Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Studying Visitors at the Gorilla Exhibit

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I am standing in a sheltered area, exposed but unnoticed by the herd I'm observing. I cross slowly to my right. One herd animal stops, and I quickly jot an "X" down on my grid, noting where he is standing. I try to move closer but am fearful of startling him. He leans in and nudges the female standing next to him. She laughs. "Yes, I think your uncle is much hairier than that gorilla."

I was not tracking deer or birds, but humans. For the summer of 2009, my job at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington, was to unobtrusively track groups of visitors through the gorillas' exhibit and record their comments, which informational signs they read, as well as the gorillas' behavior during the visitors' stay in the exhibit. My goal was to learn more about the exhibit's visitors, including their demographics, what they learned, how engaged they were in the overall experience, and how they responded emotionally and intellectually to the animals and the exhibit as a whole. The zoo staff planned to use this information to help ascertain whether visitors understand the zoo's efforts to fulfill its mission of providing conservation leadership and engaging experiences, as well as inspiring people to learn, care and act.

Research has shown that having up-close encounters with an animal allows people to connect with that animal and feel invested in the entire species' wellbeing.1 My research would provide the Woodland Park Zoo with valuable information about the impact of the exhibit and the zoo's success in carrying out its mission. Visitor research explores how people move through environments, what kind of information they take away, and what prompts them to stay longer or cut their visit short. As a volunteer at this zoo, I wanted to learn more about how zoos engage with their audiences and inspire people to learn more about animals. The education research team already knew that the gorilla exhibit was one of their most popular, and they were eager to learn more about visitor behavior. When I joined the team, the staff had already scheduled that summer to study visitors at the elephant exhibit, and they didn't have a formal study planned for the gorilla exhibit. My arrival allowed them to set up visitor research at the gorilla exhibit.

Starting in the 1970s, the Woodland Park Zoo was one of the first zoos in the world to design exhibits to reflect the species' place of origin.2, 3 The zoo is divided into bioclimatic zones that feature natural habitats ranging from humid tropical rain forests and coastal deserts to temperate rain forests. The gorillas live in the Tropical Rain Forest Biome, which also contains red-ruffed lemurs, Colobus monkeys, jaguars, South American birds, ocelots, snakes, poison dart frogs, and many other plants and animals that can be found in South America and Africa. The human-built biome environment is designed to make the visitors feel as if they are in the jungle, the gorillas' natural habitat, which is wooded and green with varying terrain. The tall trees provide shade and give the entire exhibit a feeling of walking on the tropical forest floor. There are many spots along the trail to stop and sit or park a stroller, including an overhang from which one can watch the gorillas and an alcove that houses a family of bronze gorilla statues. Visitors can linger for a while and watch the gorillas play, eat, or lounge around.

Each gorilla troop enclosure has a large glass plate window through which viewers can look in on the gorillas. The gorillas often sit near the window because it is cool there in summer and heated in winter. This gives visitors a good chance to see the gorillas up close, face to face. The gorillas can climb into or behind trees or hills, and in the summer the gorillas occasionally sit or splash in the stream that runs through the exhibit.

Meet the Gang
The gorillas at the Woodland Park Zoo are Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), just like most gorillas in other zoos. The other most common gorilla, the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is not typically seen in zoos due to low global populations.4 The Woodland Park Zoo gorillas are separated into two troops, with one male per troop, Pete and Vip. A third male, Leonel, has since joined the zoo and should be joining the troop structure soon. Some of the gorillas have become well-known to visitors and volunteers. Nina, the oldest and the matriarch of Troop 1, has given birth to four gorillas and fostered one other gorilla. She is smaller than the others in her troop – Pete, and females Akenji (whom she fostered), her daughter Nadiri, and son Nadu. Born in the wild and hand-raised, she often performs for visitors, especially small children who are at her eye level.

The main attraction of the exhibit for years has been Uzumma, the youngest member of Troop 2, born in October 2007. Uzumma was the twelfth gorilla born at the Woodland Park Zoo and the third for parents Amanda and Vip, who head the troop. Uzumma was just learning to climb trees by herself the summer I was there, and I watched as she started slowly climbing up the tree, but never farther than her mother could reach while keeping a firm hand on Uzumma's leg. Uzumma soon began climbing just a little bit beyond Amanda's reach, and by the end of the summer, she was inviting her older sisters Ngozi and Calaya to chase her up to the top of the tree.

