- We observed 20 ambassador animal programs at the Bronx Zoo. Half of the programs were facilitated through inquiry-led discussion focused on prompting participants to engage in conversation by posing questions; the other half were led with a storytelling style where facilitators shared a narrative about the ambassador animal.
- We interviewed 16 families afterward the programs to understand the impact of the ambassador animal experiences.
- Participants asked more questions during inquiry-led programs. Participants asked questions on a wider variety of topics in storytelling programs.
- Participants felt these experiences were special and felt more connected to the animals they met. Participants had strong identities as animal lovers, animal experts, and conservation allies prior to their experience, suggesting their environmental identities can be leveraged during programs to practice even more environmental behaviors.
Many zoos, aquariums, and other nature and science based institutions offer opportunities for visitors to have ambassador animal experiences. Ambassador animals are animals trained to interact with the public often with a staff member of the institution facilitating the experience. There is little published research about how these experiences impact participant curiosity and motivation to participate in conservation behaviors, especially in relation to different facilitation strategies.
How do facilitated ambassador animal experiences influence curiosity, connectedness, and conservation intention in zoo visitors?
We observed 20 ambassador animal programs at the Bronx Zoo. Half of the programs were facilitated through inquiry-led discussion focused on prompting participants to engage in conversation by posing questions; the other half were led with a storytelling style where facilitators shared a narrative about the ambassador animal. We recorded the species of ambassador animals, the amount of time they were present, the size of the participant group, and approximate age breakdown of groups. We recorded participants’ remarks when ambassador animals were present, which we later coded into spontaneous and prompted remarks, and further coded the spontaneous remarks into questions and comments. Questions and comments were then coded into seven different topics: animal care, conservation and research, individual animal, species natural history, personal connections, talking to or “for” the animal, and other.
- Both facilitation techniques were successful in fostering participants’ curiosity about animals and connections to wildlife. Participants in inquiry-led ambassador animal programs asked many questions, as facilitators prompted them to make observations and connections. Storytelling programs encouraged participants to ask questions on a very broad range of topics that reflected participants’ individual curiosities and interests.
- Number of questions asked did not differ across animal species, suggesting that the type of animal does not affect participants’ curiosity.
- Many participants talked to and “for” the animals, an anthropomorphic behavior that may help people feel more connected to animals.
- Participants identified as animal people and conservation advocates, an identity that may be leveraged to engage them more deeply in conversations about conservation issues and solutions.
- Ambassador animal experiences helped participants feel special and connected to animals, so much so that we suggest leveraging these positive feelings more strongly to encourage conservation behaviors.
This study and findings are discussed in detail in:
Rank, S.J, Roberts, S-J., & Manion, K (2021).
The impact of ambassador animal facilitated programs on visitor curiosity and connections: A mixed-methods study. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 8(4), 558-575. https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.08.04.08.2021