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Mission Critical

By Dr. Joy Kubarek
min read

Using Social Science Research for Conservation

Zoos and aquariums share a common goal: for people and wildlife to thrive together. Understanding how to accomplish this is at the heart of social science research.

Social science research asks the who, what, why, and how questions of zoo and aquarium conservation missions. However, as the age old saying goes, research, like anything else, cannot exist in a vacuum. The entire zoo and aquarium community, regardless of role, can both benefit from and contribute to social science research that supports their missions. In spring 2020, a group of zoo and aquarium practitioners, researchers, and academics gathered to help shape a new research agenda to guide these efforts for years to come.

How We Got Here

It is important to recognize the trajectory of social science research in zoos and aquariums through the years and how the community got to this point.

An adult woman shows three children a bird she is holding
Photo Credit: © Chicago Zoological Society

In the early 2000s, people began asking questions about the role of zoos and aquariums in society and what people gained from an experience with them. This spurred one of the first multi-institutional research studies (Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter) to identify why visitors come to zoos and aquariums, what they do during a visit, how seeing wildlife influences their thinking about conservation, what visitors know about conservation concepts already, and what motivates people to engage in conservation activities.

This work answered some questions, but, like any good research, it also raised many more. To that end, in 2010, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Education Committee facilitated a process to develop the AZA Framework for Social Science Research. This framework was intended to provide direction for what to study through social science research in the years that followed. Since the establishment of that framework, there have been two more waves of Why Zoos and Aquariums studies, the Conservation Education Committee created a research and evaluation initiative, and more zoos and aquariums have allocated resources towards social science research and evaluation activities.

Perhaps one of the most exciting milestones on this trajectory was the establishment of the Social Science Research and Evaluation Scientific Advisory Group (SSRE SAG) in 2019, which is overseen by the Research and Technology Committee. Its formation is a step toward widespread understanding that social science research is a “must have” component underpinning work, and not just a “nice to have” within the zoo and aquarium community. The SAG will be a champion for the new agenda, advocating for this work and ensuring social science research informs broader conversations about how zoos and aquariums can be most impactful.

A giraffe leans over a fence and eats leaves from a child
Photo Credit: © Chicago Zoological Society

The momentum for doing and drawing on social science research in zoos and aquariums has been on the rise. This momentum is further fueled by pressing social issues prompting zoos and aquariums to reflect on their role in their communities.

Michelle Mileham, director of education at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah, has engaged with the Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter study and actively uses social science research findings to inform practices at the Aviary.

“My hope for the future is that we all reflect and think critically about the role we play—not only in conservation, but in dismantling white privilege, recognizing and empowering Black voices in conservation, and truly serving our whole community,” said Mileham. “We need to measure our successes and identify gaps in order to make much needed changes. And that’s the role of social science research.”

Her sentiments resonate with many in the zoo and aquarium community who have recognized the need to rethink how they collaborate with communities.

A group of children watch a penguin
Photo Credit: © Chicago Zoological Society

A New Agenda

Fast forward to spring 2020 and the convening of zoo and aquarium stakeholders to help shape a new agenda to guide the next decade of social science research. The new social science research agenda was developed through an iterative process spanning a number of months and engaging a wide range of zoo and aquarium stakeholders, including representatives from a range of committees, practitioners, and professionals in related fields. The key research questions of the agenda represent pressing issues and priorities for the zoo and aquarium community to address through research over the next ten years. This is not intended to exclude other efforts, but rather bring more focus and guidance to the areas seen as mission critical in the current social climate.

The agenda consists of five key research questions as follows:

  • How can zoos and aquarium help build a more equitable society through reflection on their internal operations, culture, and communications? How can zoo and aquarium diversity, equity, access, and inclusion support this? 
  • What is the role of zoos and aquariums in communities, including in the context of striving for environmental and social justice?
  • What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to social change towards conservation?
  • What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to the development of a person’s intellectual, social-emotional, and physical well-being?
  • How can zoos/aquariums maximize their systemic impact on conservation? 
An animal keeper holds a prehensile tailed porcupine and shows a group of kids
Photo Credit: © Chicago Zoological Society

The full agenda also includes sub-questions to provide more context and focus to the key research questions as well as an action plan to detail audiences and strategies to implement this work. From internal operations to working alongside communities, the questions cover the gamut of the what and the how zoos and aquariums do their work.

“We are setting ourselves up for implementation that has the integrity required for research findings to catalyze effective conservation action across a diverse spectrum of AZA member institutions,” said Dr. Kayla Cranston, director of conservation psychology strategy and innovation at Antioch University. Cranston and other academics who support social science research in zoos and aquariums recognize the importance of bridging what we know about human behavior with conservation efforts.

Focusing on biological and environmental metrics alone is not enough to succeed. It is critical for zoos and aquariums to acknowledge the human dimension of conservation, as well. This includes understanding how people can engage in conservation action as well as understanding and taking into consideration how people and communities may be impacted by conservation efforts.

An educator shows two little boys a replica gorilla skull
Photo Credit: © Chicago Zoological Society

It is a delicate balance to recognize how social science research can equip zoos and aquariums to better understand this balance and effectively work towards their missions.

”We are more ready than ever to use the power of science as a tool to make this world a better place,” said Dr. Ricardo Stanoss, program director for conservation capacity at the Smithsonian Conservation Institute.

Now is the time for zoos and aquariums to use social science research to help realize their missions and make the world a better place where people and animals thrive together. The 2020 agenda can help guide that scientific research; the time has come for all zoos and aquariums to be a part of making it happen.

Dr. Joy Kubarek is co-founder and partner of Inform Evaluation & Research.


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