The Hard Truth

Let’s face it. Having animals in captivity is a sensitive issue. There are many different viewpoints on the topic; some positive and some more negative, but all are worth consideration. After spending quite some time working with animals in enclosures as well as deciphering my own feelings on the topic – I would like to share with you my thoughts. With that said, here is my opinion based on years of studying, contemplation, conversations and direct interaction with animals in enclosures.

Firstly, there is no doubt that animals in captivity will live a life different from that of the wild. They will experience different boundaries, feeding patterns, and at times unusual proximity to other wildlife. These are just a few of the factors to consider when having animals in captivity – there are many as I have learned – all of which are very important to consider. Additionally, if not properly and strategically created based on the needs, behaviors, and characteristics of the specific animal in captivity – enclosures can cause stress induced behaviors to occur. These behaviors such as pacing, abnormal vocalization, and bobbing among others can happen to animals who are not coping well within their enclosures.

I spent several months studying these stress induced behaviors. They are real. And they are saddening. Perhaps the saddest of these situations are seen in circuses and carnivals where wild animals are treated in far less than satisfactory ways. Let me be clear – these I do not stand for. Animals are not toys. They are not puppets. And they should not be trained as such.

However, there are certain wildlife sanctuaries, parks, zoos, rehabilitation centers, and organizations that take a different approach to the purpose of having animals in captivity. And while at times it is still not easy to see wild animals within enclosures of any size… It is important that a select group are – for both the future of their species and of our planet’s well being.

Not to mention the value of wildlife centers who take in sick, injured or abandoned animals who might or might not be able to be reintroduced to the wild for various reasons. These centers often provide invaluable veterinary services and safe environments for wildlife to heal and carry out their lives within. (Of course, these centers should also pay close attention to the living environments provided to their inhabitants.)

I say all of this because there is yet another hard truth to swallow – one that many still deny. The planet we live on is changing. Natural areas are being lost or polluted whether directly or indirectly by human population growth, climate change is causing a shift in the environments and trophic interactions across the planet, and illegal poaching and trade of wildlife continues daily. These threats (among with many others) require that direct action be taken to protect and conserve wildlife around the world. Having animals within properly created and designed enclosures is one way to do so.

Perhaps one of the greatest threats wildlife around the world face is a lack of human education of their importance. Not just an education of their natural beauty, but of their value  to each and every one of us. Of how the ecosystems of the Amazon provide a carbon sink that allows the air you breathe to be filtered… How wildlife ecotourism – when done properly – is bringing communities and people out of poverty… And of how scavengers like hyenas in Africa, vultures across North America, and the coyote around your city help reduce the amount of bacteria within the natural environments you enjoy.

These are just a few examples – the list goes on.

Animals within enclosures do indeed have the ability to promote and provide this type of education. And while in a perfect world, all animals would run free – this is not the world we are living in.  We must provide and enhance educational opportunities for current and future generations to become inherently motivated towards protecting this planet’s remaining species – or risk facing even more devastating impacts to wildlife.

However, it is absolutely imperative that the zoos, sanctuaries, and conservation groups housing wildlife ensure that the habitats they provide for each species is as natural and enriching as possible. When creating such enclosures issues such as lighting, sound, odors, temperature, and substrate must all be considered. These enclosure characteristics will be unique to each species and thus, will firstly require a deep understanding of each species’ behavior and needs. I do believe that this can be done. And that when done well – can increase the uptake and understanding of the need for wildlife conservation by those who interact with the animals in such enclosures.

Now, without going into further scientific details – here are my final two cents:

Firstly, animals should only be kept in captivity by organizations whose motives are proven to be completely focused on the conservation education, protection, and growth of the species in the wild. As such, these organizations should provide enclosures, enrichment, and care that creates the best possible living environment for the species based on scientific knowledge and educational opportunities.

The needs of all ambassador animals within enclosures should come first – ours second.

Secondly, if we are going to have animals in captivity for conservation education purposes (zoos, outreaches, parks etc), we better ensure that we have a deeper comprehension of how, why, and what impact the animals are having on audiences.

Are they reaching their full educational impact on the public? Are there identifiable changes amongst audiences in their conservation knowledge and mindedness after interacting with animals in enclosures? And are the funds generated by the organization going towards the protection of the species in the wild and to the preservation of its role in its natural environment? Is the organization inherently truthful in its caring for the animals and its promotion of wildlife conservation?

