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Difficult Subjects at the Zoo

As zoos have evolved from places of recreation to institutions whose primary mission is wildlife conservation, the role of interpreters teaching within zoos has expanded. Today, docents and other educators are frequently called upon to interpret more challenging and complex issues as they share this new vision of the zoo with visitors.

Differences in life experiences and perceptions influence the way people feel about the zoo and animals. Docents should be prepared to look at the zoo from the visitor’s perspective in order to achieve their goals as interpreters . . . that is to help visitors have an enjoyable zoo experience, gain a greater understanding and appreciation of wildlife, and learn about the zoo and its purpose.

Because zoos have living collections, the experience of viewing animals is always a dynamic one, enabling visitors to observe all aspects of life. The animals may or may not be on view, or they may be engaging in behaviors such as mating, aggression, or eating, which in some visitors (especially younger ones) may evoke an emotional response.

Let’s examine several of the more challenging topics and situations that a zoo interpreter can encounter with visitors and explore productive ways of working through them.

Where are the animals?

Once places where animals were viewed in inadequate, sterile enclosures, modem zoos have developed innovative exhibitions that now present animals within the context of their environment, emphasizing naturalistic settings and suitable social groups. These naturalistic settings allow visitors to see animals within an appropriate context, while facilitating their understanding of animals as an integral part of a complex and fragile ecosystem. Though these by Terry O’Conner improvements benefit animals and visitors alike, they allow animals shelter and places of camouflage where they can retreat from, or be missed by, onlookers.

Visitors may express understandable frustration if they are unable to see their favorite animals immediately. What do you do in this instance? If there is a management reason why the animals are not on view, such as the introduction of a potential new mate, let the visitors know. This provides a great opportunity to discuss exciting changes at the zoo. If the animals are temporarily out of sight, you cm help resolve disappointment by explaining the benefits of the exhibit designs for the animals. You can also encourage visitors to look for signs of the animals’ presence through tracks, nests, and so forth. Such observation techniques will teach visitors to observe patiently. You might also suggest times when visitors can return to observe typical peak activity periods.


Let’s suppose you arrive at the next stop on your tour and the animals you are observing begin mating. What would you say? Your response should depend upon the age and comfort level of your group. This may be the ideal time to explain the zoo’s role in captive breeding programs, but you can always begin by interpreting the most observable behaviors. For example, in a troop of monkeys you might ask visitors to determine what the others are doing. This can lead to discussions about the social organization of the group. Or, you could discuss the breeding history of the animals at the zoo and its significance, as well as the species’ status in the wild (are they classified as threatened or endangered?).

When people assign human characteristics to animals or judge them by human standards of acceptable behavior (anthropomorphism) they may find that animal behavior challenges their sense of decorum. In this situation, a docent’s facts and anecdotes, as well as his or her demeanor, can diffuse any discomfort. If you talk about the animal’s behavior rather than avoid it, the reaction will very likely subside. Young children may find the situation funny, bewildering, or curious. Once again, it is you who can set the stage. Allow parents and teachers to assist with explanations if they wish. ‘These animals are mating so they can have babies” is a helpful response.

Why don’t you release animals back into the wild?

You may have encountered zoo visitors who indicate their ambivalence toward, or even opposition to, the existence of zoos. Committed as we are to supporting the important work of zoos, this reaction may be hard for us to understand, and therefore one of the more challenging issues to interpret.

People may dislike zoos based on their past experiences viewing animals in demeaning cages, and they may now be reassured by your explanation of advances in zoo exhibition design and plans for future improvements, as well as by learning about the scope of the zoo’s work. Other visitors may have concerns about maintaining endangered species in captivity. If there are so few of these animals left in the wild, why are zoos keeping them?

Here is an opportunity to discuss the need for habitat protection. If such environmental conditions as the drastic loss of natural habitat are prevalent, release is not viable. Until this trend is reversed, zoos breed animals in captivity to help maintain biological diversity. Species Survival Plans (SSP) are cooperative breeding programs for selected endangered species coordinated through the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. The goal of these propagation programs for rapidly-disappearing species, such as the lowland gorilla, Sumatran tiger, black rhinoceros, and Bali mynah, is to produce a stable, genetically healthy captive population. In some situations, notably with the golden lion tamarin from Brazil’s Atlantic coast rain forest, successful reintroduction of captive-born animals to a protected habitat is possible. For other critically endangered species, however, zoos may be their last hope for survival.

Zoo interpretation

The best preparation for interpreting difficult subjects at the zoo is to be aware of your own feelings about these topics and to practice explaining them to others. Once you’ve gathered all the information you think you will need, you may want to tour with a partner or group of docents, anticipating visitor reactions and questions, and practicing how you would respond. At the Woodland Park Zoo, we found it helpful during docent training to try this exercise while touring zoo exhibits rather than in the classroom.

In a previous issue of The Docent Educator (“Priorities for Docent Training,” Autumn 1992) the editors recommended that the first priority in a docent training program should be to teach the purpose of the institution. Having a clear understanding of the mission of your zoo–its programs and policies — is essential for you to be an effective interpreter.

Interpreting challenging subjects can be a rewarding experience. As educational institutions, zoos help to establish the vital connection between the animals on view and their wild counterparts, encouraging visitor action in support of protecting wild habitats. An encounter with a zoo docent can provide reassurance to zoo visitors as well as a meaningful experience, and ultimately foster in them a further commitment to conservation. You’ll probably never know how often this happens, but your work does make a difference.

Terry O’Connor is Curator of Education at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where she manages education program development and trains both teachers and docents. Ms. O’Connor is actively involved in the Museum Educators of Puget Sound and is a member of the Public Education Committee for the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

O’Connor Terry. “Difficult Subjects at the Zoo,” The Docent Educator 2.3 (Spring 1993): 18-19.

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