Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Zoo visitor emotion

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Zoo visitor emotion:
What emotional responses do visitors have to zoos?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Giraffes at Sydney Taronga Zoo, with the urban city skyline in the background.

Zoos are one of the oldest forms of wildlife tourism and hold a special place in the hearts of many people all over the world; with a reported 700 million visitors to the 280 plus member zoos and aquariums worldwide (Skibins, Dunstan, & Pahlow, 2017). For those residing in an urban setting, the local zoo may provide one of the only opportunities to connect and encounter wild animals in their artificially created "natural" habitat (see Figure 1). All over the world, zoos have evolved with the aim of creating naturalistic settings that allow visitors to be immersed into the landscapes which enclose the animals, a concept believed to aid the creation of appreciation and a close affiliation with the wildlife (Bruni, Fraser, & Schultz, 2008). 

How visitors feel when they view the animals seems a very simple problem. It appears simple as we all experience certain emotions when responding to animals, however they are typically very private, intricate, and complex to measure (Myers, Saunders, & Birjulin, 2004). The opportunity to be near wild animals, to view their daily activities, or even just viewing particular species of animals, appears to elicit emotional responses which subsequently strengthens the visitors perceived connection the animal (Luebke & Matiasek, 2013). By understanding the factors involved in the elicitation of emotion by visitors, zoos worldwide can implement impactful affective experiences, which may in turn act to increase public knowledge, and inspire concern for conservation (Luebke & Matiasek, 2013). This chapter aims to identify what emotions zoo visitors experience by exploring the frameworks that help us explain how emotions come about, the factors involved in the elicitation of positive or negative emotions, and the relevant implications for zoo management worldwide.


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Key Topic Questions
  • What are emotions?
  • Why do we have zoos?
  • Which theories can help explain our emotions?
  • What factors affect our emotions in a zoo?
  • What are the implications for zoo management?

Defining emotion[edit | edit source]

Emotions – whether it be happiness, sadness, anger, or surprise – all play a significant role in our lives. Emotions are "complex state of feeling, which brings about psychological and/or physiological change’. Emotion is a multidimensional affective experience that has the capacity to influence thoughts, attitudes, and behaviour; through the experience of feelings, bodily arousal, sense of purpose, and social expression" (Moors, 2009). This is recognised by zoo management and educators, who consequently design experiences with the aim of evoking positive emotions through memorable experiences; therefore, causing visitors to hopefully feel, and think positively about wildlife.

Emotional bodily responses[edit | edit source]

Over time, emotional bodily responses have emerged as automatic adaptive reactions to stimuli in order to serve the well-being and survival of the organism. Studies have revealed facial expressions such as fear, happiness, disgust, anger, sadness, and surprise as being universally recognised. Convergent with this finding is that we may also share a reasonable part of these automatic emotional responses with animals to benefit our engagement with them. To a certain degree, we are able to recognise the emotional expression or body language of animals as they incorporate elements similar to our own. For example, a dog may indicate it is unhappy by showing its teeth and narrowing its eyes. We are then able to accurately interpret this response as dislike, as it involves comparable features of our own human representation of dislike. Furthermore, emotional bodily reactions also involve a communicative function. If communication is perceived as positive, it may then constitute an intense bond with the animals – particular seen in pets.  

Animals and emotion[edit | edit source]

For humans, many of our emotions are the result of navigating relationships with other humans. Conversely, biophilic emotions have non-humans as their subject. Biophilia refers to the "innate tendency to affiliate with life, or life-like processes". Similar to the theory which proposes that our emotional bodily responses emerge to serve our survival and well-being; biophilia theorists frame our feelings towards nature in evolutionary terms. This concept proposes that emotion is an adaptive phenomenon that mediates encounters with animals as a strategy for survival and enhancement. However, it is conceivable that the natural subject may only form part of the experience of emotion – either directly, or indirectly – as it is often derived from human social groups. Nonetheless, animals are often perceived as social objects that have the ability to influence emotions. Thus, the challenge that presents itself, is how to see how a full-bodied conception of emotion maps onto the way our emotions mediate our animal interactions. 

Why do we have zoos?[edit | edit source]

Many people hold preconceived notions regarding zoos. Whilst in the past it may have been true that they were established for the purposes of entertainment with no regard for the welfare and state of the animals; there are now procedures in place to ensure a significantly greater quality of life for the animals. So, the question then becomes; why does modern society still hold a place for zoos?

