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The primary appeal of zoos, aquariums, and other animal habitats open to the public is the chance for visitors to see something extraordinary, involving an animal that they generally cannot encounter in their daily lives. But as anyone who has visited with a disappointed child knows, there are strict limits to what these service providers can promise. People cannot get too close to most animals, and there is no guarantee that they will do anything other than sleep during a visit.

The COVID-19 pandemic created even further limitations on the interactions, as most parks, zoos, and museums closed. But this lockdown constraint prompted some creative new service options, as many organizations developed virtual offerings to keep their customers entertained and engaged. Without any human visitors, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago found it possible to let resident penguins wander the building, poking their beaks into various spaces and rooms. In one encounter that quickly went viral, a waddle of penguins passed by the window onto the Shedd’s beluga whale tank. The birds came to a halt as the white whales floated by, the two species checking each other out and providing a novel and thrilling encounter that humans could experience remotely as well.

The popularity of these videos has encouraged the expansion of various channels that let visitors experience aquariums, zoos, and their animals in new and intimate ways. The Bronx Zoo maintains live webcams that allow viewers to tune in during operating hours to see what the animals are doing at that moment. At the Smithsonian Zoo outside Washington, DC, a livestream runs constantly, which meant that when a cheetah gave birth to four cubs, people could watch the tiny and adorable kits arrive in real time. Slightly less adorable but still vastly entertaining, the naked mole rats at the National Zoo are playful, silly, and a little naughty in their behavioral displays.

Beyond constant, uncurated videos, many service providers are establishing fee-based access for interested consumers. For example, through Zoom, the Bronx Zoo supports “virtual wild encounters” with cheetahs or alpacas, during which a zookeeper will introduce the animal, provide information and insights about it, and answer questions from participants. These 15-minute sessions can cost up to $250, with pricing tiers defined by the popularity of the animal.

Rather than charge fees, the San Diego Zoo is aiming to increase people’s engagement with its offerings by providing educational courses for free. These are the same courses that zoological professionals take, giving any potential students (as long as they are at least 13 years of age) access to professional training options pertaining to a wide range of animals (e.g., koalas, great apes, tigers), as well as topics related to actual zoo operations. It also hosts a separate website for younger children, so that they can learn more age-appropriate information about their favorite animals.

Due to the popularity of these platforms, many providers anticipate that they will continue these virtual operations, even after their in-person parks open up completely to the public. Even if people are able to get to a zoo, they still enjoy the opportunity to have a one-on-one encounter with a wild animal, while an expert provides them with information and insights. They are likely to see the animal engage in a wider variety of behaviors and feel a sense of connection to it. Furthermore, by supporting virtual visits, these physical locations can open up their access to consumers all around the world, so that if an animal lover in California wants to see the giant pandas in Washington, DC, it is possible—nearly in person.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is visiting a zoo or aquarium virtually appealing to you as a consumer? Why or why not?
  2. How should zoos and aquariums market their virtual and in-person service offerings, in terms of differentiating or coordinating the service offerings?

Source: Laurel Graeber, “Virtual Encounters with Purring Cheetahs and Curious Penguins,” The New York Times, July 23, 2020