How Choice Impacts Zoo Guest Experience and Promotes Empathy

Oakland Zoo
February 1, 2024

When children are asked about their favorite animal, they usually name popular mammals, such as the lion, or an animal from a beloved movie, like the red panda. These animals are adored for their distinct features, and children's perceptions of them contrast their experience with “less charismatic” species, such as reptiles and invertebrates. Unfortunately, these less popular species are often overlooked and forgotten due to the long-standing phobias, myths, and superstitions associated with them.

Sarah Bowser, demonstrating how snakes interact with pegboard

An animal's characteristics contribute to their ability to elicit empathy from humans. Other factors, such as coherence (or how recognizable their features are), continuity (how long we spend with that animal), and their ability to show agency, also play important roles. Mammals often have physical characteristics humans can relate to, making it easier to recognize these factors than a snake. So, how can we use choice in our programs to promote a sense of animal agency for our visitors while promoting an empathetic response for the “less captivating” species?

Sarah Bowser, the Ambassador Animals Programs Manager at Oakland Zoo, addressed how to help children overcome their fear of snakes. She created an interactive snake enrichment lesson with an interchangeable snake enrichment board. The lesson was conducted twice a week as part of the middle school Oakland ZooCamp program, where students could interact with one of three snakes – Karibu, Nuba (both ball pythons), and Timmy (a gopher snake).

Pre-evaluation from a Zoocamper before snake pegboard program

Prior to the activity, the students took part in a pre-drawing assessment to determine their comfort level with snakes. During the evaluation, some children drew themselves safely from the snake, while others depicted the snake coiled around their neck to show how dangerous they believed snakes could be. After the evaluations, Sarah proceeded to introduce each snake to the students, providing background information on their species and characteristics, sharing her relationship with each snake, and demonstrating appropriate behavior such as staying calm, allowing the snakes to be themselves, and letting them choose what they wanted to do.

During the lesson, the students used a pegboard, which allowed them to interchange pieces and decide on how they wanted to present the board to each snake. They closely observed how the snakes chose to interact with their enrichment.

ZooCampers setting up snake pegboard

Animal wellbeing goes beyond the general care of an animal. Wellbeing is maintaining comfort, health, and "happiness" for the animal and providing lifelong opportunities to thrive.  This hands-on project connected the children with a species they may have never thought had a choice or preference. By allowing the snakes to have agency, interact from a safe distance, and move independently, the children could build respect for them in a way that didn't require physical contact. They felt empowered to ask questions in a curiosity-driven environment and felt like they were contributing to Karibu, Nuba, and Timmy's wellbeing, which led to a more lasting impact.

Snake pegboard

Oakland Zoo aims to cultivate accurate empathy by discouraging projected assumptions and enabling visitors to learn about animals and gain substantial knowledge, which would help them develop a sense of empathy. The Oakland ZooCampers' interactions with snakes gave them a better understanding of their complex nature, which helped them appreciate their unique personalities.

When creating a culture within our community that is motivated to participate in Oakland Zoo's mission of Taking Action for Wildlife, visitors must approach the animals with respect and empathy. To achieve this, we can incorporate choice into Zoo-wide programs, which have the potential to encourage empathy and promote deeper connections to wildlife. Students who participated in this program created a connection with the animals that viewing alone could not achieve. This program successfully nurtured their connection; the lessons learned at Oakland Zoo will stay with them.

Post evaluation form ZooCamper after snake pegboard program