Role of conservation and education[edit | edit source]

Modern day zoos generally report their primary mission to be the promotion of "animal care and welfare, conservation of biodiversity, environmental education, and global sustainability" (Clayton, Fraser, & Saunders, 2009). In short, by educating visitors about the threats that face wildlife populations, and the actions needed to protect it; zoos can potentially inspire short and long term positive behavioural changes in visitors.

However, if you have ever visited the zoo yourself, you may not cite your primary reason for attending to be that of education; and if so, you would not be in the minority. Visitor surveys consistently indicate that what majority of people are seeking is a "good day out", and the opportunity to socialise in groups (Clayton et al., 2009). Nevertheless, research has provided that positive emotional responses to animals are linked with increased support for conservation initiatives (Clayton et al., 2009). Thus, it places the onus on the zoo to provide experiences which support the advancement of conservation, whilst simultaneously influencing the experience of positive affect in response to the wildlife.

Without a strong connection with the natural environment, it becomes difficult for people to fully comprehend the impact their actions, and those of the greater society, have on the environment and those who depend on it. Research has only just begun to explore how direct experiences with nature can consequently inspire emotional affinity towards it, which in turn promotes nature-protective behaviour (Ballantyne, Packer, & Sutherland, 2011).

Human responses to animals[edit | edit source]

Animals are often strong emotional triggers for humans, and certain factors may predict whether the experience of emotion is positive or negative. One study identified five potential mechanisms (deducted from empirical findings and emotion theory) that aid explanations of either like or dislike toward an animal, they include:

  1. Our innate sensitivity for biological movement;
  2. Inherited quick learning programs so we can respond emotionally to certain animals;
  3. Mental dispositions to respond emotionally to animals that are the result of conditioning;
  4. A predisposed tendency to react emotionally to an animal's expression;
  5. An acquired knowledge regarding animals that then influences the way we interpret emotional bodily reactions to animals into a conscious experience (Jacobs, 2009).

Many of these processes occur on an implicit level, and may not be readily apparent to the individual. However, such mechanisms may be of help in explaining the worldwide popularity of zoos, and it may also account for why visitors report difficulty in describing exactly what it is they find desirable about being near living animals (Bruni, Fraser, & Schultz, 2008). The study of these underlying mechanisms and our emotional relationships with animals can greatly contribute to our understanding of human-animal relationships often seen in zoo environments (Jacobs, 2009).

Theoretical framework[edit | edit source]

Have you ever considered why you experienced a specific emotion in relation to a certain stimulus? Do you feel fear as a result of your sweating palms and quickening heart rate? Or are those responses caused by your already present emotions? Different theories of emotion propose varying reasons for why, or how we experience them. Three theories - Lazarus' appraisal theory, the James-Lange theory, and the broaden and build theory - are explored below, to help us understand how or why a zoo visitor may experience certain emotions.

Cognitive appraisal theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Appraisal theories of emotion state that the stimulus creates appraisal, which creates the emotion.

Cognitive, or appraisal theories of emotion, are based around the concept that cognition is an antecedent of emotion (Moors, 2009). Emotions are suggested to be extracted from our evaluations, explanations and interpretations of an event, and such appraisals can lead to different reactions in different people. Psychologist Richard Lazarus developed the cognitive-mediational theory, which proposes that emotions are determined by appraisals of certain stimuli. Lazarus asserted that appraisal precedes any cognitive labelling, and consequently stimulates both the physiological arousal and the experience of emotion (Moors, 2009).

For Lazarus, if a snake is encountered in a zoo, the visitor will first appraise the stimuli according to prior beliefs (which may be that snakes are dangerous), and will then experience the physiological response and emotion (sweating, and the experience of fear). In this theory, prior beliefs and goals, can also help shape emotional experiences. For example, a conservation-minded visitor who appraises the animals as being well-looked after and happy, may then experience strong positive affect. This positive experience may then shape and influence beliefs held by the visitor – making them more likely to experience the same positive emotions again in the future. This theory suggests that how a visitor appraises their relative experience, is crucial in determining whether positive, or negative emotions will be experienced.

James-Lange theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Physiological response precedes emotion in the James-Lange Theory.

Contrasting to appraisal theories of emotion, the James-Lange theory asserts that emotion is equivalent to a range of physiological arousal that is caused environmental events (Moors, 2009). For a person to feel emotion, bodily responses such as increased heart rate or respiration, must firstly be experienced. Once this response is recognised, the person can then say they feel emotion – as emotions are proposed to be the result of a physiological response, and not the cause (Moors, 2009). If the arousal is not noticed or given thought, no emotion will be experienced.

