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Listening to the Zoo

Project team: Dr Tom Rice, Dr Alex Badman-King, Prof Sam Hurn and Dr Paul Rose (all University of Exeter) and Dr Adam Reed (St Andrews) in Association with Bristol Zoo and Paignton Zoo.

Funding: £245,507 received from the Economic and Social Research Council through their call ‘Transforming Social Science’. 


Project overview

Every year 700 million people visit zoos worldwide, with more than 30 million of these visits taking place in the UK. Apart from the significant economic role they play as tourist attractions, many zoos also aim to educate their visitors about biodiversity, exposing them to species they would not otherwise have the opportunity to encounter directly and providing information about these species. As part of their educational role, many zoos offer the public opportunities to learn about and engage with conservation and environmental protection projects. Zoos are usually approached as places where animals are, first and foremost, seen. This project, however, aims to transform the way we think about zoos by attending closely to an aspect of these institutions that has previously been neglected or overlooked: their sounds or 'soundscapes'. Through close collaboration with two project partner zoos in the UK, it sets out to explore how listening, and attending to different kinds and qualities of sound, can promote new forms of awareness of human and animal behaviour in the zoo context. The project aims to change the mode in which zoo visitors engage with species on display, prompting the development of an 'acoustic mindfulness' that complicates, challenges and augments a visually-orientated approach to animals in the zoo. The research is interdisciplinary, combining approaches from the social and natural sciences with the goal of producing a multi-species sonic ethnography of the zoo, something that has never been done before but which promises to allow social science to inform environmental awareness and citizenship in new ways.

Images in the above slideshow are: 

Fig 1: Dr Tom Rice recording sound ambient sounds at Paignton Zoo

Fig 2: Prof Sam Hurn recording the Hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) at Paignton Zoo

Fig 3: Dr Alexander Badman-King listening to zoo visitors at the Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) exhibit at Paignton Zoo