04 July 2010

Why do people visit aquariums and zoos?

Helen Lockhart
Tranquil gazing at the Kelp Forest Exhibit. Photo courtesy flowcomm

According to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, “Zoos and aquariums worldwide receive more than 700-million visitors annually … This corresponds to 11% of the global human population, indicating that about one in 10 people experience human–animal interactions at zoos and aquariums each year.”

There are numerous obvious reasons why aquariums and zoos are so popular. We humans are curious by nature and have an inherent desire to explore the unknown and discover environments foreign to our own. In the case of aquariums, many people have never had an opportunity to dive beneath the waves; an aquarium affords them an intimate experience with life forms of the underwater world.

Some are concerned about the impact of human behaviour on the environment and want to learn more about what they can do to conserve the rich diversity of life on this planet. For others, a visit to a zoo or an aquarium is simply a pleasurable way to entertain themselves and their children for an afternoon.

There is a plethora of other reasons why people visit these places. There is a less obvious reason, however, which might explain why these facilities are so popular.

Most of us live in cities and towns that are densely populated with people and buildings. As a result of advanced technology and our rapid pace of living, we are bombarded from all angles by a variety of stimuli.

By their intensity and profusion, these stimuli are stressful. Noise and air pollution, crowding, information overload (through television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers and the internet) and sensory overload overwhelm us on a daily basis. One often hears friends and colleagues saying, “I wish I could get away from it all.”

Connect with nature at the Touch Pool. Photo courtesy flowcomm

As a result of urbanisation, we have become increasingly removed and alienated from nature. Those of us fortunate enough to live in Cape Town have access to beautiful surroundings, to the beaches and the mountains, but even these are no longer wilderness spots – they too have become developed and exploited. The greater majority of people in South Africa live in environments that are hardly conducive to their physical health, let alone their spiritual well-being.

As human beings, we need to have contact with nature in its wildest, most pristine state. We long for the solitude that such isolation provides. We need restorative places in which we can have restorative experiences. Places that permit us to transcend the stresses and strains of daily living and to find a sense of inner calm.

Perhaps aquariums and zoos are such restorative places – oases in the mayhem of city life. Maybe they were created to bring nature into the lives of city dwellers, to ensure that our existence is not completely sterile and concrete.

The Kelp Forest Exhibit at the Two Oceans Aquarium has this calming effect on visitors. On many occasions I have experienced an almost tangible sense of awe emanating from onlookers. The tranquility of the display coupled with its beauty and the swaying motion of the kelp fronds transports people to a world far removed from the chaos of this one.

So, next time you are feeling stressed, feeling the need to escape into the wilderness, take a deep breath and stroll through the Two Oceans Aquarium.

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