The Call of the Wild (and the Caged): The Impact of a Zoo's Exhibition Styles on the Attitudes of its Human Visitors

Erin S. Behn, The College of Wooster


Modern zoos provide many visitors with the only direct interaction possible with many non-human species. Zoos can therefore present conservation messaging in a uniquely animal-relevant context, but questions remain regarding how the presentation of captive animals influences human perception. The purpose of this research was to increase understanding regarding how exhibit naturalism may impact observer affective response and attitudes. Visitors to the Chicago Zoological Society's Brookfield Zoo were surveyed throughout the summer of 2012 (N=216) while viewing one of three carnivore exhibits: an unnatural lion enclosure, a moderately naturalistic African wild dog enclosure, or a naturalistic wolf enclosure. As predicted, perceptions of suitability varied by exhibit, with the more natural enclosures perceived as also being more suitable habitats. Higher suitability ratings were also strongly correlated with higher reported positive affect and positive experience at that exhibit, indicating that perceived exhibit suitability and positive experiences are related. Affect and experience were also the best predictors of reported importance of maintaining suitable habitats and feelings of connection towards animals. These findings suggest that exhibition style is related to how people experience the zoo. Habitats that effectively represent the needs of a particular species may help zoos influence the conservation goals of their visitors.