In recent years, zoos and aquariums have become prominent centers for environmental education and have focused much of their organizational efforts towards conservation and inspiring conservation action among visitors. However, there is little research available to support the efficacy of these efforts, especially in relation to the behavioral outcomes associated with much of their programming. Because of the global reach of zoos and aquariums; their unique ability to directly connect people to wildlife; the educational capacity being built within the industry; and their interest in understanding how to effectively encourage pro-environmental behavior through live animal experiences, research geared at unpacking the various approaches towards behavior change incorporated into programming at these facilities is an important gap to be filled. As such, my research sought to identify how programs are developed, implemented, and evaluated in zoos and aquariums. Additionally, I also investigated the colloquial usage of behavior change theories as part of program design. I specifically chose to study programming that incorporates live animals as this component is often mentioned by industry professionals as being an important part of programs and in fostering pro-environmental behavior.
My research included four different Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited facilities located on the West Coast of the United States that resulted in data collection from ten interview participants, seven observations, and analysis of 22 pertinent documents (e.g., organization mission statements, strategic plans, and white papers). I analyzed this data in the form of a composite case which assimilated information gathered from each facility into the depiction of one, fictional case (the “West Coast Zoo and Aquarium”). The composite case highlights the typical program development process and describes differences in approaches between the education and husbandry departments at the zoo. Further analysis of the composite case uncovered a common theory of action for behavior change across locations: education programs coupled with animal experiences lead to behavior change. Unfortunately, this theory of action is missing components necessary for actual behavior change to be seen. I suggest an expanded model for program development incorporating applied behavior analysis techniques and community-based social marketing strategies to address the lack of behavioral theory incorporated into programming. This research assists in moving both the zoo and aquarium industry and the applied behavior analysis profession forward towards solutions that positively impact the environment.