A new scientific study authored by Saint Louis Zoo researchers concludes that immersive, naturalistic exhibits in zoos can elicit positive changes in physiological and psychological measures of health and well-being of visitors. In other words – a visit to the zoo is good for your health!
The study titled “Changes in human health parameters associated with an immersive exhibit experience at a zoological institution” was published on Friday, April 17, 2020, in PLOS ONE.
“At a time when the number of people living in urban areas is on the rise, and humans and the natural world are more disconnected, we are now fully realizing why we need the human-animal-nature bond to ensure public health,” said Sharon Deem, DVM, Ph.D., Director of Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine and senior author of the study. “The evidence from this study supports the role of zoos and other green spaces in providing health benefits to zoo visitors,” said Deem.
“Prior to our study, less than a handful of studies had explored how zoos and aquariums provide direct benefits to human health,” said Amy Niedbalski, MBA, Director of the Conservation Audience Research and Evaluation Department at the Saint Louis Zoo. “We show how blood pressure, cortisol levels, and tension, happiness, and energy all improve from a walk through a zoo exhibit with natural space and many encounters with animals.”
About the study
Researchers from the Institute for Conservation Medicine, the Saint Louis Zoo’s Conservation Audience Research and Evaluation, and Reproductive and Behavioral Science departments, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Reproductive Management Center at the Zoo investigated physiological changes in salivary cortisol, blood pressure and psychological changes among 186 visitors before and after a walk through River’s Edge, an immersive, naturalistic exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo, from April to June in 2018.
Study participants had a significant reduction in salivary cortisol and blood pressure after walking through the three-quarters of a mile, heavily planted, winding trail exhibit, which is home to hippos, rhinos, cheetahs, Asian elephants, Andean bear, African painted dogs, dwarf mongoose and other species. Psychological assessments found that most visitors felt happier, more energized, and less tense after the approximately 30-minute visit. Additionally, participants who spent more time in River’s Edge, had visited River’s Edge prior to the study, and participants who had seen more exhibits at the Zoo prior to entering River’s Edge experienced greater psychological and/or physiological benefits.
According to the study’s researchers, the existence of human health benefits derived from experiences in nature is one facet of the growing understanding of how environmental, human and animal health are inter-connected within a framework of One Health.
“As one of the few free zoos in the United States, the Saint Louis Zoo may provide human health benefits for people across a spectrum of socio-economic levels,” said Audrey Coolman, lead author on the study, then-student at Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis and an intern with the Institute for Conservation Medicine, and currently working at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine as the Community Engagement Project Manager in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “This is important when we consider how residents of neighboring zip codes in the St. Louis area, and only miles apart, have an 18-year difference in life expectancy. Zoos, especially those with free admission, may increase access to green spaces and help to improve health outcomes for visitors across socio-economic levels,” Coolman stated.
Authors of the study
- Audrey A. Coolman, Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine; Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis
- Amy Niedbalski, MBA, Conservation Audience Research and Evaluation, Saint Louis Zoo
- David M. Powell, Ph.D., Department of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences, Saint Louis Zoo
- Corinne P. Kozlowski, Ph.D., Department of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences, Saint Louis Zoo
- Ashley D. Franklin, Ph.D., Program Analyst, Association of Zoos and Aquariums Reproductive Management Center, Saint Louis Zoo
- Sharon L. Deem, DVM, Ph.D., Director, Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine
The Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM), launched in September 2011, takes a holistic approach to wildlife conservation, public health, and sustainable ecosystems to ensure healthy animals and healthy people. All of the ICM projects fit within one of the six roles established for zoological veterinarians within the growing One Health movement—the merging of disciplines to ensure the health of humans, animals, and the environments on which all life is dependent.
These roles include: 1) providing healthcare for zoological species, thus ensuring the sustainability of biodiversity; 2) conducting studies on diseases of conservation concern; 3) understanding diseases in zoo wildlife as sentinels for emerging diseases of humans and animals in urban areas; 4) performing surveillance of disease in wild animals at the interface of wildlife, domestic animals, and humans; 5) making contributions to the fields of comparative medicine and the discovery of all life forms; and 6) providing scientific data demonstrating the human health benefits from interactions with nature and animals.
Home to over 13,000 animals representing 555 species, the Saint Louis Zoo is recognized worldwide for its innovative approaches to animal care and management, wildlife conservation, research, and education. One of the few free zoos in the nation, the Saint Louis Zoo attracts approximately 3 million visitors annually and is the most-visited attraction in the region. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Saint Louis Zoo is part of an elite group of institutions that meet the highest standards in animal care as well as provide fun, safe and educational family experiences. The Saint Louis Zoo and the other AZA-accredited institutions collectively dedicate millions of dollars annually to support scientific research, conservation and education programs. For more information, visit stlzoo.org.