Fictional portrayals of animals in, for example, 'Harry Potter' or 'Finding Nemo' offer zoos a golden opportunity to capture the attention of children, even if the films may initially cause some confusion when youngsters see the real thing.
The study, led by Dr. Nils Lindahl-Elliot of the University of the West of England, investigated displays and visitors' responses to them at Bristol Zoo Garden and Paignton Zoo Environmental Park, where 'naturalistic' ways of presenting the animals have been introduced in recent years.
It suggests that there are fundamental flaws in how zoos are judged to be successful or not in getting across scientific and environmental messages.
Zoos are not schools, argues the report, pointing instead to the extraordinary variety of non-traditional forms of education which go on in them.
Dr Lindahl-Elliot said: "Visitors tended to attribute human characteristics to the wild animals, identifying the 'Mummy lion' and the 'Daddy lion', or comparing sleeping habits with those of the tabby at home."
But he added that the research also found that the opposite process took place. "Both parents and children used certain species to describe themselves, and each other - for example, several children likening their dads to gorillas.
"So the zoos were rich spaces not just for learning about the animals, but about the relation between humans and animals, and us and our own family."
Visitors' use of information provided by the zoos' signs also suggested a more complex process than might be expected. How visitors engaged with these signs was often not in the way intended.
Dr Lindahl-Elliot said: "Where adults stood, read and watched, the children pressed, climbed and pushed. At Paignton, for example, many children used the signs as a kind of lever with which to pull themselves up onto the fences for a better vantage point."
Signs which allowed children to use senses such as touch were particularly attractive, for example the Bristol Zoo's 'Zoolympics'. However, this did not always mean that children made the 'leap' to a deeper understanding of animals and their habitats.
According to the report, seeing certain films led children to show much greater interest in displays and even how the animals were classified by the zoos.
Several had watched 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets', in which the Basilisk was a monstrous snake.
Dr Lindahl-Elliot said: "When the children saw the plumed basilisks at the zoos and were told by their parents what the animal was, they asked 'Basilisk? Is that lizard a basilisk?' 'Isn't a basilisk a snake? ' Or 'Why wasn't the basilisk in Harry Potter a basilisk?'."
Similarly, before the release of 'Finding Nemo', none of the families had paid particularly close attention to clownfish at the Bristol Zoo.
TV natural history documentaries also affected visitors' responses to displays. For instance, children thought the Paignton zebra enclosure 'ought to have a few lions or cheetahs in it'. Others wondered whether what they saw were 'pretend animals' when they failed to move.
Dr Lindahl-Elliot said: "Zoos could help visitors to become more critical media users by inviting them to consider film or TV representations as just that -- representations.
"One idea might be to develop something like a 'rapid response' unit that seizes the opportunities generated by films and TV programmes to encourage visitors to ask more and new questions about a species on display."
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Dr. Nils Lindahl-Elliot on 0117 328 4328; 07913 093036 (mobile) or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or Lance Cole, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC, on 01793 413032/ 413119/413122
NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research project 'The new zoos: science, media and culture' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its Science in Society Programme - website at
2. Methodology: The study, carried out between October, 2002 and February, 2005, included interviews with zoo staff; observation of events organised by the British and Irish Federation of Zoos and Aquaria; and analysis of the Bristol and Paignton Zoos' displays. Visitor research included observation during a visit with 35 family groups (131 parents and children); use of video diaries which each family was invited to produce in a follow-up visit; post-visit interviews in each family's home; and a survey of some 450 zoo-member households.
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