For instance, consider a visitor taking part in a "meet-a-cheetah" experience. At first, they may begin grin, feel their heart rate quicken, and their pupils dilate as they safely interact with the cheetah in their close encounter experience. Such bodily changes may represent the emotion of excitement – and represent a positive emotional experience. However, if something suddenly changed and the cheetah began to growl menacingly; the visitor may then experience increased respiratory rates, sweaty hands, and widened eyes. These physiological changes may elicit feelings of fear; thus, altering their emotional experience. Therefore, this theory suggests that it is the physiological responses that are crucial in determining which emotions are felt.

Broaden & build theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Diagram depicting the broaden-and-build theory of emotion.

Fredrickson's broaden and build theory of positive emotion proposes that positive emotions, unlike negative emotions (which narrow attention), have the potential to broaden peoples thought repertoires and then build upon their enduring resources (Fredrickson, 2004). In other words, emotions such as joy, or interest, drive our minds to broaden making us open to taking in a variety of information from our environment.

The theory suggests that positive emotion can broaden our thoughts regarding the awareness that humans are connected to a much larger living system than just themselves (Luebke, Watters, Packer, Miller, & Powell, 2016). In its application, this has the potential to help build social and intellectual resources in an individual related to environmental ethic. This is significant as positive emotions can broaden our attention to the animals, and aid in absorbing any information presented by the zoo; thus, also potentially enhancing our connection the animals which is significant for conservation goals. Therefore, by maximising opportunities for enjoyment, zoos may be able to support their primary goal of conservation and education, by providing visitors ample opportunities to truly enjoy their experience.

Factors affecting emotions[edit | edit source]

Case study: A day at the zoo

Sharon, a 40-year old mother, was looking to find a special birthday activity for her 14-year old daughter, Karen. She'd heard about an amazing tour her local zoo did, so she decided to book in. However, there was a mix-up on the day, which meant that Karen and Sharon were separated onto separate tours. At the conclusion of the tour, they met back up at the zoo's café. Upon arrival, Karen was bursting with excitement and joy, whilst Sharon was clearly disillusioned by the experience. Both saw the same animals, on the same day, so what could have possibly caused the vastly different emotions experienced?

Multiple studies have demonstrated zoos to be places where feelings of happiness, amazement, relaxation, and attentive interest consistently occur. These mood benefits are an integral part of the zoo experience, and may explain why over 175 million people worldwide annually flock to their local zoo. But what factors play a role role in influencing the experience of these positive emotions? Two people, visiting the same zoo and same exhibits, but on a different day or different time, may yield a completely different emotional experience. How, you may ask? This is explored below.

Strength of encounters[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Zookeepers getting up close with a cheetah at Taronga Zoo.

In general, research has provided that the stronger or closer the encounter – the greater positive emotions experienced. Whilst this may not be true if you encountered a dangerous animal in the jungle, the experience of being able to stand a few metres away from a cheetah in a controlled zoo environment, proves to be effective in creating positive experiences for visitors (see Figure 5). Research conducted with penguins, found that the experience of standing "eye-to-eye" was a vital element of the experience. Subjects reported that they truly benefited from being able to see them at close proximity, and felt even higher enjoyment when they got closer than expected; creating a novel, and remarkable experience (Schanzel & McIntosh, 2000).

While this may be expected from animals generally considered "cute"; research with snakes has also demonstrated interesting results. It is proposed that our innate learning systems predispose us to fear certain animals – such as snakes – so it is conceivable that encountering one would lead to the experience of negative emotions. However, one study demonstrated that direct contact with snakes and the opportunity to observe the appropriate behaviour towards them, was effective in changing visitors preconceived negative attitudes (Ballantyne, Packer, Hughes, & Dierking, 2007). By providing a safe and controlled opportunity for a physical connection with the snake, an emotional connection was subsequently formed; thus, changing what would typically be a negative experience, into a positive one (Ballantyne, Packer, Hughes et al., 2007).

Species[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. One of man-kinds closest relatives, the gorilla.

It appears that people are highly selective about the types of emotions they feel, and the types of animals that elicit certain emotions. The principle of perceived similarity states that people tend to give more consideration to others who are perceived as similar to them. Zoo studies have demonstrated that while "others" usually means humans, it is also of relevance with non-humans.

One study recorded the emotional responses of visitors towards a snake, an okapi, and a gorilla (Myers et al., 2004). Consistent with the principle of similarity, the gorilla held the highest appeal and evoked the most empathic response. Gorillas are perceived as very similar to us due to their body structure and capacity for complex thought (see Figure 6), however, dissimilar animals such as elephants may also elicit strong emotions. While we are not physically similar, elephants are also known for their intelligence, emotional states, and family rearing practises; which may be why visitors often report an emotional connection to them (Hacker & Miller, 2016).