These are all questions I feel obligated to find answers to. And that is why I believe the research of  WSYC is so valuable. I want to rest-assured that animals within enclosures are indeed serving their true purposes; that both staff and visitors to such facilities are increasingly being positively influenced by their interactions with the animals.

Because, if the goal is to increase conservation education of the public via wildlife in enclosures – we better make dang sure we are going all in to understand how we are doing that and in what ways. This is what my project seeks to do… To dig deep into how ambassador animals are truly influencing the public. To understand their value for conservation education and to identify current and new ways to ensure their educational impact potential is more than just met.

You will be pleased to know that my time at the Cheetah Outreach proved that their ambassador species are not only impacting audiences for conservation education, but are raising funds for the long-term protection of the species in the wild. The Cheetah Outreach does put the ambassador animals first and ensures that they are properly cared for – day in an day out – rain or shine. They are provided enclosures with enrichment and interaction daily. In my opinion, the cheetahs at the Outreach are quite happy, playful, and content overall. And as their motto implies, visitors at the outreach do have the opportunity to see it, sense it, and play a part in saving it.

So – do I support circuses and low budget zoos who provide minimal to no public interaction, education, or animal enrichment? No. Do I support zoos, conservation organizations, and other groups who maintain animals in captivity to reach conservation education and growth goals? Yes – but only if the animals are put first, if enclosures are designed based on specific species needs, and if they are taking the time to truly engage with audiences and use their funds to enhance the research and conservation of the species in the wild.

The only other option would be to not have any animals in captivity. And as perfect as that sounds – the current state of the world, of the global public’s general lack of conservation knowledge, and of climate change induced environmental threats – do not allow for this to be a viable option. It is my hopes that one day this might be, but until then it is our responsibility to mitigate for the negative impacts we are having on wildlife populations around the planet. This can be done through ambassador species.

If ambassador animals are truly proven to increase the public’s knowledge, attitudes, communication of, and behaviors towards wildlife conservation – then they are of great importance.

This is what I strive to do. To ensure that animals in captivity are reaching the hearts of every visitor and inspiring them to take action – not just by their beauty – but by the knowledge of their intrinsic importance to this earth.

I encourage you to read below the discussion and results of my research paper with the Cheetah Outreach. The excerpt below is taken directly from my paper. However, if you would like to read the paper in full, click this link – Cheetah Outreach PDF Final.

CHEETAH OUTREACH RESULTS (as taken directly from research paper):

Knowledge:

Based on quantitative responses, 77% of survey respondents had a change in knowledge after their visit to the Cheetah Outreach. However, 15.38% stated that they did not have knowledge of the reasons for cheetah conservation. A total of 8% of respondents felt that their knowledge remained the same and did not change after visiting the Outreach.

Based on quantitative responses, the knowledge metric appeared to be overall positively influenced among visitors. Many visitors shared similar responses which were coded under the emergent theme – increases in knowledge. This coding theme included statements of increased knowledge of the “threats that cheetahs face in the wild” and pleasant “surprise” with the knowledge of the guarding dog program. Another respondent stated that the handlers had “good explanations” that also lead to their increases in knowledge.

However, one visitor stated that they “did not learn anything new” because they “did not participate in a tour”. Perhaps this suggests that visitors who do not pay for a tour or a wildlife encounter might be offered another interactive avenue to learn about cheetah conservation. There were several visitors who attributed their prior gaps in knowledge to “ignorance,” “being unaware,” and “not realizing,” the decline of cheetahs in the wild.

Interestingly, some themes were also found within the knowledge metric that helped to identify what topics visitors remembered. One respondent included in the prior gaps in knowledge category that they did not know about the “abuse directed towards cheetahs.” Knowledge of the abuse towards cheetahs was non-existent for this respondent prior to their Cheetah Outreach visit. Knowing of the abuse (to this respondent) had an impact on visitor knowledge experience. Another respondent shared that prior to visiting, they thought the Cheetah Outreach was a “zoo.” This could suggest that further distinguishing between the work of a zoo and of an ambassador animal program might be of value to the work of the Cheetah Outreach.

