Junior Zookeeper Program

There are growing fears that our increasingly urbanized lifestyles are resulting in a decline in children’s engagement with nature and that this may produce future leaders less inclined to value and protect wildlife. Zoos have an opportunity to rekindle a connection with wildlife, through education and visitor experiences that stimulate people to care and equip them with the knowledge and tools they need to act.

Sunset Zoo has been a cultural and educational asset to the community for more than 80 years and is passionate about facilitating up-close explorations of wildlife as part of their mission to inspire conservation of the natural world. The Junior ZooKeeper program is a participatory summer career-shadowing opportunity for 10 -13 year olds, which allows them to engage with nature and discover career opportunities in conservation. 

Programs like this can be a successful catalyst for youth to become conservation advocates, however developing these programs can be resource intensive. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of zoo education programs to ensure objectives are being met and to identify areas for improvement. This study by Kansas State University’s Department of Park Management and Conservation assessed the impacts of the Junior ZooKeeper program on participants and analyzed the overall success of the program.

Research Questions:


1. To understand the influence of the Junior Zookeeper program on participant’s knowledge of and attitude towards animals and husbandry.
2. To evaluate the impact of the Junior Zookeeper program on participant’s propensity for environmental stewardship behavior.
3. To ascertain if program objectives are being met and to identify areas for program improvement and modification.

Methods:


Sunset Zoo’s Junior Zookeeper program is an annual summer program that runs for 8 weeks. Participants were required to attend special training classes in spring to learn more about animals and conservation. Upon successful completion of the training class, participants had the opportunity to perform routine zookeeping tasks and help care for the education animal collection throughout the summer. Activities were designed to help children form bonds with animals and care enough about them to positively change their behavior toward animals and the environment. 

At the conclusion of the program, the 25 successful participants were interviewed across seven group sessions, each lasting 45 minutes. These were conducted in July and August of 2016. The interviews were semi-structured and recordings of the interviews were analyzed to identify themes. 

Outcomes:


The results of this study suggest that participants in the Junior Zookeeper program developed significant emotional connections to the animals, including a positive shift in thinking about wildlife, obtained meaningful hands-on experience in both the cleaning and feeding elements of animal husbandry, acquired a greater understanding of animals, the environment and the role of zoos and developed positive perceptions of science-based careers. Surprisingly, the focus on petting and playing with the animals was minimal and interestingly the notion of human companionship was of little interest.

These results support the importance of immersive nature-based opportunities for education and exploration, highlights the potential for similar career-shadowing opportunities to inspire today’s youth to become future conservation leaders and defend the educational value of zoos.