We found that their answers could be categorised into three groups. We also sought to find which factors may have an impact on these views, as well as exploring zoo visitors’ views on the new Islands development at Chester Zoo, which aims to connect humans with animals.
We ran focus groups with four different categories of participant in order to explore how different people view their level of connectedness to non-human animals. Three of the categories were made up of students. Each category corresponded to a different area of study; physics, media studies and theological and religious studies. The final category was made up of visitors to Chester Zoo. We asked participants whether or not they felt like they were a part of the animal kingdom. All of the responses could be classified into one of three groups. The most common answer was a qualified yes, in which participants recognised themselves as animals but did not feel this was a relevant part of their daily lives. Others thought that humans were once animals, but the way we live now means we can no longer be classified as members of the animal kingdom. A third grouping of responses showed full agreement with the concept of humans being a part of the animal kingdom.
An exploration of the factors connected to these feelings showed a variety of results. One common idea encouraging a feeling of connectedness was that there is no one thing that separates humans from non-human animals. Another was that traits that we perceive to be human have developed through the process of evolution, like all other animal traits. Finally, there was a feeling that humans cover up their animality with civilisation.
There were also a variety of factors connected to a sense of isolation from animals. For example, some participants felt separate from non-human animals because humans engage in pursuits purely for pleasure, such as art, rather than focusing on survival alone. The concept of control was an important factor. Many participants felt that disconnect from animals is connected to the fact that humans have a lot of control over the natural environment. Focus groups made up of zoo visitors discussed this more than others. Finally, the simple idea that humans are different to animals, for various reasons, appeared to bring about a feeling of disconnect.
We believed that a study of visitor opinions of Islands would be related to these questions, as both centre on the idea of humans being connected to animals. Only zoo visitor groups participated in discussions surrounding Islands feedback. The immersive aspects of the exhibit prompted positive feedback, with visitors feeling closer to the animals due to the design. More constructive feedback came in the form of visitors noting that the new style of exhibit resembled a theme park, which did not appear to have any positive connotations.
Overall, we found there is no one clear viewpoint on whether or not the participants saw themselves as animals. There was conflict within individuals as they tried to reconcile the two key truths in this topic: humans are animals, yet we appear to be more sophisticated than non-human animals.