Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation


Are Families Talking about Conservation at Live Animal Exhibits? Analyzing Family and Professional Conservation Discourse Public Deposited

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  • Zoos, aquariums and other free-choice/informal education settings offer the public opportunities to interact with live animals in exhibits through animal encounters and/or touch experiences designed to carry a conservation mission. Many of these institutions are accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), which require them to develop mission statements with explicit conservation education goals. Although there are conflicting views within and outside the field about keeping animals in captivity for the purpose of education, researchers and practitioners generally agree that live animal interactions can result in powerful learning experiences with the potential to impact visitors’ conservation awareness, attitudes and behavior. However, is there evidence that family visitors talk about conservation during these experiences? Well-documented research focused on biological talk by families in natural history museums suggests that visitors frequently talk about where an animal lives, how it moves, what it eats, and how it feels, demonstrating that these experiences promote biological talk and also have implications for learning science skills and knowledge. Such findings are critical to designing effective learning experiences for families that take into account what they bring to the learning experience in terms of their interests, backgrounds and understanding. In this multidisciplinary study, I examine what counts as conservation talk among both families, themselves, and professionals working in conservation-related arenas. I do so by first examining the cultural, historical, and philosophical underlays to institutions such as zoos, aquariums and other free-choice/informal education settings that offer live animal encounters and exhibits. My intent to engage families was to document if they see live animal exhibits as places to talk about conservation, if they talk about conservation at such exhibits, and ultimately how they talk about conservation when prompted. Additionally, I analyzed the discourse of conservation-related professionals to understand what they expect conservation talk among families at live animal exhibits to look like as well as how they, themselves, talk when prompted to think generally about conservation. During the first phase of this mixed-method study, I conducted semi-structured interviews with recruited families (n=10), totaling 38 individuals, and a focus group interview with professionals (n=10) who work in conservation-related arenas. These interviews included a concept mapping activity, from which I developed an observation rubric for “what counts as conservation talk” from the point of view of the participating families and professionals. In the second phase of this study, I applied the observation rubric to the video-recorded live animal experiences of additional families (n=40) and to the conservation Discourse of professionals themselves. The analysis of concept maps and interviews revealed the larger cultural Discourses that people draw upon when they think and talk about conservation, animals and learning. Results showed that the conservation Discourses families and professionals drew upon when prompted to think and talk about conservation in general are analogous in the sense that both families and professionals connect to and speak from their environmental worldviews and perceived values. Families talked about strategies and solutions to major environmental issues they identified as ethically crucial to undertake, highlighting the role of education efforts for conservation. Professionals largely discussed ethical topics, also highlighting the importance of education efforts and practices in promoting pro-conservation behaviors. In other words, both families’ and professionals’ conservation Discourse were values-based. However, when professionals were prompted to define what conservation talk would look like for families visiting zoos and aquariums and interacting with live animals, they expected family conservation talk to be about animals at large, their biology, relating ideas about ecosystems, and recognizing their own connections to nature, but not about values. Rather, they felt that an important role of conservation education approaches is to support families in changing their values. This perspective is congruent with the field’s traditional model of supporting visitors’ development from learning information about a topic, which then presumably results in changes in attitudes and feelings about the topic, which then ultimately results in behavior change, in the case of this study, promoting pro-conservation behaviors. This traditional view was seen also in the professionals’ concept maps of expected family conservation talk, which reflected linear models of conservation learning and dialogue among families that were more prescriptive in nature and expected families to be less able and willing than they are to talk about conservation from a values and ethics perspective. As demonstrated by the complex network of ideas families constructed in their concept maps to explain their perspectives on conservation, they seemed ready to engage in action-driven conversations as far as talking about solutions and strategies to address environmental issues. Furthermore, their conservation talk sums up the values they assign to nature. However, since professionals developing exhibits underestimate families’ interest and abilities to discuss conservation in these ways, many exhibits do not support conservation talk, and as a result, families do not always clearly recognize the conservation mission embedded in live animal experiences. These findings suggest that live animal exhibits and family engagement efforts will only meaningfully advance families’ understanding of conservation and/or afford opportunities for them to develop reflective conservation talk if there is intentional conservation messaging built upon people’s own environmental worldviews and the values they assign to nature. I argue that top-down, linear theories of change based on the tenet that the goal of conservation education is to build visitors’ knowledge in order to change their values do not work. Instead, researchers and practitioners working in this area will be far more successful (and fulfilled) by understanding people’s environmental worldviews, existing values, and cultural constructions of nature as starting points for conversation and important vehicles in the construction of visitors’ reflective understanding of conservation and its mission. I argue for a paradigmatic shift for conservation education research and practice to utilize community engaged methods and consider multidisciplinary insights through a critical environmental literacy approach to conservation education research and practice.
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