One of my goals was to discover how people reacted when they saw these 450-pound creatures up-close. Were they scared? Were they in awe? Were they tempted to tap on the glass window? There were also informational signs about the gorillas – what they ate, why gorillas were endangered, and other conservation messages – scattered throughout the exhibit, posted on walls and behind the viewing areas. I hoped to find out whether people actually read any of these signs, and if so, which ones.

In order to easily track the visiting human groups, we enlarged a map of the exhibit on an 11" x 18" piece of paper. This map, a pen, a stopwatch, my wristwatch, an oversized book bag, and a water bottle were my tools for this visitor research project. Dressed in inconspicuous street clothes, I armed myself to do some real fieldwork on these mysterious creatures called "zoo guests."

My primary task was to track visitor conversations or comments and record the time, places visited, and other geographical information. We had shorthand codes for a variety of behaviors: for example, R1 meant a visitor read an informational sign for up to a minute. G meant they only took a cursory glance at the gorillas as they walked by. Arrows indicated which directions people walked through the exhibit. I also marked when the gorillas were visible and if they were eating, playing, sleeping, or involved in some other activity. I noted how crowded it was that day and what type of human group I was following, such as a family of five, a school field trip, or a young couple possibly out on a date.

The zoo designed the exhibit with the concept that people would enter near Troop 1, but during my study I noticed that most people instead entered near Troop 2. Some visitors lost their way on the short trip between gorilla troops and didn't view both troops. Once they entered the exhibit, visitors stayed an average of nine minutes.

The visiting groups typically consisted of families with young children. Based on my estimates of the ages of the children, 31 percent were under three (the most common ages of all children visiting the exhibit), followed by 23 percent being age five to eight, 18 percent being age eight to twelve, 15 percent being preschool age, and 14 percent being teens.

Sometimes it was difficult to keep track of everything said in some of the larger groups, because everyone was talking at once, while other groups were silent and stood in front of the window, either transfixed by being that close to a large, powerful-yet-docile primate, or perhaps they were uninterested. The young gorilla earned a lot of oohing and aahing from crowds, as well as laughter when she did something funny or gross, as toddlers tend to do.

The gorilla keepers were especially concerned about the potential gross-out factor. As with most primates, these gorillas had no qualms about exhibiting behaviors that humans might find distasteful, and the keepers worried these rude behaviors might turn visitors away. While these behaviors initiated quite a few group-wide groans of disgust, most parents did not react negatively or walk away from the gorillas because of their behavior.

In the end, what seemed to influence the visitors' length of stay the most was the gorillas' consumption of food and their interactions with each other. Gorillas are fed carrots, lettuce, an occasional watermelon, and other tasty foods called "food enrichment" twice a day while the zoo is open. One of the gorillas' favorite treats is popcorn in a brown paper bag. Some will spend a lot of time delicately reaching into the bag for kernels, while others will just dump the popcorn on the ground and play with the bag.

I was surprised that the visitors' length of stay at the exhibit did not appear to be significantly influenced by the gorillas' interactions with their environment, such as climbing or playing with sticks, although visitors seemed to stay longer when Uzumma, the baby, was playing in the trees or playing with a piece of burlap sack. I suspect that the data may appear this way because the gorillas spend more time eating than playing, and therefore the data set for environmental interaction was too small to show that people stayed longer when the gorillas were playing.

Most visitors did not read any of the signs for more than a few seconds. While a few older boys would read the "Be Quiet" signs out loud to younger children in the group, most visitors were not engaged by the signs and barely glanced at them.

Learning and Connecting
The most important objective of this exercise was to ascertain whether visitors learned anything about the gorillas. Visitor research has found that certain behaviors and phrases strongly correlate with learning.5, 6 According to these instruments and measurements, I found that 54 percent of visitor groups demonstrated behavior that correlated with learning while visiting the gorillas.

The most common learning behavior visitors engaged in while visiting the gorillas was to make a comment about the gorilla's body or its behavior, as parents encouraged their younger children to identify with the gorillas:

"Look, the gorilla's eating fruit. Do you eat your fruit?"
"His hands are huge!"
"Say bye-bye to the gorillas."

