In our modern society the protection of nature and the environment is becoming increasingly important. An essential approach to addressing these problems and changing people’s behavior is environmental education. In recent decades, zoos have increasingly seen their role as being the education of visitors [1
] and, in this way, have evolved from living museums to education and conservation centers [2
]. Both zoos and zoo visitors see conservation education as a major task for zoos and aquariums [4
Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive effect of zoos in relation to environmental education. For example, a visit to a zoo can be a positive emotional experience that leads to visitors’ interest in learning more about animals [6
]. A zoo visit has the potential to positively impact visitors’ understanding of biodiversity [7
], conservation learning [9
], or knowledge [10
]. Zoos can also have a positive effect on other environmental psychological factors. For example, zoo-related environmental education programs can contribute to an increase in nature connectedness [12
] or strengthen positive environmental attitudes [14
]. Behavior change through zoo education has also been demonstrated [16
] and it was confirmed that the effects achieved by zoos can be sustainable [18
]. However, there are also critical studies. For example, methodological weaknesses have been demonstrated in some zoo studies in an environmental education context [19
]. Moscardo [21
] did not find evidence of a positive effect of a wildlife-based tourism experience on conservation awareness. Smith and Broad [22
] found that many participants did not show a significant increase in knowledge as a result of a narrated bus tour at the zoo. Other studies have also found that some participants in a zoo environmental education program experienced no increase in knowledge or even experienced a decrease in understanding [9
]. In addition, a zoo program can lead to misconceptions (false learning) [24
]. One possible reason for this could be that many people believe that a visit to the zoo should be a fun and relaxing recreational activity [25
Despite all of the criticism, the special importance of zoos as environmental education institutions can be illustrated particularly well by the annual visitor numbers. The members of the Association of Zoological Gardens, an association of 71 zoos in German-speaking countries, were visited by more than 43 million people in 2018 [26
]. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) stated in its annual report for 2017 that its members were visited by 140 million visitors [27
]. Globally, it is estimated that there are more than 700 million visits annually and that zoos spend $
350 million on conservation projects [28
]. However, it must be noted that the number of visitors does not provide any direct information about the general education output [29
] and many visitors do not only come to the zoo to learn [25
]. Nevertheless, the number of visitors is at least an indicator, since even if only every third person learns something at the zoo, this is already a significant contribution [30
When educational programs are evaluated in the zoo context, environmental attitudes [31
], nature connectedness [13
], environmental knowledge [34
], or behavior change [16
] are often examined. Knowledge has long been considered one of the most important factors influencing behavior, but this old paradigm is increasingly being disputed [36
]. For example, Moss et al. (2017) discovered that the correlation between knowledge and environmental behavior is small [37
], and Otto and Pensini (2017) also confirmed that knowledge has only a small effect on behavior [38
However, especially for connection to nature and environmental attitudes, there are contradictory results in the zoo context. While some studies found a positive effect of a zoo visit on nature connectedness [12
], other studies could not confirm an increase or even identified a small negative [33
]. For environmental attitudes, there are also contradictory results in the zoo context. For example, some studies found a positive effect of a zoo visit or environmental education program at the zoo on environmental attitudes [15
]. In contrast, other studies found no change [43
] or only small effects [31
]. Therefore, in this study we will investigate whether a simple environmental education program at a zoo—a one hour zoo tour—has a positive effect on participants’ connection to nature and attitudes toward species conservation.
