The Heart of Zoo and Aquarium Storytelling

It’s time to show why they exist: It’s for animals, not people

Love makes us do strange things. It compels us to risk our lives and safety to protect those we care about. It can pit one person against another because of our impassioned ideals about what we feel is best for those we hold close.

When it comes to love and compassion for animals, feelings are just as strong – and often they’re in conflict, quickly turning into discord between impassioned individuals over what is right or wrong, or in the best interest of wildlife.

And today, this is particularly true with zoos and aquariums.

Many of us can recall moments of sheer wonder at zoos, when a majestic lion stalked past silently on giant padded feet, as the air shook from the powerful trumpet of a six-ton elephant, as a fierce silverback pounded his chest.

Yet cultural values have changed through the years, and now those moments are often shadowed by conflicting emotions. Are the animals well cared for? Are they content? Does observing them make me more inclined to help save their wild relatives and protect our overstressed natural world?

Or does our awe come at the expense of these beings?

American society and cultural values about the human-wildlife relationship have evolved for decades. Urbanization and modernization have reshaped the public’s feelings about wildlife from a culture of domination to growing empathy for animals.

A new study of more than 49,000 Americans, published in December in Biological Conservation, investigated the trend of growing anthropomorphic empathy toward wildlife and concluded, “Traditional values that emphasize domination over wildlife are giving way to mutualism values that regard wildlife as fellow beings in a common social community … as values shift, so do beliefs about what is right and wrong and what constitutes acceptable versus unacceptable treatment of wildlife.”

The evolution plays out in a multitude of contexts:

  • Our pets are pampered – a dramatic change in culture from a generation ago – while the public increasingly rejects so-called factory farming and inhumane food-industry practices.

  • Circuses that embodied human dominion over animals and used them for entertainment have been outright rejected.

  • The use of exotic animals for the movie and commercial entertainment industry almost certainly will be a thing of the past by the end of this decade.

  • Plant-based meats are widely available at fast-food establishments, not because of health-conscious consumers, but because of a growing desire to reduce meat consumption due to empathetic feelings toward animals and environmental concerns.

  • The social acceptance of sport hunting (especially big-game hunting) is rapidly declining.

The list goes on and on.

Many colleagues who work in zoos and aquariums are excited about these changes and are champions of sustainable and humane lifestyles, because they love and care about animals. Yet they, too, find themselves increasingly in the crosshairs of public favorability as more people begin to ponder, discuss and debate the role and relevance of zoos and aquariums in the modern age.

Zoos aren’t circuses, nor factory farms, but they can’t completely escape their history as menageries for public entertainment – evolution takes time. Today the mission of most reputable zoos and aquariums has evolved to become vital contributors to species conservation, places for learning about biodiversity and appreciation for wildlife, and instilling a conservation mindset. But they also remain a place for public enjoyment, and that is their greatest vulnerability.

As society evolves, and feelings of empathy and mutualism values toward wildlife increase, people will only become more conflicted about the idea of seeking enjoyment from an animal confined.  

What can zoos and aquariums do in this changing landscape to communicate their wildlife care, compassion and relevance?

Show More Heart!

Those who have had the privilege of working inside the nation’s most respected zoos, as I have, see and feel the love – the significant care and extraordinary dedication to the animals living within the zoo, as well as a deep commitment to species protection and conservation of nature. We see the authentic relationship the animals have with their caregivers.

Importantly, an exceptional amount of scientific learning also is taking place within the nation’s zoological institutions, increasing contributions to global efforts to conserve wild places.

Researchers employed by zoos and aquariums work in some of the most remote, and sometimes harsh, dangerous and civically unstable places on Earth because they are driven by a deep and profound dedication to wildlife conservation. In private meetings and informal interactions with animal caregivers and wildlife researchers, I’ve heard the most incredible stories of heroic efforts made to protect animals, and have seen their selfless dedication to animal care.

Most people aren’t on “the inside” and don’t see this level of compassion and mutually positive relationship between the animals and their caregivers, nor do they know about all of the work being conducted to protect habitats and the animals living in them. These stories are important, but infrequent, and often are overshadowed by lightweight, entertaining social media content and promotional news stories.

Embrace Anthropomorphism

Animals should not be treated as caricatures of people, but societal and cultural values are shifting – and trends of anthropomorphic thinking are increasing. Jane Goodall paved this path more than 50 years ago when she understood, before more formally trained scientists did, how important it was to give chimpanzees names, instead of numbers, for the public to care about them. Also, because she was unjaded by antiquated ideas that would have restricted her thinking and tainted her research, she was able to authentically document what she was observing – emotional relationships, advanced cognition, and unique personalities.

