting this avenue of possibilities. You can even see it reflected on their websites which are geared purely for tourists. If education is a focus why does it start with entry level and then cut out until the higher levels (and higher budgets). Surely there should be more push in the middle ground since surely the more you educate the better you increase the chances for more conservation awareness within the population.
     
  2. MRJ

    MRJ Well-Known Member

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    Over the last few decades there has been fairly consistent move away from written content in signs, based around the idea that "people don't read signs". This is supported by research, which usually consists of someone sitting next to a sign and noting how many people read it. It has got to the point where signs consist of a singe sentence to convey a "message" supported by some graphics.

    I think that the research produces an average, and that in fact most people read some signs, while some people read most signs. I like, and we try to produce, signs that have basic information in easily digestible form followed by more detailed information for those that want it.

    In any case modern signage has to be better than the signs in my hometown zoo during my childhood, brass plaques engraved with the species common and scientific names and the continent on which it is found.
     
  3. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    Certainly with regard to signs I'm not expecting a huge amount of depth; but my point is more that the zoos don't seem to promote information far beyond them; at least to people walking in and out of the main door.

    I know many zoos build their entertainment and presentation more around younger rather than older audiences and more casual than serious; however I just feel that many have almost abandoned the latter fully and have overly focused on the casual to the point where any of the casual looking to advance their understanding are left a bit high and dry.
     
  4. Batto

    Batto Well-Known Member

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    I think that there has been a general change of zoo management and thereby education over the last 100+ years due to social and technological changes.

    Most of the major zoos todays were funded during the late 19th/early 20th century. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, a new social, intellectual and economic upper class (in Germany known as "Bildungsbürgertum") had started to establish itself in Europe and North America, resulting (among others) in the founding and funding of museums, universities, botanical and also zoological gardens. Back then, zoos were more or less comparable to museum collections of living specimens, headed by zoologists (and random veterinarians) with serious academic ambitions and thus not always open to the general public.
    Over the years, the focus started to shift to entertaining the visitors for the benefit of financial gain, with clever entrepreneurs such as Carl Hagenbeck introducing new elements of entertainment for a wider audience and thus successfully invading the till then rather academic world of zoo directors (of major zoos). Zoo directors still mostly remained to be zoologists and veterinarians, but their academic ambitions in taxonomy, zoology, veterinary medicine etc. had to be lowered to make room for the management of a business that was supposed to successfully entertain the general public. With the introduction of the TV and subsequent animal TV shows, the focus shifted even more away from dry academia to the interest of their prime audience, i.e. kids and their families. The zoo directors of old academic focus either adopted to this and even used to their newfound public popularity to their advantage (Grzimek, Hanna...), accepted it reluctantly or perished.
    While research and other academic pursuits are still officially upheld by modern zoos as their task, zoo directors now have to spend their (limited) time and financial budget on running and managing a successful business, defending the existence of zoos against GOs and NGOs, adopting to the needs and expectations of the paying audience, maybe even sustaining a conservation program or two, and so on and on. Given this, research is often one of the first things to be cut down when it comes to making management decisions; the current situation at Tierpark Berlin is just an example of many.
    All this has a direct influence on the education and research efficiency of a zoo: why offer scientific literature and indepth information when most visitors just want to be lightly entertained and anything beyond is just "money wasted", from an economist's pov. Museums, btw., have to deal with the very same problem. The result is the dubious compromise you describe @overread, which makes one question the credibility of zoos when it comes to living up to their self-set expectations.

    Given apt finacing and good staff, zoo schools and educators can do a great job in educating kids at zoos. However, the time dependant educational effect till adulthood is still not optimal.
     
    Last edited: 7 Jan 2016
  5. Dassie rat

    Dassie rat Well-Known Member

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    I agree that some zoo labels are very minimal. This is especially true when an exhibit contains several species that look very similar, such as some fish. I think it would be better to have an aquarium tank with widely different-looking species, rather than closely related species. I visited Central Park Zoo and a label suggested that an enclosure had about six species of bats. There were lots of bats, but I couldn't tell whether these were different species or the same species.

    I also feel that it is relatively cheap to print out a basic label and laminate it, rather than putting a new species in an enclosure, but leaving the label of the old species. I remember seeing a colony of house mice in an enclosure, but people thought they were elephant shrews, because that's what the label said.

    Please note that any of you can visit the ZSL Library. Just bring some ID to the reception desk at the ZSL offices. If you come on a Tuesday, you may see me.
     
  6. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

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    The education departments of zoos don't just deal with primary and secondary school students, they are involved with further and higher education too. Several FE Colleges run Intermediate and Advanced Animal Care courses, some of them give emphasis to Exotics and have their own small collections which are cared for by the students, under supervision: Reaseheath, near Crewe, is a good example - it has links with Chester for visits, student work placements etc. The zoo also has links with several local local universities for undergraduate and postgraduate students on a range of courses. These students, if successful, may go on to do some sort of work with animals.
    However I guess you may be looking for less formal opportunities. I think the situation is patchy with considerable differences between zoos. Dassie Rat has pointed out the facilities at Regent's Park, which I suppose are unequalled in this country. I can describe the situation at Chester, where members can visit the Zoo's library on weekdays, to access a decent collection of books. The only problem is that if I go to the zoo, I would rather look at the animals than read about them :)
    Chester also has a programme of regular monthly evening meetings for zoo members, which the public can attend for a small fee; they are usually linked to the zoo's fieldwork or the animal collection and some are run in conjunction with ffPS. There are also two annual Members' Days, when there is a special programme of 'Meet the Keeper' sessions throughout the day. These are quite informal and give opportunities to ask lots of questions, if you wish to so (but you must expect that a few ZooChatters will be earwigging :rolleyes:) - members can also admit guests at reduced prices and claim a free cup of coffee and a free ride on the monorail - I'm always glad of the first but have not bothered with the second yet.
    I know much less about the provision at other zoos. Paignton members can visit their library, but I have not done so yet. I know that Paignton, Edinburgh and Bristol zoos also run special events, but I have no personal experience of them.