Although the concept of connection to nature is regularly studied and has now gained a lot of attention, there is no universally accepted definition of the construct. Some researchers focus on the connection of a person’s personality with nature [45
]. Others consider, for example, the individual’s emotional connection to nature [46
]. A widely used concept is the Inclusion of Nature in Self by Schultz [48
]. In this concept, the inclusion of nature consists of three layers, which are arranged hierarchically. The cognitive level forms the basis and answers the question of whether a person sees nature as part of him or herself. The affective level deals with the question of whether someone cares about nature and is the prerequisite for the third level; the behavioral level. The behavioral level considers whether someone is motivated to act in the best interest of nature [48
]. Despite the various definitions and the resulting different measurement tools, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the measurement tools are similar and presumably measure the same underlying concept [49
]. Furthermore, many studies show that connection to nature and environmentally friendly behavior are strongly related, and that connection to nature can also motivate people to protect nature [46
Similar to the connection to nature, environmental attitudes also have an influence on environmental behavior. However, there is no consensus on the strength of the relationship. Therefore, depending on the author, attitudes are considered to be a very strong or a moderate factor influencing environmental behavior [56
]. Attitudes cannot be directly translated into behavior [60
], but they are nevertheless a decisive factor influencing behavior [57
]. There are different approaches to defining the concept of environmental attitude. For example, Schultz (2004) describes environmental attitudes as a collection of a person’s beliefs, feelings, and behavioral intentions about an environmental issue. In the classical view, attitudes consist of three components: a cognitive component that reflects a person’s thoughts toward an attitude or object; an affective component that describes a person’s feelings toward the attitude or object; and a conative component that describes a person’s behavioral intensions toward an attitude or object [62
]. Frequently, environmental attitudes are also summarized as care for nature or concern about environmental problems [64
]. Although visitor studies in the zoo context often consider environmental attitudes (e.g., [31
]), attitudes toward species conservation specifically tend to be neglected. Therefore, in this study we specifically examined the influence of guided zoo tours on attitudes toward species conservation and connection to nature.
A total of 269 persons (33.46% male, 64.68% female, 0.37% diverse [diverse is the third official gender option in Germany for non-binary], 1.49% no information) participated in this study. The average age was 41.27 years.
The baseline value for connection to nature was 4.90 ± 1.28 (n = 267). No significant differences were found between the groups according to the classification of the type of tours for connection to nature (p = 0.924; African mammal tours: 4.86 ± 1.25, n = 146; special topic tours: 4.87 ± 1.32, n = 38; feeding tours: 4.95 ± 1.21, n = 58). Attitudes toward species conservation also had a high overall baseline value of 4.49 ± 0.58 (n = 267). No significant differences occurred between types of tours for attitudes towards species conservation (p = 0.487; African mammal tour: 4.44 ± 0.64, n = 146; special topic tour: 4.58 ± 0.44, n = 38; feeding tour: 4.55 + 0.47, n = 60).
The various zoo tours all triggered increases in connection to nature and attitudes toward species conservation. The influence of the guided tours is shown in Figure 1
. Numerical values, exact effect sizes and significance levels can be found in Appendix A
, Table A1
and Table A2
In the group with a high connection to nature baseline, a similarly strong increase is shown for all three guided tour types (African mammal tour: 0.17, n = 79, r = 0.211; special topic tour: 0.30, n = 20, r = 0.243; feeding tour: 0.30, n = 30, r = 0.228). For the group with a low connection to nature, no meaningful result is obtained due to the small sample size for the special topic tour and feeding tour (African mammal tour: n = 16; special topic tour: n = 3; feeding tour: n = 2). In the group with an initial medium connection to nature, there is a higher increase in the guided tours with feedings and in the guided tours with special topics (special topic tour: 0.67, n = 15, r = 0.282; feeding tour: 0.65, n = 26, r = 0.291) than in the guided tours with a focus on African animals (African mammal tour: 0.24, n = 51, r = 0.173). For the attitude towards species conservation, a significant increase is shown for all groups, despite the initial high baseline (between 0.12 and 0.16).
Most participants in the guided zoo tours in this study showed a very high level of connection to nature even before the tours. Regardless of the type of tour, most participants were already in the upper range in terms of nature connectedness (IINS 5–7). Because of the already high baseline, further increases through environmental education programs are difficult (this is called the ceiling effect). Compared to environmental education programs with students, in which individuals with lower nature connectedness also frequently participate [13
], persons with low IINS scores were the exception in this study. One possible explanation could be that the individuals voluntarily participated in a guided tour. For this reason, it can be assumed that this group of people is more interested in environmental and animal topics and already has a high connection to nature. Comparable studies often survey school or college students, who have limited, if any, choice to participate because the programs are part of the school curriculum. In addition to visitors with a high connection to nature, zoos should try to encourage people with a low connection to nature to participate in their environmental education programs, for example, by making the programs more attractive to this group of people in particular.
Another explanation for the high initial connection to nature of the participants compared to other studies could be the age of the participants. Many other studies have included students between the ages of 12 and 18 as their target group. At this age, connection to nature is particularly low and only increases again later in life [69
]. In this study, the participants were, on average, 41 years old. At this age, connection to nature has usually recovered from the decline during puberty.
