Even without encountering a staff member or speaking to an educator or reading a sign, visitors are picking up messages as they visit the zoo. Consider the exhibits that they view the animals in. Traditional zoo exhibits - iron bars and tile walls and concrete floors, reminiscent of prison cells - conveyed the message that animals are savage and dangerous, like human criminals. Putting them in small cages, dominated by their architecture, seemed small, petty, playthings. Putting them in pits, the visitor was literally - and metaphorically - looking down upon them.
In return, placing animals in large, more naturalistic displays that mirror their natural habitats is likely to invoke feelings of respect. Immersion-style exhibits, where visitors are made to feel like they are sharing space with the animal, emphasizes the importance of the animal within its habitat.
Consider Conway's fictitious bullfrog display. In an old-style zoo exhibit, a bullfrog is placed in a 10-gallon tank, one among many in a dark tank-filled building. The subliminal message? Bullfrogs are boring. Move on and see the next one. In Conway's version, however, bullfrogs are the star of an entire compound, the zoo devoted to exploring every aspect of their lives. The subliminal message? Bullfrogs are awesome! We care about them, and you should too!
Perhaps the greatest opportunity to convey a message - a good one or a bad one - comes from the presentation of animal ambassadors. On the one hand, they provide an excellent opportunity to share information on their natural history, their adaptations, and their conservation like no other educational medium. On the other, it can easily convey an undesirable message if not presented correctly - hey, look, this guy has a cheetah on a leash! That's awesome, I want one! Or, imagine if they see a zookeeper feeding a monkey. They may decide to do they same - only potato chips, perhaps, instead of the appropriate diet.
Education, whether in a conventional classroom or in a zoo or aquarium, isn't about the sharing of facts. It's about conveying a message - a message that will change the way that people think, feel, and act after receiving it. The thing about messages, however, is that we all share one, whether we intend to or not. We are continually teaching the visitors to our facilities - but sometimes, we aren't sure what we are teaching them. That's the dangerous part.