Knowledge of the importance of cheetahs to their surrounding environments and the roles they play within their natural habitat was not mentioned. Gains in this knowledge might give visitors a more well rounded view of the cheetah inspiring them to value their presence in the wild in addition to just having knowledge of the challenges they face. Overall, increases in knowledge were positive, but perhaps a great focus could be placed on the value of an ambassador program and the importance cheetahs have within their ecosystems.

Attitude:

Of the respondents, 46% claimed that their attitudes towards cheetah conservation did change after visiting the Outreach while 31% claimed that their attitudes remained the same. This suggests that perhaps methods to change the attitudes of Cheetah outreach visitors might be an area worth future focus.

Despite claiming their attitudes changed, most respondents were not able to give specific examples of how they changed. Interestingly, more respondents shared statements suggesting explanations of further gains in knowledge rather than attitudes. However, based on all other provided responses, it is fair to infer that visitors’ attitudes towards cheetah conservation became more sympathetic after visiting the CO.

The emergent codes of attitude before and attitude after visiting the Outreach included statements such as, “ I was unaware of the conflict between cheetahs in the wild and farmers.” Another included that cheetahs are “extremely complex creatures” which suggests a potential attitude of appreciation for the species.

The fact that respondents associated knowledge related statements with an attitude specific question is interesting. One respondent did say that they already thought cheetah conservation was “important before their visit.” This suggests that perhaps identifying ways to bring others to the Cheetah Outreach who are not immediately interested in wildlife conservation could enhance changes in the public’s attitudes. Drawing people to the Outreach who don’t know about cheetah conservation might be a greater way to reach a wider audience – not just those already looking forward to interacting with a cheetah. This could be possibly done by reaching out to various donors and sharing the online video portion of this project with them.

It would be interesting to ask the 23% of respondents who claimed they had no specific attitude towards cheetah conservation why that is. Changing visitors’ attitudes is an important step in the effort to encourage public involvement with conservation. Like in the knowledge category, it might be useful to educate visitors of the natural value of cheetahs to surrounding wildlife and ecosystems as well. Perhaps in this way, the attitudes of visitors will become more globally minded – in addition to the emotional impact felt from interacting with an ambassador animal.

Interpersonal Communication:

A total of 77% of respondents stated that their ability to talk to others about cheetah conservation had changed after visiting the Cheetah Outreach. This is a strong percentage suggesting that the knowledge gained at the Cheetah Outreach increases the ability of visitors to share what they have learned with others. Interpersonal communication survey results held the greatest amount of feedback amongst survey responses.

From the open-ended communication responses, the emergent codes – increased likelihood of sharing and topics to be shared – were created in Nvivo. One respondent shared, “I feel I have more knowledge to talk” while another also attributed gains in knowledge to feeling more “comfortable educating” others. Another respondents shared that having a “first hand experience” helped them to be more likely to talk about cheetah conservation. Overall, it seems that the greater the increase in their knowledge – the more likely visitors are to discuss what they learned with others. Through this spread of knowledge – it is possible to also inspire changes in attitudes amongst a larger audience as visitors travel back home. In addition to reaching out to donors directly, interpersonal communication can encourage others outside of wildlife conservation to possibly show an interest in visiting the Cheetah Outreach. It is important that visitors continue to walk away feeling excited to share what they learned from a global perspective.

Further respondents included that they would share how “beautiful and engaging the species is,” “the challenges they face,” and “issues cheetahs face with inbreeding.” It is positive to see that they are willing to share about specific examples of cheetah conservation rather than just their beauty. It would be interesting to see how many visitors come to the Cheetah Outreach after learning of the program from previous visitors. Sharing knowledge and talking with others is one way to encourage conservation, but direct action from the public must also be taken. Researching how increased communication leads to direct action would be interesting. This might be done by following up with visitors weeks or months after their Outreach visit to inquire what if any actions they have taken to encourage cheetah conservation.

Barrier Removal:

In this study, the “barrier” was an inability to do something to help cheetah conservation. Results show that 62% of respondents felt that their ability to do something to help cheetah conservation did change. 23% felt that they did not have the ability to help with the work of cheetah conservation while 15% claimed their ability to help remained the same.

Using Nvivo, responses were coded into two emergent themes – unsure how to change and ideas to change. Within the first theme, one respondent shared that “no one explained how” to do something to help cheetah conservation. Another respondent felt that because they “live in a country with no cheetahs” they could do nothing to help.

