Can listening instead of just looking change attitudes to how we experience a day out at the zoo?

What can we hear if we stop and listen to the zoo? Does this change our experience of the animals we visit? Which species and what aspects of their behaviour come to the fore and what do we learn as a result?

Experts need your help to find out as they complete unusual research to see what would happen if people listened more on zoo visits.

Academics are asking for a small number of volunteers to help them explore whether being silent and listening carefully makes people appreciate their zoo trip differently.

A team from the University of Exeter and University of St Andrews are running a series of fun and thought-provoking events to see if directing visitors’ attention to the soundscape encourages them to reflect on human behaviour in zoos and to be more empathetic towards animals.

Dr Tom Rice, from the University of Exeter, who is leading the research, said: “These visits will be very different from the usual experience people have at zoos. Instead of pointing, remarking on the animals and moving on, being silent and listening will allow them to reflect on the way in which they relate to the animals and the animals relate to them.”

“When a species dies out it falls silent, so sound provides a powerful way to draw attention to the value and fragility of biodiversity.

“We tend to think of zoos as our space because we’ve paid to go in, when in fact they are shared spaces. We usually don’t think about how we present ourselves to animals, but they are listening to us too.”

A small number of free experimental visits will be held on 18th and 19th May at Bristol Zoo Gardens. There is limited capacity and prior booking is essential. During the silent zoo visits, small groups of volunteers will be asked to make a conscious effort not to make noise and to listen while exploring the zoo. A second tour involves volunteers being guided by researchers who will help them listen carefully to the sounds of the zoo. All of the visits will be followed by a feedback session where participants will discuss their thoughts and experiences.

The visits are part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project to explore sound in zoos and how it mediates relationships between animals and humans. Academics have been spending time at Paignton Zoo and Bristol Zoo Gardens, researching for instance how some animals can differentiate between the sound of a keeper and members of the public. They identify those looking after them through the sound of keys, buckets and rubber boots.

The tours are a chance for the research team to share with the public some of what they have found during the first six months of the project. They have been interviewing zoo staff and visitors and conducting sound walks. The research will result in new educational resources for visitors which could change the way both zoos showcase animals.

For details of the Bristol Zoo visits and to book go to: https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/whats-on/silent-and-listening-zoo-visits. Alternatively email T.Rice@exeter.ac.uk. The tours are free, refreshments are provided and travel expenses will be paid up to the value of £10.

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