This experiment is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Grant Challenge Challenge Grant. Browse more projects

The role of facilitation in sparking curiosity and conservation intentions during up-close animal encounters

Raised of $6,248 Goal
Funded on 3/14/19
Successfully Funded
  • $7,029
  • 112%
  • Funded
    on 3/14/19

Project Results

We are excited to announce the publication of our research in Animal Behavior and Cognition! We found that inquiry facilitated programs encouraged participants to ask more questions than in storytelling conditions, and that storytelling facilitated programs encouraged a broader range of questions, suggesting that facilitation style influences curiosity. We also found that both types of facilitation styles influence connections to the animals. Please use the link above to access the paper.

About This Project

Many zoos offer opportunities for visitors to have up-close encounters with ambassador animals. These encounters have the potential to increase interest in these animals and hopefully inspire visitors to take action to protect animals in the wild. We will study how interactions with ambassador animals at the Bronx Zoo affects visitors’ interest, learning, and conservation intentions.

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What is the context of this research?

Up-close encounters with animals are powerful experiences for zoo visitors and research shows that a range of interactions can positively impact perceptions of animals, a critical precursor to inspiring conservation action. Zoos offer various ways for visitors to meet animals, including participant-driven programs in which visitors direct the discussion and facilitators are expert resources, as well as curriculum-driven programs in which facilitators actively guide the experience. Here we examine how facilitation affects participants’ reactions, learning, and conservation intentions during and after these experiences. Zoos prioritize conservation; using ambassador animals to capitalize on visitors’ excitement towards conservation intentions will advance their mission.

What is the significance of this project?

Zoos and aquariums in the US serve millions of guests each year and are valued sources of science and conservation information. Their diverse guest base and status as wildlife and conservation experts positions them to inspire people to act on behalf of wildlife. Programs that provide animal encounters provide opportunities to emphasize conservation. Facilitating experiences with ambassadors require extensive investment by zoos in training staff and animals to work with guests. It is critical these experiences inspire and spark curiosity, and advance zoos' conservation missions. Studying two types of facilitated experiences will provide insight in how to design experiences to empower guests to act on behalf of wildlife.

What are the goals of the project?

We will investigate the effect of facilitation on participants’ reactions, learning, and conservation intentions during and after two program types at the Bronx Zoo. We will observe 10 participant-driven programs and 10 curriculum-driven programs with a range of animals. We will develop a group level observation protocol to track affective responses, learning indicators, and conservation action interest. We will also interview 10 participant groups immediately after the program to gain insight into their experiences. Using a grounded theory approach, we will surface common themes to use to develop recommendations to ensure that animal ambassador programs are not only exciting and engaging, but also inspire conservation action.


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We are offering a generous incentive ($20/family) to families who participate in the interview part of the study. The remaining budget will be used to cover costs for time and effort for the project and time and effort for dissemination of the findings and recommendations.

Endorsed by

This project will give us important insight to help interpretation professionals at zoos and aquariums (and elsewhere!) to create meaningful experiences for guests. The research team is well-suited for this work and we're excited to see them take on this project!
This project could answer some key outstanding questions about the impact of different types of animal encounters at zoos and aquariums. These results could directly inform many of the discussions about the value of ambassador animals now taking place within the zoo and aquarium community. Questions of guest benefit and animal welfare both need further investigation to strike the right balance, and I believe this study would contribute important information about the benefit of these programs for guests.

Project Timeline

The outlined timeline provides flexibility between milestones. Development of the observation and interview protocols can be worked on concurrently with the IRB application. Recruitment planning and scheduling of observations and interviews can start as soon as the IRB application is approved. We will disseminate findings internally, through, and submit our findings to a peer review journal for publication.

Feb 05, 2019

Project Launched

Mar 29, 2019

Develop Observation and Interview Protocol (Completed)

Apr 15, 2019

IRB Application (Completed & Approved)

Jul 08, 2019

Program Observations and Interviews (COMPLETED!)

Sep 06, 2019

Analyze Data (Completed)

Meet the Team

Shelley Rank
Shelley Rank
Research and Evaluation Associate


Wildlife Conservation Society
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Team Bio

Katie Manion, Curator of Education at the Bronx Zoo, Kathleen LaMattina, Curator, Animal Encounters at the Bronx Zoo, and Su-Jen Roberts, Director of Educational Research and Evaluation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, will be advising Rank throughout the project.

Shelley Rank

Having worked as an environmental educator and animal caregiver it was always a privilege to bring people closer to wildlife. Now, as a social science researcher who studies conservation psychology, I believe zoos and aquariums are poised to empower audiences to feel more connected to wildlife and to protect the environment.

Project Backers

  • 95Backers
  • 112%Funded
  • $7,029Total Donations
  • $60.83Average Donation
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