The Role of Zoos in Fostering Environmental Identity

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As locations where social interactions center on animals, zoos may enable the development of an environmental identity that encourages concern for animals. Two field studies of zoo visitors assessed the level of concern for animals and predictors of that concern and looked for behaviors that might foster identity and concern. In one study, 1514 adult visitors were surveyed and 265 different visitors were observed. Environmental identity, sense of connection to the animal, and perceived similarity to the animal were all correlated with interest in conservation and general environmental concern. Although there were no significant differences in survey responses before entering an exhibit compared with those obtained as visitors were exiting, responses differed according to exhibit. Exhibits where more comparisons to humans were made tended to evoke higher ratings of support for helping animals. A second study recorded interactions among 805 visitor groups. The data suggested that viewing the animals was primarily a social activity, which served to promote social interaction and, in some cases, enabled discussion about a shared conception of the human relationship with animals. We conclude that zoos provide an opportunity to create and nurture a social identity that emphasizes connection to animals. © Copyright 2011, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 2011.

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