These responses suggest that perhaps a portion of Cheetah Outreach activities should inform visitors of what they directly can do to help cheetah conservation – whether or not they live near to them. In fact, one respondent shared that “more focused needs to be placed on informing people how they can help” cheetah conservation.

However, other respondents shared that they could help by donating and volunteering.

While these are needed and great methods to help, perhaps examples of how to get involved influencing others for change and living more sustainable lives could also be shared. More evidence should be provided to guests that makes them feel a part of the solution – not that they just know more about the problem. Making wildlife conservation relatable and accessible might also influence changes in attitudes amongst the public regarding their ability to make a difference. Encouraging the value of public action for the plight of the cheetah might be beneficial to the conservation of cheetahs in the wild. Perhaps informing visitors of additional groups working to protect natural areas in Africa could provide better connectivity and inspire ideas amongst visitors. This would also increase interpersonal communication leading to the spread of more conservation information.

Behavior Change:

Lastly, just over half of respondents (54%) claimed that their likelihood of doing something different to help protect the cheetah changed. However, 30.77% of respondents claimed that their likelihood of taking action remained the same as when they first entered the Cheetah Outreach.

Two emergent codes were created in Nvivo – unsure how to change and ideas to change. Respondents shared that they “really want to” do something, but they are “not sure how”. Accompanying this idea, another visitor shared that there needs to be “more focus on how humans can change their ways to protect these animals.” Of the responses on how to change their ways – it appears that “financial donation” was the first inclination.

This information suggests that visitors don’t leave the center knowing exactly how they can make changes to help. Perhaps relating cheetah conservation to everyday activities and environmental decisions might be an area of future educational focus. While staff and volunteers are kept quite busy each day with tasks at the Cheetah Outreach – it is important that visitors leave knowing at least one or two things they can personally do to help protect wildlife.

Increased discussion, knowledge, and changes in attitudes are important steps in wildlife conservation, but without changes in public behavior – a piece of the puzzle remains missing. Perhaps a board showcasing how visitors can directly get involved at home (in addition to donating) can be placed near to the Cheetah Outreach entrance/exit. An interactive “educational experience” encouraging visitors to gather and discuss ideas of what can be done to help cheetah protection would also benefit the work of the Outreach. Group discussion leads to the advancement of ideas, increases in interest, and eventually inspired action.

Question 8 Final Say:

Answers to the question, “In your opinion, what three things will you remember about your time at the Cheetah Outreach and why,” fell within the descriptive, emotional, and scientific emergent codes.

Visitors shared they would remember that cheetahs “purr loudly” and that “they are as playful as domestic cats.” Others included that they would remember the “cheetah cub encounter” and how “calm the cheetahs can be.” These are all great descriptions of the cheetahs that left lasting impressions on the visitors.

Additionally, many responses included statements of emotional reflections. For example, visitors shared that cheetahs are a “graceful and beautiful animal that needs help in a hostile and ignorant world.” Another shared that they felt “really emotional after” their cub encounter. Importantly, another respondent included that they “previously thought all big cats were for the most part dangerous to be around.” This is important to know that the culture of being afraid of cheetahs and seeing them as cruel predators can be positively influenced by the Cheetah Outreach. Culture has been cited by researchers as one of the leading influences against wildlife conservation. Realizing this, the Cheetah Outreach should continue to maximize on encouraging a shift in culture for visitors that encourages the appreciation of wildlife in their natural habitat. This might be done by relating how the presence of cheetah influences other trophic levels that we ultimately depend on as one planet.

Another respondent also shared that they would remember how “ignorant” they were of the “risks the species face” before coming to the Outreach. Two respondents shared they would remember the “farm dog program” while another included the “fragile state of the cheetah population.” Several respondents also included statements recognizing the “knowledgeable handlers” and “informed staff”. Overall, it appears that visitors to the Cheetah Outreach do leave with all around positive memories of their time.

It is worth sharing that one respondent did not feel that they were able to learn much at the cheetah outreach because of the lack of “organization” when “handling visitors.” This respondent further shared that their group was left with “mixed messages about the outreach” because of their “frustration with lines and tour groups fighting to get into the interactions.” Perhaps a better explanation on busy days of how the waiting process works could be shared with visitors before they purchase a ticket and head to the enclosure area.

