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Captive Audiences: Interactions Between Visitors and Bonobos at the San Diego Zoo

By Elena Miyoko Carver

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Primate exhibits in American zoological parks, especially those featuring the great apes, are among the most compelling, complex, and popular exhibits for visitors, and are a primary way the American public becomes familiar with our closest living relatives. In this study, I approach the zoological park as resource for research into a unique facet of the human/nonhuman primate interface, and as an active site of synthesis between cultural and biological anthropology. I utilize traditional methods from primatology enriched with ethnographic tools to explore visitor-bonobo (Pan paniscus ) interaction and response from both sides of the glass at the San Diego Zoo’s bonobo exhibit, with the resulting ethnographic and observational data triangulated to reveal behavioral patterns, thematic trends, and expressions of subjectivity and even identity. Providing zoological parks with this type of research is valuable for the potential for improvement of the facilities themselves, but also for the sake of animals in the wild who rely on captive ambassador animals to engage the public in advocating for species conservation and survival. By recognizing which experiences visitors are most engaged with and most receptive toward, zoos may better tailor their conservation education and outreach methods to the public.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Pages 90
Department Anthropology
Degree Master of Arts
University San Diego State University
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. California
  3. Chimpanzees
  4. Human-animal interactions
  5. open access
  6. peer-reviewed
  7. Zoo and captive wild animals
  8. Zoos
  1. open access
  2. peer-reviewed