Zoos offer great location for family bonding
By: Bonnie C. Hallman and Mary Benbow / Learning Curve / Winnipeg Free Press
The following article was posted on the Winnipeg Free Press online site, http://www.winnipegfreepress.com on 19/05/2009, 1:00 AM. All rights reserved (by the Wpg. Free Press).
What is a zoo worth to a community and its people?
Zoos are cultural institutions which reflect the social and cultural values of that community, as much as other urban institutions such as libraries, museums, parks and schools do.
Zoos reflect our shared views of the natural world, of the animals which inhabit that world and of how we humans interact with nature. Accredited zoos across the globe place great emphasis on their role as environmental and biological science educators. Zoos are also important in the protection, conservation and breeding of rare and endangered species, often acting as animal “arks.”
Thus, zoos have great value as leaders in the shift to a culture of environmental and human sustainability and contribute to many aspects of our everyday lives.
However, zoos are not only nature-based cultural institutions. They are also public spaces and landscapes that, on closer inspection, are places where people spend time together. Drawing on our own research, zoos contribute significantly to social sustainability, especially in their central importance to meaningful personal and family time.
We have found in our research on families with young children that people engage in highly valued experiences and find meaning in the zoo visit overwhelmingly for personal fulfilment — satisfaction at being a ‘good’ parent — and facilitating a family experience.
Our research, conducted at Assiniboine Park Zoo as well as larger national studies in the United States, found that parents use zoos as unique opportunities for conversation, for focused yet unstructured child-centred interaction and to be active with their children. The zoo becomes a vehicle for meaningful and rich family time, thus helping to build and maintain family bonds.
As a father in one of our studies put it, “The kids think that’s why we go to the zoo, because the animals are there. It’s a good reason for them, for us it’s family time, burns off some energy. It gives us something to do.”
Parents also expressed the value of the zoo as a place for the growth and enrichment of their children and as a place where they had the opportunity to really observe and mark (often through family photographs) the growth and changes in their children.
As one mother, commenting on a photograph taken during a recent zoo visit, said, “This picture is special I guess, you know when she is standing in front of the pond. I’ll remember where it is in front of the pond with the ducks in a couple of years,” and see how much she has grown.
“That’s kind of special.”
We know zoos such as the Assiniboine Park Zoo are places of value because of their unique role as places which support the social fabric of our communities. They are one of the few public spaces to which parents bring their children to teach them, spend time with them and encourage them, all in an atmosphere that gives children greater freedom.
In a visit to the zoo, children often direct where the family group goes and what they look at, an opportunity rarely afforded elsewhere. Safety concerns often find parents unable to relax with their children, but zoos provide an environment where parents can step back and enjoy the experience. As one parent noted, “The big thing when we go to the zoo as a family is the kids are kind of clustered together and the adults are to the side watching them walk along.”
The Assiniboine Park Zoo is the oldest public zoo in Canada and an important resource for the City of Winnipeg. Many initiatives — new exhibit for the Steller’s Sea Eagles, renovation of the former Panda exhibit to accommodate Asian Lions and the Polar Bear Conservation Fund (in memory of the late Debby the Polar Bear) — demonstrate the energy and commitment of the zoo’s staff.
Additional research shows the zoo is a popular venue for healthy activity for seniors, and, analyzing its enclosures and environments, is also a healthy place itself. Recent events at the zoo reveal the great breadth of people interested in the zoo, such as the well-attended Night Tour of the Zoo in April. The real value and meaning of the zoo may well be not only what is in the zoo, but what is in the quality of the experiences it affords for families and for us all.
Dr. Bonnie C. Hallman and Dr. Mary Benbow are professors in the Department of Environment and Geography, Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources at the University of Manitoba.