Why Zoos (and Zoo Lovers) Matter

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Mike Bona With Rhino Calf

Yes, We Matter!

By Kirsten Perez, Director of Education

For years, zoo and aquarium staff throughout the U.S. have collected stories of real-life miracles that happened because of zoos. We knew we made a difference but only had anecdotes or attendance figures to prove it. Zoos and aquariums face a lot of critics who question whether or not we’re a good thing, or whether or not we accomplish what we intend. They also suggest that we can be replaced by—you guessed it—technology. In recent years, studies have helped to confirm our theory that going to accredited zoos and aquariums has a measurable impact on the conservation attitudes and understanding of visitors.

In 2007, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) completed a three-year nationwide study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and developed through partnerships with the Institute of Learning Innovation (ILI) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium” details the overall impact of a zoo or aquarium visit—both immediately and in the months afterward.

Key results of the study found that:

Harbor seal and Zoo guest (Photo by Paul Bronstein)

Harbor seal and Zoo guest (Photo by Paul Bronstein)

  • Visits to accredited zoos and aquariums prompt people to reconsider their role in environmental problems and conservation action, and to see themselves as part of the solution.
  • Visitors believe zoos and aquariums play an important role in conservation education and animal care.
  • Visitors feel they experience a stronger connection to nature as a result of their visit.
  • Visitors bring with them a higher-than-expected knowledge about basic ecological concepts. Zoos and aquariums support and reinforce the values and attitudes of the visitor.

“The Visitor Impact Study shows that zoos and aquariums are enhancing public understanding of wildlife and the conservation of the places animals live,” says Vernon, a co-principal investigator of the study. “It validates the idea that we are having a strong impact on our visitors.”

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Jenny Schmidt and 90-day chick SB 778 at Agua Blanca nest in Southern California

Condor Keeper Jenny Schmidt cares for 90-day-old chick SB 778 at nest

Last year, AZA-accredited institutions welcomed 183 million visitors through their doors. This is more than professional football, baseball, hockey, and basketball audiences combined. These are powerful numbers toward achieving the AZA’s goal of building North America’s largest wildlife conservation movement. On top of which, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums contributed more than $17.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014.

What’s more, Zoos and aquariums take conservation action all over the world. In 2015, 230 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums reported contributing more than $160 million in conservation projects, including over 450 Species Survival Plan programs and 115 reintroduction programs, of which 35 percent focus on reintroducing species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act back into the wild.

The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, an AZA-accredited institution, currently participates in 32 conservation projects, including the California Condor Recovery Program, the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Project, the Radiated Tortoise Conservation, and more.

So zoos work hard to save species, help pass legislation that protects wildlife, educate children and families, and provide safe, healthy, authentic experiences with nature, all of which contribute to preserving biodiversity—and therefore the continuance of life on this planet. Raising funds, entertaining visitors, and exhibiting animals are all a means to an end. In my experiences in this field, I’ve never met anyone working at a zoo or aquarium who wouldn’t agree.

Excerpt from “Zoos Can Save the World,” Zoo View, fall 2008

(Correction – April 8, 2016: An earlier version of this article misstated the author as Stacey Hagreen. The official author is Kirsten Perez, Director of Education at the L.A. Zoo.)