Quarterly Publications

Communicating Conservation

Strengthening the Public's Trust

You’re Unbelievable

In all likelihood, you do incredible, near-unbelievable work. Beyond the daily (and nightly) care of your animals (which is phenomenal, in-and-of itself), you run a clockwork-like facility, employ hundreds of staff and volunteers, have a measurable benefit to your local economy, integrate best green practices, rescue and rehabilitate wildlife, are champions of the environment, and lead impressive conservation efforts across oceans and in your own backyard.

But does the public believe you?

That question has been keeping us up at night; so this year PGAV Destinations partnered with H2R Market Research to launch a nationwide study to answer it. We surveyed 1,006 people across the country to understand their perception of conservation and zoos’ and aquariums’ roles in it. We were curious to uncover Americans’ understanding of conservation, their perceptions of what zoos and aquariums do in conservation; and most importantly, understand people’s opinions of zoos and aquariums based on the conservation they perceive these institutions to be doing.

While some of the findings confirm universally, cautiously-held beliefs, others have certainly raised eyebrows.

More than three-fourths of our respondents support wildlife conservation and are eager to help out, even those who don’t regularly visit zoos and aquariums. These supporters are more often than not Millennials, have higher levels of education, have children at home, and enjoy a higher-than-average household income. However, this same demographic is often the most critical of these institutions: their support is matched with a passion for these destinations to improve.

While conservation efforts at zoos and aquariums are certainly important to the general public, it’s far more important to the public that the care of the animals in residence is exceptional. When guests do engage in a conservation learning opportunity, our data shows that they’re far more interested in something interactive, like interfacing with animals and keepers, rather than passive information absorption.

Throughout the study, respondents made it very clear that animal welfare and conservation were key elements in the purpose of zoos and aquariums; however, those messages were frequently being lost on them, and thus diminishing their opinions of these destinations. In this issue of Destinology, we reveal some of the disconnects between the fantastic work zoos and aquariums conduct and what the public understands and cares about those efforts; and how these institutions can
grow to maximize conservation and animal care transparency.

The Public’s Mindset

Everyone should be outspoken, proud, passionate supporters of zoos and aquariums: on that we can all agree. However, every good relationship begins with understanding where someone is coming from – their frame of reference – so we need to understand the public’s position on destinations and conservation before we can evolve them into advocates.

According to PGAV’s Voice of the Visitor: 2017 Outlook on the Attractions Industry, 15% of Americans visited a zoo in the past year; 9% visited an aquarium; and 6% made the time to visit both.

Nearly three-fourths of all respondents (74%) expect zoos and aquariums to take actions to support wildlife conservation. For guests who say conservation initiatives at an attraction improve their perception of that attraction, those guests are far more likely to visit those attractions, as opposed to attractions who aren’t pursuing such initiatives.

76% of survey takers noted that they’d taken at least one action in the last two years that supported conservation, with a visit to a zoo or aquarium as the most popular (55%) followed by donating money to a conservation cause (29%). Comparatively, these respondents were unlikely to volunteer their free time towards actively participating in conservation efforts.

Concurrently, 77% said they will likely, and 32% will definitely, support a conservation effort within the next year, with 84% noting it will most likely be a visit to a zoo or aquarium, followed by 67% donating funds and 60% saying they’ll be an advocate for habitat preservation.

When we asked respondents what has the greatest influence on their decision to support, or not support, wildlife conservation, they responded in order:

  • Having financial resources to donate
  • A transparent understanding of exactly where their donation would go
  • An intention that their donation would go towards helping animals

According to this data, the majority of Americans support conservation, expect zoos and aquariums to be conducting it, and want to get involved.

So what’s catching their eye at these destinations?

The Case of the Non-Visitor

Of the more than 1,000 Americans surveyed in our study, nearly half (42%) hadn’t visited a single zoo or aquarium in the last two years. Certainly we’d like to think that the majority of the population loves and visits their hometown zoos and aquariums regularly; but alas, we’re not quite there… yet.

When asked what zoos and aquariums could do to increase their likelihood of visiting or supporting, non-visitors had two distinct, and all-too-familiar, answers. First, they noted that if one was closer to where they lived, they’d be far more likely to visit a zoo or aquarium. Second, non-visitors said if the zoo or aquarium offered more ticket discounts, that they’d be more inclined to walk through the front door.

Following those explanations, non-visitors noted that a wider variety of animal exhibits and better living conditions for the animal collection would make them more likely to visit.

However, here’s the most fascinating finding from non-visitors:

They feel that zoos and aquariums are the best places to learn about animals and wildlife. 60% of non-visitors agreed on this point, followed by 54% saying television and cable programs were best, 53% saying documentaries, and 51% perceiving nature centers as the top education outlets.

A fascinating case study launched this February, as Animal Planet premiered “The Zoo,” a first-of-its-kind docu-series taking audiences on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Bronx Zoo. As our respondents noted television was the second best way to learn about animals and wildlife, programs like “The Zoo” may be excellent catalysts to propel viewers to become more active in their local institutions.