    Alan
     
  7. MRJ

    MRJ Well-Known Member

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    We take communicating with our public quite seriously. On a daily basis we have nine "presentations" or keeper talks where keepers interact with visitors and often spend time talking to them after. We also have a daily show and again visitors are invited to come up after that and ask questions or have a talk. Keepers are also encouraged to engage with visitors while doing their rounds, indeed they have time allocated for this.

    We also have several encounters visitors can purchase where visitors get 1:1 time with an animal and of course with the keeper. As part of that program we have a 1 hour behind the scenes tour where the visitor spends time with a keeper learning more about the animals and of course our operations.

    Lastly of course we have our evening tours where visitors are in the company of a guide for about 2 hours as they meet a variety of nocturnal fauna.

    I should say we do not "dumb down" content, it is all in plain language using relevant facts. Most of our visitors are adults and that is whom we pitch it at.

    Talking about gift shops I always check them out when visiting a zoo and over the years have picked up some book gems. However I must admit in many cases these look as if they have been around for some time.

    Most of our books are aimed at children. We stock several field guide and are looking at expanding the range into more adult natural history titles. Would zoochatters buy this type of book during a visit?
     
  8. LaughingDove

    LaughingDove Well-Known Member

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    It's not a zoo, but one place that has quite a good balance of things in its gift shop in my opinion is the Natural History Museum of London.
    It has some toys and things for children as well as some interesting books. For example, it had The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names and Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record amongst other interesting things. (I purchased the former, but I couldn't afford the latter at the time)
     
  9. Dassie rat

    Dassie rat Well-Known Member

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    Hello Laughing Dove. I agree with you about the Natural History Museum. It has got a good collection of books. I was in the Horniman Museum yesterday and their gift shop has/had a copy of 'Lost Animals' reduced from £25 to £15.
     
  10. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    Some very intersting replies indeed and many thanks for the various viewpoints!

    Batto that's a very intersting quick history of zoos and does make sense as to why many have shifted focus over the years. It also raises a good question of not just how or how much but who within an efficent zoo team might have time to perform or even organise such resources to be available as well as questioning the costs involved and potential rewards.

    Dassie I fully agree pens should have the right labels on

    Lemur you're right, the upper levels of where one is within the education system do have connections to zoos and there is access to information within that. It is indeed the less formal side that I feel is important as well.

    MRJ and Lemur you both give good reviews/summaries of different zoos (although forgive me MRJ but I'm not sure which zoo you're working at). To answer your question though I would say that for a more mature (not always adult) visitor to the zoo who might visit more than once or visit multiple zoos then if you've already enticed them to visit to see the animals and if they've already read the short noticeboards around then I think that if the shop or other areas of the zoo then offer a deeper understanding as an option then, yes, I would think that they would follow that line of thinking. Even better if, say signs around the zoo directly linked them to that information.

    In todays world this could be a mention of a website page to visit; one of those barcode scans for mobile phones; a mention to check out specific "books" or such of recommendation in a site library or the gift shop.

    In short many zoos build a "story" pathway for visitors and I think that could be tapped into at a serious level as well as a casual level. Certainly cost comes into this as well though, I know how quickly £30-40-50 or even more can start being the price of a single work of reference material; however if you've got those publications on show on the website/gift shop then you've got a chance to hook people in I think. And where better to get a good reference book than right from a place where they keep such animals.

    I do often feel that a lot of good natural studies material stays at a high price because it never finds a market outside of libraries and the odd researcher/student (and students are iffy as much gets bought in the first year then resoled to other students later in the last year of student studies). If more zoos were to take up the mantel it might just increase the awareness and access to information and market.
     
  11. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

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    That's a good point. The cost of producing a traditional guidebook is so high that it can only contain a limited amount of basic information. To the dismay of some ZooChatters, they seem to on their way out as this information can obviously be duplicated or replaced by new information technology systems. As this is both cheaper to produce and potentially much more flexible, it should be easier to keep up to date and to provide a choice of extra information for visitors.
    I'm a very old fogey as far as these matters are concerned, but I'd take a smartphone or a tablet to the zoo if I could bring up detailed information about the animals as I was looking at them. Imagine scanning a code beside the enclosure, reading the basics that are on the label and then choosing from a menu to find more about the individual animals, their diet and the next feeding time, the next presenter talk time, conservation importance, special features of the enclosure and perhaps a video message from the keeper.

    Alan
     
  12. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

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    Indeed, I know people who carry tablets all the time and if zoos, museums and other places of interest added more features like that I can see them being used widely. Especially if that data is locally saved or online accessible so that they don't "have" to read it at the zoo but can choose to do so (say when sitting in the cafe getting a bite to eat).