Whilst certain animals evoke positive emotions, others may elicit negative ones. In Myers et al. (2004) study, the negative response to the snake compared to the gorilla and okapi responses, stood out significantly. This provides support for the preparedness theory which proposes an innate predisposition to rapidly acquire emotional responses to certain stimuli. This theory has been supported in other research, where rhesus monkeys acquired a fear of snakes simply by watching a video of other monkeys reacting fearfully, but when the snake was replaced with a flower, the fear was not acquired (Jacobs, 2009). So, whether it is a perceived similarity, or an innate predisposition or preparedness, many animals present strong emotional triggers. Once identified, the test then becomes the zoos ability to enhance natural positive emotions, and to challenge the negative – so that visitors can undergo a well-rounded positive zoo experience.  

Animal activity[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Elephant displaying active behaviour at San Diego Zoo

Certain observable animal behaviours also have the ability to influence the occurrence of positive affective responses from visitors. One study found that visitors were likely to report positive emotions whilst viewing animals, and that certain aspects of their behaviour significantly contributed to the intensity of their response (Luebke, Watters, et al., 2016). Visitors were reported to pay greater attention to more animated behaviours such as running, climbing, or manipulating objects, rather than less animated ones such as grooming, or scratching (Luebke, Watters, et al., 2016). Higher levels of positive emotions were also reported where visitors perceived the animals to be paying attention to them, or others in the crowd.

Research suggests active animal activity to be particularly important for increasing the "holding power" of an exhibit (Luebke, Watters, et al., 2016). Data showed that across six various underwater exhibits; the average viewing time was twice as long at exhibits where aquatic activity was viewed, (Luebke, Watters, et al., 2016). This is significant, as the longer a visitor stays at an exhibit, the greater the opportunity there is for them to learn something. Furthermore, the number of active behaviours, and behavioural diversity amongst a study involving elephants (see Figure 7), also increased viewing time: thus, allowing guests a longer amount of time to make a connection to the animal, triggering more positive emotions (Hacker & Miller, 2016).

Personality and demographics[edit | edit source]

The type of person we are – whether we are a parent, a pet owner, identify as a male or female, or our personality – may also affect our experience of emotions in a zoo environment. Research suggests that women, are more likely to hold positive attitudes towards animals than men (Powell & Bullock, 2014). This greater experience of positive emotions was particularly significant in one study that included the viewing of new-born tiger cubs. However, the cubs appeal may have intensified the emotional experience; as women are more responsive than men to infants in general (Powell & Bullock, 2014).

Interestingly, whether you are a pet owner or not could also influence your experience. Research suggests that visitors who own any kind of pet, report more care and compassion for the zoo animals – and as such felt happiness when they viewed them (Myers et al., 2004). However, this is impeded by adverse conditions: if the condition of exhibits is undesirable, sadness is experienced thus resulting in a negative experience. It was also indicated that visitors without children were less likely to feel angry; potentially due to the absence of stressors children may provide (Myers et al., 2004).

Recent research has also suggested that certain pre-existing personality traits also play a significant role in visitor responses: general animal orientation, empathy, and emotional sensitivity and expressiveness all demonstrated significantly correlated emotions in response to seeing animals in a study by Luebke and Matiasek (2013). From this it can predicted what type of person may be more likely to enjoy their day out at the zoo. Women, pet owners, and those with empathetic personalities, emerge as the most likely candidates.


Case study: A day at the zoo

On the car ride home, Karen told her mother about the wonderful time she had. She’d witnessed the baby bears playing with their ball, the monkeys jumping from tree to tree, and she had even been given the opportunity to get up close with the meerkats! Karen described how quickly her heart had been beating when they approached her, and how excited she felt during it all! As Sharon heard all this, she reflected on her own experience. She'd been stuck at the back of the group so a lot of the exhibits hadn't been clearly visible, and she recalled the tour leader explaining that a lot of the animals had just been fed which explained the lack of active behaviours. She also thought that some of the animals looked sad, and that their enclosures weren't maintained well; leading her to appraise the tour in a negative context. Although Sharon felt disappointed with her experience, she was glad her daughter enjoyed her birthday treat.

Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

1 Emotion is a uni-dimensional concept.

True
False

2 Which of the following is most likely to have contributed to Sharon's disappointment?

The weather
Lack of active animal behaviours
Amount of walking between exhibits

3 Which concept may explain why humans tend to associate with other life forms?

Broaden-and-build theory
Principle of perceived similarity
Biophilia hypothesis


Implications for zoo management[edit | edit source]

It would appear that a positive emotional experience at the zoo is the most important attribute for influencing visitor satisfaction. Therefore, several actions to invoke emotion (shown in Table 1) should be employed if zoos aim to provide a satisfying experience:

Exhibits Management should design experiences that incorporate multiple senses to make exhibits as interesting as possible, and to give visitors a chance to experience the ‘real’ habitat of the wildlife
Encounters Exhibits should involve the public by allowing them to get as close as possible, or allowing animals the freedom to approach visitors to enhance sense of privilege (whilst complying with safety procedures)
Events Activities should be organised around memorable or special events – such as the birth of new animals, the opportunity to name them, or a new exhibit that is being opened
Education Visitors should be provided with examples of how everyday actions can either positively, or negatively impact upon the animals being observed, and practical examples of ways they can contribute to their improved welfare

Table 1. Areas of importance for the elicitation of positive emotion in zoos.

Such emotional experiences are important for inducing visitor satisfaction. By capitalising on this emotional affinity, providing opportunities for learning, and making suggestions for meaningful behaviour changes; zoos can then deliver the conditions that are most likely to result in long-term conservation-aware behaviours (Ballantyne, Packer, et al., 2011).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Human emotionality appears to be a highly interpretive and functional phenomenon, whether its subject is human, or non-human. Overall, research would suggest that the zoo environment can successfully provide the conditions required for visitors to experience a varied range of positive emotions. Zoos have the opportunity to enhance these emotions by pursuing events that allow for stronger encounters with the animals; exhibits that showcase a range of active, but natural, behaviours; inclusion of species that visitors can easily connect and relate; and by creating campaigns encouraging specific demographic groups such as those with predisposed concern and empathy for animals, and even pet-owners. By targeting these factors, zoos can positively influence visitors feelings towards animals - and hopefully influence their conservation behaviours so that our wildlife can continue to strive, and provide feelings of wonder and joy to many generations to come.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Sutherland, L. (2011). Visitors’ memories of wildlife tourism: Implications for the design of powerful interpretive experiences. Tourism Management, 32, 770-779. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2010.06.012

Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., Hughes, K., & Dierking, L. (2007). Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. Environmental Education Research, 13, 367-383. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620701430604

Bruni, C., Fraser, J., & Schultz, P. (2008). The value of zoo experiences for connecting people with nature. Visitor Studies, 11, 139-150. https://doi.org/10.1080/10645570802355489

Clayton, S., Fraser, J., & Saunders, C. (2009). Zoo experiences: conversations, connections, and concern for animals. Zoo Biology, 28, 377-397. https://doi.org/10.1002/zoo.20186

Fredrickson, B. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359, 1367-1377. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2004.1512

Hacker, C., & Miller, L. (2016). Zoo visitor perceptions, attitudes, and conservation intent after viewing African elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Zoo Biology, 35, 355-361. https://doi.org/10.1002/zoo.21303

Jacobs, M. (2009). Why do we like or dislike animals?. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 14, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1080/10871200802545765

Luebke, J., & Matiasek, J. (2013). An exploratory study of zoo visitors' exhibit experiences and reactions. Zoo Biology, 32, 407-416. https://doi.org/10.1002/zoo.21071

Luebke, J., Watters, J., Packer, J., Miller, L., & Powell, D. (2016). Zoo visitors' affective responses to observing animal behaviors. Visitor Studies, 19, 60-76. https://doi.org/10.1080/10645578.2016.1144028

Moors, A. (2009). Theories of emotion causation: a review. Cognition & Emotion, 23, 625-662. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930802645739

Myers, O., Saunders, C., & Birjulin, A. (2004). Emotional dimensions of watching zoo animals: an experience sampling study building on insights from psychology. Curator: The Museum Journal, 47, 299-321. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2004.tb00127.x

Powell, D., & Bullock, E. (2014). Evaluation of factors affecting emotional responses in zoo visitors and the impact of emotion on conservation mindedness. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal Of The Interactions Of People & Animals, 27, 389-405. https://doi.org/10.2752/175303714x13903827488042

Schänzel, H., & McIntosh, A. (2000). An insight into the personal and emotive context of wildlife viewing at the penguin place, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 8, 36-52. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669580008667348

Skibins, J., Dunstan, E., & Pahlow, K. (2017). Exploring the influence of charismatic characteristics on flagship outcomes in zoo visitors. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 22, 157-171. https://doi.org/10.1080/10871209.2016.1276233

External links[edit | edit source]