Location: Saint Louis Zoo
Species: Humans (Homo sapiens)
Priority: High

Background

People have a natural (some would say "hard-wired") affinity for nature. Studies have confirmed that we experience health benefits such as stress reduction from encountering natural settings. As our connections to nature decrease, a new disorder has emerged. This "nature deficit disorder" may have far reaching psychological, physiological and educational impacts on humans, including higher incidence of depression and severe non-infectious disease. We may alleviate this emerging disorder by going to parks and interacting with nature and animals. While zoos play leading roles in wildlife conservation, research, recreation and education, and provide important venues for interacting with the outdoor world of animals and wildlife, few studies have assessed the human health benefits zoos can provide. Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) annually attract 175 million visitors, from infants to the elderly. Zoos also play an important role in researching the health benefits visitors gain by interacting with animals.

Goal

Through this joint study funded by the AZA, scientists will investigate the role that zoos play in stress reduction in a world disconnected from nature. Specifically, the study will evaluate the measurable psychological and physiological health benefits that interacting with stingrays and sharks has on Zoo visitors. The study will lay the groundwork for developing additional projects that explore the human health benefits associated with the wide range of experiences zoos offer.

Conservation Science

This will be one of the first human health studies conducted at an AZA institution to evaluate both psychological and physiological health benefits to visitors from an immersion animal experience in a zoological setting. To carry out this study, we will be monitoring the heart rate variability of visitors as they interact with animals at the Saint Louis Zoo's Stingrays at Caribbean Cove presented by Mercy Kids. We will equip visitors with Polar Heart Rate transmitters and wristbands as they interact with and touch the stingrays and sharks that swim in the shallow waters of the Cove. The monitors will record the activity of the autonomic nervous system to determine whether visitors are relaxed during their time at the Cove. Before and after interacting with the animals, participants will complete a short mood checklist as a self-reported measure of stress relief and a short questionnaire about their perceptions of the aquatic animals and the exhibit. The research team hypothesizes that interacting with the aquatic animals will have a positive effect on the mood and stress levels of visitors; researchers expect this study to shed light on the feelings humans have during encounters with living organisms, clarifying the roles animals play in human health. The results of this study may add human health benefits to the list of important services that zoos can provide to society.

Partners

University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine, Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction

This study is funded by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Endowment Fund.