Conservation Psychology

Since its inception, the Chicago Zoological Society has been a pioneer in exhibit design. Along the way, the Society has also become recognized as a leader among national zoos and aquariums working to affect the ways in which the public relates to conservation. The Society is in the forefront of this emerging field, called “conservation psychology.”

Conservation psychology is the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with the goal of encouraging conservation of the natural world. This new field of study, created at Brookfield Zoo, brings together practitioners and social scientists to address the human dimensions of saving wild animals and wild places. Like conservation biology, conservation psychology has a strong mission focus related to biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability.

Research questions explore:

    The significance of direct experiences between people and animals.
    How children and adults connect with the natural world.
    The development of empathy, ecological identity, and/or a sense of place.
    What motivates people to engage in nature-protective behaviors.

The world’s first conservation psychology conference was held at Brookfield Zoo in May 2002. Since then, we have established a wide network of professionals and researchers interested in this discipline. We have also applied the principles of conservation psychology in the development of exhibits.

For example, in creating Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo, we included the most current understanding of how children develop caring attitudes toward nature, and we continue to develop evaluation tools that monitor whether the exhibit is achieving its goals.

Other conservation psychology studies have documented the degree to which exhibits like The Swamp and Quest to Save the Earth (now updated and renamed Adventures with Agua) influence guest conservation behaviors. Conservation psychology principles are also fundamental to the learning strategies that are guiding the master planning process at Brookfield Zoo.

The Society continues to be an international leader in conservation psychology research and applications. Notable achievements include:

    A special issue of Human Ecology Review that is entirely devoted to conservation psychology.
    A conservation psychology listserv and Web site.
    An increasing number of conservation psychology sessions appearing at conferences, such as those of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Human Ecology, the International Symposium for Society and Natural Resources Management, the Society for Conservation Biology, and the Zoological Society of London’s international symposium.
    More collaborative projects emerging between faculty or graduate students and conservation organizations such as zoos.
    Multi-institutional research projects at institutions throughout the country that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and that are directly guided by conservation psychology research.

Conservation psychology principles are currently informing a regional “Leave No Child Inside” campaign by Chicago Wilderness, which builds upon a growing national interest in connecting children and nature.