Classroom Resources

Zoo Field Trips

Teachers often consider a field trip to a zoo as a great way for students to observe animals and feel a connection with wildlife. Indeed, many world-class zoos are actively engaged in conservation efforts to protect endangered species, and often offer educational programs as well. It is important, however, to assess the facility and its operations before heading out.

Zoos come in all shapes and sizes, and even some of the larger, more renowned zoos are subject to criticism from the public. Smaller zoos often lack the space, budget and knowledgeable staff that the larger facilities can afford. Numerous reports by ZooCheck Canada found that while many zoos were providing very good facilities and offering enrichment activities, others were grossly inadequate. In some cases, bears were being fed junk food and stale bread, and safety precautions were nonexistent. Students viewing such a location on school time may get the impression that these standards are acceptable. 

It’s important for teachers to be certain of the educational goals of such a trip, and to ensure that the experience will meet those objectives. For instance, if the aim is to study diversity of animal life and how interactions with biomes affect that diversity, then seeing a lion inside a 10 foot square cage will work against that goal. If studying animal life cycles, then viewing a captive situation where the normal way of life is disrupted will also give an inaccurate impression.

Often the reason for visiting a zoo is to observe the behaviour of the animals. Watching them walk or fly, nest, interact with one another, is a real draw. That purpose is lost, however, when an animal only paces back and forth, always following exactly the same path. This stereotypic behaviour, as it is known, is often the result of animals being confined in small spaces with little or no stimulation and no opportunity to exhibit natural behaviours. Furthermore, it is worth looking to see if the facility offers performances or visitor interactions. Although exciting, having children interact with captive wildlife does not send a consistent message about how to be respectful to wildlife -by not interacting with them. In the natural environments interacting with wildlife can be lethal to both humans and animals. 

Rather than have your students try to make sense out of such abnormal behaviour, you can add a critical thinking component to your field trip by getting students to research the habitats of the animals and then evaluate the zoo as to how well it meets their needs. You can use the Zoo Field Trip Checklist as a guide.

You may want to consider an alternative to a zoo. Other popular field trip destinations include farms or sanctuaries where students, especially from urban environments, can learn more about animals. Nature centers and wilderness areas give students a chance to see native wildlife in their natural habitat. Whatever you choose, a bit of planning and research can help your students have a truly educational experience.

Should Zoos Exist?

Watch the following PBS video with your students and provide students the opportunity to reflect on their own views. Encourage students to share their thoughts, if they feel comfortable. If time permits, have a class discussion on the topic to hear different points of views.

For more information:
  1. Standards for Alberta zoos are established by the Government of Alberta
  2. The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a national organization that sets standards for member zoos
  3. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a US-based organization with an accreditation program and expertise in animal care.

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