Goodall not only sparked an increasing recognition of the capacity of wildlife to have advanced and complex cognitive abilities and emotions, but she also shattered preconceived notions of what separates humans from other animals. She was a visionary and continues to serve as a cautionary reminder to not let outdated ideas keep us from seeing what is right in front of our faces, and what others may plainly see for themselves. 

Animal caregivers in zoos have long recognized the unique capabilities and personalities of animals. Because of this, they are able to optimize the care they provide by getting to know each animal – their likes and dislikes, quirks and personality. And yet, too often zoos censor their storytelling – cautioning against anthropomorphizing, lest they compromise their credibility as respectable organizations doing serious work.

Are zoos so afraid of sending the wrong message that they fail to send the right one?

Are zoos so caught up in the self-limiting internal debate around anthropomorphism that they compromise their own public favorability trying to fight the current, swimming upstream as the rest of society goes with the flow, embracing more empathetic, mutualistic values toward wildlife?

Members of the public who are conflicted about zoos and aquariums are concerned about the wellbeing of individual animals living in them. But they are also conflicted internally about the idea of gaining personal enjoyment at what they feel is another being’s expense.  

If zoos hope to instill more feelings of confidence, we encourage increased storytelling that shows more heart and demonstrates the authentic empathy that caregivers have for the animals and the mutually positive relationships the animals also have with their caregivers.

Show more stories that share that selfless dedication to the care of the animals and compassion that runs deeper than most people realize.  Demonstrate that the primary mission of zoos and aquariums is to care for animals, protect and conserve nature. Combine heartfelt stories with more stories of relevance.

Be Relevant

Why should zoos and aquariums continue in the modern age? People will increasingly feel conflicted if they don’t embrace the purpose – the “why.”

We believe the research and trending data suggest that favorability will continue to decline with younger generations if zoo and aquarium communications continue to be too heavily weighted around the public experience – what people will feel, what they can see, and what’s in it for them – without much more balanced communications that emphasize the animals come first. Protecting and conserving nature IS authentically the mission.

Climate change disrupts and threatens every ecosystem on Earth. More than one million species are now at risk of extinction. Zoos and aquariums have an increasing role and responsibility in saving species; all reputable institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums must commit to this cause and make increased investments in conservation to maintain accreditation. Yet conservation storytelling remains weak for most institutions.

Too often, references to conservation feel hollow. Zoos and aquariums say conservation is part of their mission, but storytelling to substantiate those claims are few and far between. Is that because zoos and aquariums aren’t actually investing that much in conservation? In some cases, unfortunately, that may be the case. In most cases, it’s not. In fact, some of the zoos with the largest investment and most significant contributions to conservation science have not made conservation storytelling a priority. This may be to their detriment, and perhaps eventually, their demise.

As consultants, we still – discouragingly – hear zoo and aquarium leaders say “conservation doesn’t drive attendance.” And this philosophy dictates institutional storytelling and communications.

But where is the research to substantiate such a claim? We’ve looked. We’ve asked. We can’t find it. If you have it, we are eager to see it!

Instead, we can find many examples of how shifting cultural values are quickly altering the business environment. Consider the #MeToo movement that has forced leaders across every industry to critically evaluate their language, business and hiring practices, perceptions and belief systems – and determine if their business, and the values of the leadership are still aligned with modern, evolved cultural values. Some of the nation’s best leaders recognized, and transparently shared, where they were failing and made authentic commitments to employ solutions and create change. Those who ignored the warning signs, or refused to accept them, have been fired or publicly shamed as their businesses were disrupted.

Social value systems are evolving. The climate is changing and people are concerned about the environment and welfare of animals.

We encourage zoo and aquarium leaders to critically examine their perceptions and practices to ensure they are aligned with evolving society expectations and values. Whether or not conservation drives attendance is not the point.

The point is this: public favorability of zoos and aquariums is declining with younger generations. What are you doing to maintain or regain public confidence? What are you doing to ensure they feel the purpose of zoos and aquariums is valuable and relevant?

Bridge the Generational Divide

Diversify your brain trust. When it comes to the human-wildlife relationship, culture is changing and there is a generational divide. Zoos and aquariums should not only continue to evolve, but lead the way. There is incredible capacity for zoological institutions to become recognized as the biggest champions of wildlife and the greatest advocates for the protection of nature. But first, the public needs to feel confident that the primary purpose of zoos and aquariums is to benefit wildlife.

Start with a critical examination of the messages your institution conveys in marketing brochures, newsletters, blogs, website copy, social media content and other public-facing communications. Determine how heavily weighted the communications are around people-oriented benefits of seeing, experiencing and connecting with animals, against communications that authentically communicate that zoos and aquariums exist to care for and conserve wildlife.