The story of the transformational zoo experience | My Master’s thesis

In order to obtain my master’s degree in leisure and tourism, I embarked on an adventurous quest: writing a quantitative thesis. I was sure about one thing: I wanted to write about storytelling.

Luckily, I got the opportunity to work on an incredibly interesting and meaningful project alongside the storytelling team of Breda University of Applied Sciences. It was an exciting journey to dive deep into the research, gather data, and analyze it to draw new conclusions. Despite the long hours and hard work, the feeling of accomplishment I felt when I finally submitted my thesis was truly worth it.

About the study

While zoos started out back in the day as menageries that displayed animals in small cages, they have evolved to become institutions for education and conservation of endangered species. Despite this shift, for most visitors, they are still perceived as fun days-out that prioritize commerciality over animal welfare. Therefore, zoos face a challenge in communicating their conservation efforts while still providing an entertaining experience that attracts visitors without making it a bleak tale of death and destruction. Storytelling has been proved to be an effective way of communicating a difficult message in a clear, emotional and engaging manner.

This study aimed to test the impact of a story told from a human perspective versus an animal perspective on zoo visitors’ emotions, experiences and behavior. The study aimed to contribute to knowledge on how to design transformational experiences and tell scientific stories that are comprehensible to a large audience. I won’t go into too much detail about the research in this blog since we’d be here for another hour, so if you’re interested to hear more you can always reach out!

We conducted the research during the bus safaris in Safaripark Beekse Bergen in Hilvarenbeek, where I got to work with the experience and education team, and ranger Gaby in particular. Although there was no significant difference in whether the story was told from Gaby’s personal perspective as a ranger versus the story told from an animal’s perspective, the research did result in people experiencing (self-reported) memorable, meaningful and transformational experiences and the undertaking of pro-environmental actions.

When looking qualitatively at the research, even though that wasn’t included in the scope of my thesis, a lot of the open answers given at the survey that was sent a week after their visit, talked about something we were aiming for in the manipulation of the experiment. A significant number of participants that experienced the personal story of Gaby, reported on the question ‘what was the most memorable’: the personal story and the passion for the natural world of Gaby.

Some of my personal biggest takeaways:

  • Learning about the extraordinary experiences model of Rossman and Duerden (2019) and getting the opportunity to talk about my research with Mat Duerden.
  • Besides learning how to handle statistics with SPSS, my supervisor also taught me more about data analysis using R. I hope to be able to use this skill again in the future.
  • Being invited to participate in not just the research but the whole storytelling project with the BUas storytelling team has been an incredible lesson that I’m very thankful for.
  • Getting to work alongside ranger Gaby while collecting data and hearing her passionate stories has given me a new perspective towards nature and the animal kingdom.

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