Research Summary

Volunteers as Products of a Zoo Conservation Education Program

Motivations and Changes in Conservation Behavior of Zoo Volunteers

The Journal of Environmental Education

Docents and volunteers are critical members of environmental education institutions. Volunteers are often treated as experience facilitators to museums, zoos, aquariums, and other informal learning centers, but in this study they are examined as the participants in wildlife conservation programs. Because of the extensive time volunteers spend learning and interpreting about conservation, they are an interesting group to study as they develop their own environmental ethic. This study focused on volunteers at a zoo and sought to understand their experience in terms of their motivations for volunteering and the influence of volunteering on their engagement in wildlife conservation.

Registered volunteers at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo were given a questionnaire; 356 volunteers responded, representing 91% of the volunteer pool. Of these respondents, 85% were current volunteers and had an average of 7.6 years of volunteer experience at the zoo. The questionnaire asked about their attitudes toward volunteering at the zoo and their motivations for being involved. In addition, participants were asked about changes to their conservation-oriented behaviors since beginning their involvement with the zoo.

For their analysis, the researchers grouped motivations for volunteering according to three categories: motivated by learning about wildlife, motivated by interpreting wildlife, and motivated by new social relationships. Of these three categories, being motivated by a desire to learn more about wildlife was the most common reason volunteers cited regarding their decision to remain in the program and their satisfaction with volunteering.

Volunteers were asked about ten environmental behaviors, such as purchasing organic food or purchasing items that help third-world countries. These behaviors were categorized as conservation behaviors, informal wildlife outreach, displays of social identity centered on wildlife, and learning about wildlife. Within these categories, researchers analyzed whether behaviors started, increased, or decreased, and the relationship between the behavior and the number of years spent as a volunteer.

With regard to environmental behaviors, purchasing organic food and donating more than $100 to a conservation cause were two of the most popular conservation behaviors started by volunteers after they joined the program at the zoo. Voting in a national election and conserving water were behaviors the volunteers had already adopted before working at the zoo, which increased in frequency during their tenure as a volunteer. Many volunteers also reported decreasing the use of pesticides around their homes. The results suggested the more years spent volunteering in a program, the more likely those volunteers are to make behavior changes. Overall, increases in most of the studied environmental behaviors were associated with more years spent in the program.

The questionnaire also asked participants about their outreach behaviors. Their responses showed encouraging others to join the Zoo Society and talking with others about wildlife were two of the most commonly started behaviors and also the most commonly increased behaviors. Encouraging others to join the Zoo Society was the only behavior that had a significant correlation with years spent as a volunteer (i.e., the more years spent as a volunteer, the more likely that person was to encourage others to join the Zoo Society).

Identity-displaying behaviors, in this context, are those that allow the individual to showcase their involvement in wildlife conservation. Regarding these behaviors, volunteers started using skills developed at the zoo in another setting and began socializing with other zoo volunteers or staff outside the zoo. Other commonly increased behaviors were displaying wildlife art at home or work and wearing wildlife-oriented clothing. Socializing with others outside the zoo was also positively correlated with years as a volunteer.

Volunteers were also asked about their behaviors regarding “learning about wildlife.” The results showed reading books about conservation behavior and visiting other zoos were two of the most commonly started behaviors. Watching wildlife programs on television and reading books about animal behavior or conservation were some of the most commonly increased behaviors, though all behaviors in this category displayed larger increases than the other categories. Again, it was found that increases in these types of behaviors were associated with more years spent as a volunteer.

The Bottom Line

Since volunteering at a zoo is often motivated by an interest in animals, zoos may be able to encourage more complex or difficult environmental behaviors with this group. Zoos can also expand this sphere of influence by training volunteers to promote pro-environmental behaviors within their social circles. Furthermore, because a longer tenure as a volunteer is often associated with starting or increasing environmental behaviors, finding ways to encourage the longevity of participation from volunteers is an important area for zoos to focus their efforts.