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Children’s Responses to Primate Exhibits at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

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For the past several decades, many zoos’ missions have included participating in and spreading awareness of wildlife conservation. To do this effectively, zoos must determine which animal species make the largest impact as conservation ambassadors. This study aimed to ascertain whether children, a target group for conservation programming, display more interest in the large or small primate exhibits at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. For this study, a sample of 50 children were observed interacting with six different exhibits, three housing large primate species and three housing small primate species. The results show that children spent more time observing and engaged in more conversation about the large primate exhibits. However, there was little difference in the number of guests who interacted with the educational materials at each exhibit. These results indicate that children are more interested in large species of primates, and zoos may benefit from featuring these species in educational programming.

Large collections of animals have been maintained throughout history for varying purposes. Ancient rulers kept menageries to demonstrate their power and wealth. Hundreds of years later, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the first modern zoos opened their doors with the intent of entertaining the public (Singer, 1985). While visitor satisfaction is still crucial, today many zoos and aquariums are shifting their focus to the fight to conserve wildlife and educate the general public (Rabb, 2004).

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The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a collection of 232 accredited zoos and aquariums that spans 45 states. One of the AZA’s primary conservation initiatives centers around primates, especially certain species of apes. This initiative was created because, of the six non-human great apes, four species are endangered and two species are critically endangered. It is estimated that in as little as 20 years, some species of apes will become extinct altogether (“Ape Conservation,” n.d.). This would have huge ramifications for the tropical ecosystems from which these primates originate, as the animals are critical to the health and biodiversity of the forest. Primates also play an important role in many cultural traditions and offer unique insights into human evolution, biology, and the threat of emerging diseases (Franquesa-Soler & Serio-Silva, 2017). In addition to donating funds and manpower to counteract the threats that these animals face in the wild, many zoos are taking action by raising awareness and educating the public about the plight of the primates.

One seldom studied population that has the potential to one day make a huge difference is children. It has been shown that children have fewer preconceptions and learn more rapidly than adults (Pellier, Wells, Abram, Gaveau, & Meijaard, 2014). One study on the thoughts of Bornean children about their surroundings showed that the children had sophisticated perceptions of the conditions of their environment and the human activities taking place within it. They also had a solid understanding of how these factors influenced each other (Pellier et al., 2014). Because they are open-minded, learn quickly, and have a sense of awareness about their environment, children may be the ideal target group for primate conservation education and awareness programs.

This study aims to examine how young visitors to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo interact differently with large primate exhibits as compared to small primate exhibits. It has been shown that zoo guests are more willing to engage in pro-environmental behaviors when they feel a sense of connection to the animals that they have viewed during their visit to the zoo (Grajal et al., 2017). Therefore, understanding which species are preferable to children may be able to provide a sense of direction for conservation and education programming. It is predicted that children will show more interest in the larger species of primate, meaning the young zoo visitors will spend more time at and read and converse more about the large primate exhibits. These results are expected because size has been proven to be one of the determining factors in animal attractiveness to zoo visitors (Bitgood, Patterson, & Benefield, 1988). In fact, in an analysis of zoo visitors’ favorite and least favorite animals, gorillas and orangutans were specifically listed as high interest species (Carr, 2016).

This study took place outside of six different primate enclosures located at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in the Primate, Cat, and Aquatics Building as well as in the Rainforest. The large primate exhibits included in the study were the gorillas, mandrills, and orangutans, while the small primate exhibits included in the study were the howler monkeys, gibbons, and Francois’ langur. These species were chosen because they represent a range of animal activity levels, familiarity to children, and locations within the zoo, which helped to control for outside variables. The subjects of this study were young zoo guests, who were defined as those visiting the zoo with an adult chaperone.

A total of 50 young visitors per enclosure were randomly selected to be observed over the course of two afternoons. A timer was started each time a subject approached the exhibit and stopped when they began walking away from the exhibit and/or the associated materials. Each subject’s interactions were then logged and categorized using the tables found in appendices I – XI. The first type of interaction recorded in each table was dwell time. This is a common measurement of visitor engagement and refers to the amount of time the subject spent at the enclosure, measured in seconds (Bowler, Buchanan-Smith, & Whiten, 2012). The second type of interaction was the subject’s level of engagement with the signs or other materials at the exhibit. Engagement in this case included reading the displayed information, having the information read to them, or touching the interactive displays. Finally, this study also examined the types learning talk used by the subject while he or she was viewing an enclosure. This study used a coding scheme adapted from Sue Allen’s research in order to categorize and quantify the conversations in which the subjects were participating. Figure 1 shows the five main categories and 13 subcategories of learning talk that will be referred to throughout this study (Allen, 2002).

After all of the data from a total of 300 visitor interactions was collected and logged, measures of central tendency and measures of dispersion were used to summarize the data for each of the observed enclosures. Microsoft Excel was then used to run a two sample t-test in order to compare the actions of visitors to the large and small primate exhibits regarding average dwell times and interaction with exhibit signage.

Tables containing the data for every visitor interaction collected during this study can be found in appendices I – XI. The first type of interaction logged was the amount of time each visitor spent at each exhibit. The average dwell times for each exhibit are shown in Figure 2. These ranged from 30.08 seconds at the Francois’ langur exhibit to 98.90 seconds at the orangutan exhibit. Visitors spent significantly more time in front of large primate vs small primate exhibits (t = 9.587 df = 4 p = 0.0007). The second type of interaction recorded during this study was whether or not a subject engaged with the educational materials associated with the enclosure that he or she was visiting. Throughout the course of this study, 30 percent of the visitors to the orangutan exhibit interacted with the displayed information. Meanwhile, just 24 percent of the guests visiting the other two large primate exhibits, the gorillas and the mandrills, interacted with the displays. Approximately 26 percent of the guests visiting the howler monkey exhibit interacted with the signage, while the same was true for only 16 percent of the visitors to the gibbon and the Francois’ langur exhibits (Figure 3). Overall, there was not a significant difference between the large and small primate exhibits in terms of how many guests interacted with the educational materials (t = 1.715 df = 4 p = 0.1615).

