CEC Ambassador Animal Position Statement

Last revision 1/28/03; Updated 1/28/15 to change "program animal" to "ambassador animal"

The AZA Conservation Education Committee (CEC) supports the appropriate use of ambassador animals as an important and powerful educational tool that provides a variety of benefits to zoo and aquarium educators seeking to convey cognitive and affective (emotional) messages about conservation and wildlife.

Audience Engagement

Zoos and aquariums are ideal venues for developing emotional ties to wildlife and fostering an appreciation for the natural world. However, developing and delivering effective educational messages in the free-choice learning environments of zoos and aquariums is a difficult task.

Zoo and aquarium educators are constantly challenged to develop methods for engaging and teaching visitors who often view a trip to the zoo as a social or recreational experience (Morgan and Hodgkinson, 1999). The use of ambassador animals can provide the compelling experience necessary to attract and maintain personal connections with visitors of all motivations, thus preparing them for learning and reflection on their own relationships with nature.

Ambassador animals are powerful catalysts for learning for a variety of reasons. They are generally active, easily viewed, and usually presented in close proximity to the public. These factors have proven to contribute to increasing the length of time that people spend watching animals in zoo exhibits (Bitgood, Patterson and Benefield, 1986, 1988; Wolf and Tymitz, 1981).

In addition, the provocative nature of a handled animal likely plays an important role in captivating a visitor. In two studies (Povey, 2002; Povey and Rios, 2002), visitors viewed animals three and four times longer while they were being presented in demonstrations outside of their enclosure with an educator than while they were on exhibit. Clearly, the use of ambassador animals in shows or informal presentations is effective in lengthening the potential time period for learning and overall impact.

Ambassador animals also provide the opportunity to personalize the learning experience, tailoring the teaching session to what interests the visitors. Traditional graphics offer little opportunity for this level of personalization of information delivery and are frequently not read by visitors (Churchman, 1985; Johnston, 1998). For example, Povey (2002) found that only 25% of visitors to an animal exhibit read the accompanying graphic; whereas, 45% of visitors watching the same animal handled in an educational presentation asked at least one question and some asked as many as seven questions. Having an animal accompany the educator allowed the visitors to make specific inquiries about topics in which they were interested.

Knowledge Acquisition

Improving our visitors' knowledge and understanding regarding wildlife and wildlife conservation is a fundamental goal for many zoo educators using ambassador animals. A growing body of evidence supports the validity of using program animals to enhance delivery of these cognitive messages as well:

  • MacMillen (1994) found that the use of live animals in a zoomobile outreach program significantly enhanced cognitive learning in a vertebrate classification unit for sixth grade students.
  • Sherwood and his colleagues (1989) compared the use of live horseshoe crabs and sea stars to the use of dried specimens in an aquarium education program and demonstrated that students made the greatest cognitive gains when exposed to programs utilizing the live animals.
  • Povey and Rios (2002) noted that in response to an open-ended survey question (“Before I saw this animal, I never realized that . . . ”), visitors watching a presentation utilizing a ambassador animal provided 69% cognitive responses (i.e., something they learned) versus 9% made by visitors viewing the same animal in its exhibit (who primarily responded with observations).
  • Povey (2002) recorded a marked difference in learning between visitors observing animals on exhibit versus being handled during informal presentations. Visitors to demonstrations utilizing a raven and radiated tortoises were able to answer questions correctly at a rate as much as eleven times higher than visitors to the exhibits.

Enhanced Environmental Attitudes

Ambassador animals have been clearly demonstrated to increase affective learning and attitudinal change:

  • Studies by Yerke and Burns (1991) and Davison and her colleagues (1993) evaluated the effect live animal shows had on visitor attitudes. Both found their shows successfully influenced attitudes about conservation and stewardship.
  • Yerke and Burns (1993) also evaluated a live bird outreach program presented to Oregon fifth-graders and recorded a significant increase in students' environmental attitudes after the presentations.
  • Sherwood and his colleagues (1989) found that students who handled live invertebrates in an education program demonstrated both short and long-term attitudinal changes as compared to those who only had exposure to dried specimens.
  • Povey and Rios (2002) examined the role ambassador animals play in helping visitors develop positive feelings about the care and well-being of zoo animals.
  • As observed by Wolf and Tymitz (1981), zoo visitors are deeply concerned with the welfare of zoo animals and desire evidence that they receive personalized care.


Creating positive impressions of aquarium and zoo animals, and wildlife in general, is crucial to the fundamental mission of zoological institutions. Although additional research will help us delve further into this area, the existing research supports the conclusion that ambassador animals are an important tool for conveying both cognitive and affective messages regarding animals and the need to conserve wildlife and wild places.


The primary contributors to this paper were Karen Povey and Keith Winsten with valuable comments provided from members of both the Conservation Education Committee and the Children's Zoo Interest Group.


Bitgood, S., Patterson, D., & Benefield, A. (1986). Understanding your visitors: ten factors that influence visitor behavior. Annual Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 726-743.

Bitgood, S., Patterson, D., & Benefield, A. (1988). Exhibit design and visitor behavior. Environment and Behavior, 20 (4), 474-491.

Churchman, D. (1985). How and what do recreational visitors learn at zoos? Annual Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 160-167.

Davison, V.M., McMahon, L., Skinner, T.L., Horton, C.M., & Parks, B.J. (1993). Animals as actors: take 2. Annual Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 150-155.

Johnston, R.J. (1998). Exogenous factors and visitor behavior: a regression analysis of exhibit viewing time. Environment and Behavior, 30 (3), 322-347.

MacMillen, Ollie. (1994). Zoomobile effectiveness: sixth graders learning vertebrate classification. Annual Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 181-183.

Morgan, J.M. & Hodgkinson, M. (1999). The motivation and social orientation of visitors attending a contemporary zoological park. Environment and Behavior, 31 (2), 227-239.

Povey, K.D. (2002). Close encounters: the benefits of using education program animals. Annual Proceedings of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 117-121.

Povey, K.D. & Rios, J. (2002). Using interpretive animals to deliver affective messages in zoos. Journal of Interpretation Research, 7: 19-28.

Sherwood, K. P., Rallis, S. F. & Stone, J. (1989). Effects of live animals vs. preserved specimens on student learning. Zoo Biology 8: 99-104.

Wolf, R.L. & Tymitz, B.L. (1981). Studying visitor perceptions of zoo environments: a naturalistic view. In Olney, P.J.S. (Ed.), International Zoo Yearbook (pp.49-53). Dorchester: The Zoological Society of London.

Yerke, R. & Burns, A. (1991). Measuring the impact of animal shows on visitor attitudes. Annual Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 532-534.

Yerke, R. & Burns, A. (1993). Evaluation of the educational effectiveness of an animal show outreach program for schools. Annual Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 366-368.

I Accept

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. If you continue using our website, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website and you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Find a Zoo or Aquarium Donate to AZA Contact Us Member Login Search the site