Summer 2010: Of Note

Child at aquarium viewing orca

Lori Marino with reflection

skeptic: Neuroscientist Lori Marino questions a study saying that zoos and aquariums are educational.

Bryan Meltz

Captive Audience

Researcher questions what zoos truly teach

By Carol Clark

Sure, zoos are entertaining. But are they really educational?

A recent American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) study, which found that visits to zoos and aquariums have a positive impact on the conservation attitudes and understanding of adult visitors, is flawed and misleading, says Emory neuroscientist Lori Marino.

The Journal of Society and Animals recently published a critical evaluation by Marino and colleagues of the 2006 AZA study “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter.”

“There is no compelling evidence to date that zoos and aquariums promote attitude changes, education, or interest in conservation in their visitors, despite some claims to the contrary,” Marino says. “The impact of zoos remains an important, open question, deserving of a methodologically sophisticated study.”

Marino, an expert in dolphin and whale intelligence, believes that the high intelligence of these animals makes it immoral and cruel to use them as captive entertainers. She gave scientific testimony in April before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which dates back to 1972 and establishes basic requirements for the display of captive marine mammals. The death of an animal trainer last February, after a killer whale pulled her into a tank, brought oversight of the law into the national spotlight.

“Some zoos do good conservation work, and I think their efforts should be applauded and supported,” Marino says. “But the public needs to know what is real education and conservation and what’s just entertainment.”

Marino takes particular issue with the AZA study because she says it was methodologically flawed, was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, and is cited by some zoos and aquariums as evidence of their educational impact. The study was based on surveys of more than 5,500 visitors to twelve zoos and aquariums during three years.

Marino evaluated the AZA findings along with Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, an expert in self-report research methodology, and coauthors from three other Atlanta universities who specialize in the sociology and culture of zoos.

The researchers cited six major weaknesses that they found in the AZA study. For example, their analysis noted that survey respondents were simply asked to report their opinions of whether their zoo visits had been educational, rather than actually being tested for new knowledge.

“That’s like a teacher asking students at the end of the class if they learned anything,” Marino says, “and if they say, ‘yes,’ giving them an A.”