The final type of interaction examined during this study was the types of learning talk in which visitors participated as they observed each exhibit. Figures 4a and 4b break down the number comments and questions made by visitors. They are separated by category of learning talk and then again by exhibit. Perceptual comments were the most common overall. A total of 105 perceptual comments were made about the large primate exhibits and 86 perceptual comments were made about the small primate exhibits. Conceptual comments were made 39 times at the large primate exhibits and 23 times at the small primate exhibits. Connecting comments were made 33 times at the large primate exhibits and nine times at the small primate exhibits. Visitors asked 37 questions about the large primates and 38 questions about the small primates. Comments indicating pleasure were made 16 times at the large primate exhibits and 28 times at the small primate exhibits. Comments indicating displeasure were the least common overall. These were made four times at the large primate exhibits and two times at the small primate exhibits. Finally, comments indicating intrigue were made 38 times at the large primate exhibits and 10 times at the small primate exhibits.

These results support the prediction that young visitors to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo generally express more interest in large primate exhibits than in small primate exhibits. The primary method of determining a visitor’s level of interest in an exhibit is to calculate how long they spend observing it (Bowler et al., 2012). The average dwell times of visitors to all three large primate exhibits were significantly longer than those of visitors to the small primate exhibits. Therefore, it can be concluded that children visiting the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo seem to be more interested in the large primates. However, further study would be needed to determine why that is the case.

Guest conversations could reveal several factors in addition to animal size that may be contributing to visitor interest levels. Visitors to the large primate exhibits made more comments in the perceptual, conceptual, connecting, displeasure, and intrigue categories, showing that large primates elicited more conversation overall. Many of the perceptual and conceptual comments arose from visitors’ narration of the animals’ activities and their inferences about what the animals might be doing or feeling. Therefore, it would appear that guests are more interested in species that have a higher activity level. This idea is supported by a study that examined why zoo guests favor certain species. The study reported that “boring” or hard to see animals did not appeal to zoo visitors (Carr, 2016). Additionally, most of the connections that guests made to the large primates related either to popular movies featuring that species or to the similarities between large primates and humans. These observations indicate that children show more interest in primate species that are familiar to them. Another factor that may increase visitor interest in an exhibit is the presence of juvenile animals. The results show that the greatest number of comments indicating pleasure focused on the howler monkey mother and her baby. This agrees with the results of a study on zoo exhibit experiences performed earlier this year, which found that zoo guests ranked observing baby animals and their interactions with their parents very highly in terms of special experiences they had at the zoo (Luebke, 2018).

While the results of this study show many ways in which visitor responses to large and small primates differ, it also brought to light a couple of interesting similarities. For instance, the number of questions children asked about each group of exhibits was nearly equal, suggesting that the number of questions asked may not correlate with visitor interest level. There was also no significant difference in the number of visitors who interacted with the educational materials present at each exhibit. That number was always well below half, which was lower than expected. However, when a subject’s adult chaperone read the information aloud, it usually sparked an increase in conversation about the species and exhibit. This finding matches research on visitor learning at a primate center, which indicated that the proportion of visitors who engaged with signage at the center tended to be fairly low. However, it also found that visitors who did interact with the signage demonstrated an increase in knowledge and understanding (Waller, Peirce, Mitchell, & Micheletta, 2012). These results suggest that, while they are probably beneficial to those who do read them, zoos should not rely solely on signs and displays to convey important educational messages to their visitors.

As this study came to a close, several new questions emerged. For instance, while the results indicate that children show a preference for the large primate exhibits, the reasons for that preference have not yet been determined. The possibilities discussed in this paper, ranging from a species’ activity level to its familiarity to children, could be explored more in the future. Further study would also be necessary in order to determine whether or not increased visitor dwell times have consequences for the animals being observed. If so, these consequences will need to be managed in order to strike a balance between visitor satisfaction and animal welfare.

If this study is to be replicated or expanded, several of its limitations should be considered. One of the most significant limitations was the study’s relatively small sample size. Data collection took place over just two days and only consisted of 50 subjects per enclosure. Additionally, due to the layout of certain exhibits and periods of increased noise, not every comment was heard and recorded. This obstacle was primarily encountered at the large primate exhibits. The effects of these limitations could be mitigated by increasing the length and scope of the investigation, as well as by increasing the number of researchers collecting data.

Although some obstacles were encountered and some questions remain unanswered, the results of this study have meaningful implications for zoos and other organizations that wish to educate the public about wildlife conservation. It has been shown that guests who have developed a strong sense of connection with animals are more likely to take action and participate in behaviors that would benefit those species. Therefore, conservation education programs should be animal based and should focus on strengthening that sense of connection (Grajal et al., 2017). This study indicates that in the case of primates, larger species such as gorillas, orangutans, and mandrills might make the best ambassadors for spreading conservation messaging. Furthermore, children have open minds and an ability to think deeply about these species and the challenges that they face. As children grow, they will develop the ability to engage in behaviors that will benefit wildlife and continue to spread awareness of the importance of environmental conservation.

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