On a final note of interest, 25% (105) of our non-visitors were well aware of the conservation efforts at their local zoo or aquarium. While that number may at first seem small, it’s a significant finding that these individuals – without visiting or being members – know about their local destinations’ good works.

Non-visitors may not be through your doors yet; but there’s plenty of evidence to show that many believe in you, and there are clear ways to get them on site.

A Tale of Two Destinations

While certainly zoos and aquariums share many of the same mission, operational, and design characteristics, the public’s perception of them – as we know – isn’t quite consistent. Understanding these perception similarities and differences is key in building foundations on which to reach out with conservation messaging.

Our respondents felt that the top priority for zoos (80%) and aquariums (78%) should be caring for their animals, followed by educating the public about conservation issues (62% and 64%), and providing expert training for keepers, staff, and conservationists (60% and 53%). Once again, while conservation is important to them, knowing that the animals are receiving the best care possible is the most important factor.

When given a list of statements to agree and disagree with regarding zoos and aquariums, respondents most agreed that zoos and aquariums “make [an] effort to replicate animals’ natural habitats rather than non-natural environments” (85% vs 81%), and “provide a fun and entertaining way to learn about animals” (82% and 81%). The same respondents least agreed that zoos and aquariums are “places where innocent creatures are unjustly held and have lifespans shortened” (40% and 38%) and that they “protect animals but keep them far from their natural habitats” (67% and 62%).

These are interesting insights in the fact that the public is quite sensitive to the design of these habitats, and also agrees that zoos and aquariums need to be fun – not only educational and conservation ambassadors. Regarding their least agreed-with statements, it seems to imply that the majority of people don’t feel that these destinations are bad for animals.

At both types of attractions, respondents felt that mammals were in most need of protection and support from wildlife conservation efforts. In zoos, these respondents felt that arthropods and amphibians were in need of protection; and in aquariums, amphibians and bony fish, such as sea horses and clown fish, needed the same protection.

This aligns with a 2014 study of Millennials by PGAV, which demonstrated that the generation was most interested in visiting zoo exhibits about elephants, tigers, and lions, and aquarium exhibits about dolphins, sharks, and jellyfish. This confirms a long-understood circumstance that guests care most about the fuzzy and “cute” mammals in care, but importantly reveals how immense the disconnect is with the serious plight of other taxa.

What They See

You already maintain an impressive and diversified portfolio of wildlife and conservation activities. However, do you know about which ones the public cares?

Interestingly, those actions which the public least expects zoos and aquariums to conduct are those which seemingly have the least, direct impact on the animals. Only 43% expect these institutions to invest in green building practices, and less than a third (30%) expect them to compost organic materials. Once again, the focus is on the animals.

When given a variety of conservation activities in which to participate while visiting a zoo or aquarium, 59% of our respondents said they’d like to build an enrichment item for an animal; 58% said they’d like to build a butterfly house to take home; and 53% were interested in signing up for a beach clean-up. Most importantly, an impressive 82% of survey takers said that their perception of a zoo or aquarium would be greatly or somewhat improved if that destination offered at least one of those programs. Respondents commonly noted that these activities encourage learning and participation, as well as demonstrating the institutions’ desire to help wildlife.

After hands-on activities, we gave respondents a wide selection of larger activities a zoo or aquarium might conduct, and asked them which ones would somewhat or greatly improve their perception of that institution. Three-fourths of respondents said that the key activity would be building a major attraction for the purpose of advancing animal conservation, followed by an outreach education program which brought animals to schools (71%) and experiencing a half or full-day shadow of a keeper helping support wildlife conservation. There existed a high correlation between implementing these initiatives and respondents’ intention to visit and support these attractions. This also indicates that outreach, like television programs, may be a popular outlet through which to cultivate new destination visitors.

Lastly, we asked guests who was the most trustworthy spokesperson at a zoo or aquarium. 31% felt it was the director, 25% said it was a keeper, and 21% said it was a researcher in the field. Members, board members, and volunteers scored far lower; so while we often think authentic messaging comes from our base, the public is viewing your CEO as the best source of honest information.

The Perfect Day

The last section of our survey may have been our most fascinating. We carefully crafted detailed stories that described different day-long experiences at zoos and aquariums, and integrated subtle differences throughout each experience. We then followed up with a series of questions that picked apart the elements to understand which aspects would have the greatest positive impact of their perception of their favorite zoo or aquarium.

All of the tested aspects dealt with different ways to practice and communicate conservation at different opportunities across a destination, and the following are the favorite events of our respondents.

Overwhelmingly, consumers preferred interactive experiences with animals and keepers, rather than passive options such as news stories, social media (sorry PR departments), or talking with their friends and families about conservation.

By understanding guests’ current perceptions and matching them with the achievable elements they most want to see, zoos and aquariums become even more effective, trustworthy, celebrated heroes of animal welfare and conservation.

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