The various guided tours show a positive effect on connection to nature, regardless of the topic of the guided tour. Compared to other personality traits that tend to be constant, such as environmental values [70
], connection to nature can be influenced by various factors [71
]. A particularly important factor that positively influences nature connectedness is the amount of time a person spends in nature [47
]. Also, environmental education programs can increase a person’s nature connectedness [13
]. The combination of time spent at the zoo, which can be classified as time spent in nature, and the environmental education element of the zoo tour can be considered as factors that positively influence nature connectedness. In this research, however, it is not possible to determine the extent to which the two factors (or their combination) are responsible for the increase in connection to nature. The results of this study are consistent with previous research that has shown the positive effect of a zoo visit on connection to nature [12
Differences between the three types of guided tours can be seen for the participants with initial medium connection to nature. Although all tour types show a significant positive increase for the medium group, for the tours with special topics and the tours with feedings the increase is stronger compared with the “regular” Africa tour. This result is consistent with previous zoo research, which showed that individuals with medium connection to nature, in particular, can benefit from small additions to the zoo tour [13
]. As such, the feedings and the special themed tours can be seen as a unique experience compared to the regular tour. The increase in connection to nature in the group with an initial high connection to nature is surprising. Compared to other studies where no significant effect was found for short-term interventions [13
], this study shows a small but significant increase. A possible explanation for this could be that the individuals in other studies were students who attended the environmental education program as part of a school course, while, in this study, the surveyed adults voluntarily participated in the tour in their free time. This means that, in most cases, the reason for the participation of the students was due to extrinsic motivation, while the adult tour participants probably had an intrinsic motivation [74
]. This intrinsic motivation may have contributed to a better appreciation of the guided tours and thus to an improvement in the connection to nature.
For the attitudes towards species conservation, the results show that people attending the tours already have very positive attitudes towards species conservation. This result is consistent with previous research: For example, it has been documented that zoo visitors show strong positive environmental attitudes [32
] and have more concern for environmental issues compared to the general public [65
]. A positive relationship was found between the number of zoo visits in the past and attitudes toward species conservation [14
]. An important influencing factor of environmental attitudes is prior experience: Individuals with higher ecological experience at the zoo show more positive attitudes toward conservation compared to individuals with little prior experience [75
]. It can be assumed that individuals who voluntarily participate in a guided tour are likely to be among a very interested group which also have prior experience.
Regardless of the type of tour, a significant increase with a small effect size is shown for the attitudes towards species conservation. Since in all three groups the increase is of a similar size, it can be concluded that special topics or feeding of animals do not have an additional positive effect on attitudes toward species conservation. The strengthening of positive environmental attitudes by a visit to a zoo is consistent with previous research. For example, it has been shown that (repeated) environmental education programs at the zoo can improve attitudes toward conservation [76
]. Even a visit without an additional education program can result in reinforcing positive environmental attitudes [42
]. In a previous study, it was shown that close animal contact can have a positive effect on attitude [79
]. Other studies, on the other hand, have shown that a direct animal encounter has no additional positive effect on environmental knowledge. For example, Whitehouse-Tedd et al. (2021) found that a zoo tour was more likely to increase zoo visitors’ knowledge than an animal encounter, potentially because the tour was longer and thus provided more opportunities for learning [23
]. Another study was able to show that there was no difference in environmental behavior improvement between zoo groups with and without animal contact [80
]. Our results are consistent with these findings. Thus, we also could not find an additional positive effect of animal feeding on environmental attitudes.
Despite the highly significant increases for both attitudes and connection to nature, it should be noted that the effect sizes in all cases are in the small range (r < 0.3). This means that while there are measurable significant positive effects, these increases are, on average, less than one scale unit. Such a result could be expected for a short intervention, such as the one conducted in this study. In comparable studies in which environmental education programs were evaluated, the effect sizes for connection to nature and environmental attitudes were also in a similar range [68
In summary, this study shows that an environmental education program at the zoo can have a positive impact on the participants’ attitudes towards species conservation and their connection to nature. The results confirm the positive influence of even a very simple and short environmental education program. However, it should not be ignored that these effects are relatively small, although given the duration of the environmental education program, this is not surprising.