DISCUSSION:

Changes in visitor knowledge is the first step to initiate further conservation related changes in an individual based on the Theory of Change Metrics (Figure 3). Overall, it appears that the Cheetah Outreach does do a great job at spreading knowledge of certain aspects of cheetah conservation with visitors. Of all survey question responses, positive changes within the knowledge metric were among the most frequently shared. However, knowledge of the importance of cheetahs to their surrounding environments and the roles they play within their natural habitat could be of future focus. Gains in this type of knowledge might give visitors a more well rounded view of the cheetah – inspiring them to value their presence in the wild from a more holistic view point. Consideration should also be given to provide a more educational experience for visitors who do not participate in an encounter or tour. Perhaps updating signs or creating interactive diagrams and discussions hosted by volunteers could increase knowledge.

Interestingly, although certain gains in knowledge were easily shared by respondents, specific reasons for changes in attitudes were not. Of all the metrics, the attitudes of visitors to the Cheetah Outreach were the least positively impacted. Further research might consider how changing attitudes is possible and what prevents changes in attitudes from occurring – despite gains in knowledge. One respondent did share that they already thought cheetah conservation was “important before their visit.” This suggests that perhaps identifying ways to bring others who do not have prior attitudes of interest in cheetah conservation to the Outreach might be beneficial. Interestingly, there were no emotional comments from respondents related to their attitudes towards cheetah conservation. Influencing the attitude metric among visitors should be of future focus.

However, what visitors lacked in changes in attitude they made up for in their desire to share what they learned and felt at the Cheetah Outreach with others. While the information shared with others could be a bit more well-rounded, visitors were more likely to talk nonetheless. Communication and the sharing of information and experiences is an important way to encourage change amongst the Theory of Change template. It is exciting to know that visitors to the Cheetah Outreach do feel more capable of sharing what they gain in knowledge with others. Because visitors come from around the world – the work of the Cheetah Outreach is able to be more easily shared from first-hand accounts. However, this is all the more reason why special care should be taken to ensure that information regarding all areas of cheetah conservation is presented to visitors; like their roles in the wild, how they impact ecosystems, the human-wildlife conflict, and the roll of ambassador animals like those at the Cheetah Outreach.

Informing visitors of how they can directly help with cheetah conservation outside of donations should be of future consideration. There were not many respondents who were able to give more descriptive and knowledge fueled responses for how they can aid in the Cheetah Outreach’s global effort to encourage the conservation of the cheetah. But they did share that they enjoyed the experience that they did have fun while visiting the Cheetah Outreach. Perhaps making visitors feel partly responsible for the endangerment of cheetahs in the wild – whether through their own decisions or lack of action – is one way to motivate changes in attitude.

In a similar way, providing visitors with examples of how they can make lifestyle changes to conserve the planet and cheetahs’ ecosystems might be beneficial (in addition to making donations and volunteering). Many visitors felt that they were moved and touched by their interactions and time spent at the Cheetah Outreach, but not enough were able to carry home what they learned to make definitive changes – based on response data. Respondents shared that they were likely to share with others the threats cheetahs face, but were unsure of other ways to help outside of making donations. Realizing this, it would be interesting to see how many visitors continue to make a donations after leaving the Cheetah Outreach. Understanding how visitors’ experiences translate into donations would be of potential interest to the Cheetah Outreach in order to gain more public financial support. A small study following up with visitors or tracking donations based on activities undertaken at the Cheetah Outreach might prove valuable towards understanding how to encourage public involvement.

Finally, when looking at the flow of the Theory of Change metrics the Knowledge and Interpersonal Communication metrics among visitors was greatly enhanced. The Barrier Removal metric, or the ability of visitors to do something to help with cheetah conservation was also enhanced, but could be of more focus. Lastly, the Attitude and Behavior Change metrics were the least impacted based on survey feedback. These insights into how visitors are impacted at the Cheetah Outreach based on metrics can help the organization have a deeper look into the effectiveness of the work done each day for cheetah conservation.

In conclusion, the Cheetah Outreach is taking great strides to increase the public’s involvement and understanding with wildlife conservation. Together, the results of this project summary suggest that the Cheetah Outreach is capable of reducing the threat of a lack of human involvement with wildlife conservation. Reducing this threat can lead to the ultimate conservation goal of enhancing the public’s education with wildlife conservation.

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