Children also made comments or asked questions to adults in their group, such as:

"Which one's the mommy? Which one's the daddy?"
"Can the gorilla get out?"
"The gorilla is sleeping because it's nap time."

These comments showed that visitors were engaged with the gorillas and were curious about them and also that they connected the gorillas' lives to their own everyday lives.

The visitors repeated tidbits of information to each other or skimmed the signs if they had a question about the gorillas.

The signs that received the most attention were those with biographical information about the gorillas: their names and ages, parental lineage, and other life events. The signs about conservation did not receive very much attention, and in a follow-up study, fewer than half the visitors even remembered seeing conservation information.

One-on-one connections
In the end, I learned that the opportunity to connect with an individual animal or group of animals inspired visitors to learn and care about the gorillas. After learning that a gorilla was the same age as oneself, visitors changed their tone and comments to reflect a bond with that particular gorilla. Toddlers who saw Uzumma up close expressed wonder, and sometimes fear, as the animal stared back at them from the other side of the glass. Kids were also surprised when they saw the gorillas eating foods they recognized. Comments like, "Yes, gorillas eat carrots like you," indicated learning and connection.

Adults tended to identify and connect with gorillas' facial features and body structure as well as their actions. Adults' comments focused on about how human the gorillas looked; how the gorillas stood or sat or appeared to exhibit specific emotions; and how they worried about the gorillas being on display. This empathy indicated a high level of compassion and concern for the gorillas, a place, perhaps, from which to start the conservation message.

Going Forward
After observing more than one hundred groups and tracking people watching gorillas for hours, I was happily surprised to note how engaged and informed visitors already were about gorillas before coming to the zoo. Visitors expressed awe, disgust, concern, and several other emotions about the gorillas, as well as concerns about gorialla conservation and the Woodland Park Zoo's gorillas' well being. Admittedly, it was a self-selected audience -- the people who come to zoos usually already have some interest in animals. But I was also happy to see that people walked away with more knowledge than when they first entered the exhibit, even if it was something as basic as knowing Nina's name.

When I presented my findings to the gorilla keepers, I recommended that the keepers and exhibit designers emphasize this one-on-one connection that the visitors had with the animals, as it was this bond that most aided the visitors to learn and care about the animals. I think that formal and informal learning environments, such as those found in zoos and museums, lack the tools and approaches that can spur an emotional response to wildlife conservation. Historically conservation efforts have not included opportunities to help humans connect and bond with animals.1, 6 Bringing people face to face with an animal and exposing them to the animals' normal behaviors, or informing visitors about how wild animals can affect peoples' ways of life in other parts of the world, can help foster understanding and sympathy for animals as well as for the people who live next to them in their native homes. This holds true for wildlife found in the United States.

We are currently following up last summer's study by examining the emotional responses that visitors have in relation to gorillas. Inspired by some of the words and emotional cues, which I spotted in the study last summer, we are now asking visitors if they can identify particular emotions they feel while visiting the gorillas. So far, more than three-quarters of the visitors are able to do so. This information will help us understand how to better connect gorillas and humans and will, ultimately, help us to more successfully promote gorilla conservation.

Photos are copyright protected and are used by permission of Beth Kelley. Photographs may not be reproduced without her permission.

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Beth Kelley



  1. Clayton, S. & Myers, Jr. O. E., Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature. New York: Wiley / Blackwell Publishers (2009).
  2. Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA: www.zoo.org
  3. Coe, J.C. 1989, The genesis of habitat immersion in gorilla exhibits, Woodland Park Zoo & Zoo Atlanta, 1978-88 (unpublished). Published 2006 at http://www.joncoedesign.com
  4. Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund: http://www.saveagorilla.org/60-Questions.html
  5. Borun, M., J. Dritsas, J. I. Johnson, N. Peter, K. Wagner, K. Fadigan, A. Jangaard, E. Stroup, and A. Wenger. Family Learning in Museums: The PISEC Perspective. Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute, (1998).
  6. Kassing S., Kelly L-A.D., & Bradshaw, L. (2008, Sept.). Emotional connections between people and animals: Affective information in practice. Presentation at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Annual Conference. Milwaukee, WI.