Judith Longmeyer, MBA
Phoenix Zoo Equine Volunteer
University of Phoenix Adjunct Faculty
This paper addresses a need for statistical analysis of natural world attitudes among zoo guests and serves as a prelude to future work exploring benefits from human interaction with the natural world. While research with zoo visitors has been conducted from other perspectives, (Randall, 2011) “Teaching Horsepower and Nature Awareness” examines the impact on children of a hands-on learning program with Phoenix Zoo domestic animals. Both children and adults may use experiences caring for horses to both understand animal needs and conservation issues.
This project measures the changes in learner awareness of equine and animal needs before and after a four session educational program. Findings are expected to have application in equine and other zoo teaching programs.
This study is motivated in part by a growing interest in statistical assessment of zoo educational programs and their impact on conservation awareness as well as a trend for children and adults to substitute technology for natural world experiences.
Many American zoos offer “petting” or “children’s” areas, usually featuring domestic animals, such as goats, chickens, horses, cattle, etc. For children and adults living in urban environments, these facilities offer unique opportunities to see and often to touch species usually limited to rural settings. Many children exhibit fear their first time in proximity to larger animals. While some wariness is healthy– particularly with wild animals–individuals can learn safe and appropriate techniques for interacting with many species. If the child or adult grew up in a home without pets, live animals can be an especially challenging experience.
While domestic animals are by no means “endangered”, anecdotal evidence suggests some children think steak originates at Safeway, Kroger or in some other supermarket meat department. Links between the natural world and human survival become more vague and obscure as live animals, such as Guinea Pigs, are removed from classrooms.
The Phoenix Zoo established Harmony Farm in the 1990s as a safe, educational haven for viewing dairy cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys and equine. The Arizona Beef Council, an agricultural trade organization, loans some animals for exhibit.
The Horse Hands program is a somewhat unique dimension of the Phoenix Zoo’s effort to make animals available for guest interaction. The health and safety of adult and child participants is a priority. Riders must wear protective helmets, hand sanitizing products are available and learners must work strictly under supervision by Zoo staff.
Mini Horse Hands is for 3-4 year olds, while 5-6 year olds attend the Junior program. Parents typically accompany these children during classes. They learn fundamental skills, such as grooming, leading a haltered animal and sitting astride a horse led by a trainer.
Horse Hands Caregiving Level 1 teaches children to prepare a horse for riding before actually riding one. Level 2 teaches hoof care, horse bathing and basic riding control. Level 3 further develops riding abilities and challenges kids’ skills with their first trail ride outside the Equine Arena. In Levels 1-3, kids work in pairs and may be assigned different horses weekly. After completing Levels 1-3, students enroll in Level 4 to learn how to maintain a horse in good health. They develop their riding skills further and are assigned their own horses.
The widening gulf between humans and animals often comes from financial or technological considerations and even concerns about health issues. The Phoenix Zoo’s Horse Hands program offers children and adults an opportunity to experience living creatures in a major metropolitan setting.
Findings summary –
While practical, hands-on experience intuitively seems to be the best way to learn about the needs of living creatures, this project developed quantified evidence to support the value of such teaching. Consequently, the study supports the hypothesis that comfort levels with large domestic animals improve after participation in the Phoenix Zoo’s hands on equine teaching program.
Forty-one participants responded to the question “How comfortable are you being around farm animals and/or pets?“ before and after Horse Hands training. Analysis of a 1-5 measurement scale with 1 as “very uncomfortable” and 5 as “very comfortable” disclosed a statistically significant change in attitudes. The pre training mean score was 4.244 vs. a post of 4.659. The improvement in reported comfort levels before and after Horse Hands programs had a p value of .014, using an alpha of .05.
It should be noted that participants in Mini, Junior and Level 1 classes may never have interacted with large animals. The differential in physical size between the youngest children and equine species is also more dramatic. The youngest participants often needed parental guidance in responding to the survey. The comfort level improvement for this group was 0.35.
Prior exposure to equine in Levels 2-4 likely influenced the responses of older learners who reported a smaller increase of 0.17 in comfort with large animals.
All post program participants responded that it is “Very important” to understand animal needs as a way to protect the environment, with 39 of 41 pre-program participants agreeing. One pre-program participant indicated that it’s “Somewhat important” and another responded that he/she “Didn’t know”.
Major reasons for taking a Horse Hands class were learning how to care for horses (35%); having fun (20 per cent) and riding skill development (11%).
Program and Study Demographics
Participant demographics in the study aligned with Phoenix Zoo Horse Hands age groupings: The youngest participants were 3-6 years old, while learners in Levels 1-4 were 7-14. Horse enthusiasts over age 15 can enroll in Adult Horse Hands and were not included in the study. Girls accounted for 84% of all program participants.
The vast majority of pre-program respondents — 37 out of 41 – reported having some type of mammal, reptile or amphibian as pets. A separate survey of those completing the program indicated that 40 of 41 had pets at home.
After completing their classes, 53% of respondents indicated that working with animals is the preferred way to learn about them vs. 47% before. Taking a class and visiting a zoo were distant second and third choices. Interestingly, no respondents selected the internet as the preferred source of learning about animals.
Conservation awareness involves understanding the needs of the natural world. Better understanding what motivates participation in live animal based programs may offer insights about the advantages of interaction with the natural world compared to indoor technologically-based pastimes. Besides statistically demonstrating an improvement in comfort levels with large animals, the study provided demographic information about program participants. This study represents a beginning for discovering catalysts to stimulate interest in the natural environment.
Randall, T. (2011). Assessment of change in conservation attitudes through zoo education. (Order No. 3468955, Oklahoma State University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 108. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/889251879?accountid=35812. (889251879).