Educational Animals

Definition: Educational animals are live animals used in educational programs that target concepts about conservation and life sciences. They can also be used to help develop empathy and a positive attitude change towards a species.  

Educational animals, also known as ambassador animals, are often used within wildlife education programs to engage participants in content and elicit a positive attitude change towards a species. Their purpose is to serve as an “ambassador” for their wild counterparts. Educational animals are either captive bred or wild animals that suffered injuries too severe to be returned to the wild. 

Why use educational animals? Live animals in educational programs can elicit emotion, excitement and wonder within the audience. However, the use of educational animals within wildlife centers is a debated topic between practitioners, some of which believe wild animals should not be used for education.  It is important to note that it takes the right individual animal be used in programs. They should only be used in safe and controlled settings and should not pose danger to participants. When the right animal is used, there is potential for participants to engage in real, stimulating learning. Emotionally intense science learning  and the use of live animals in an educational programs can increase student engagement, learning outcomes, and a positive attitude change towards a species. Educational animals provide participants with the rare chance of interacting with a wild animal that may promote stewardship and a connection to the species.

Tools for engagement: Live animals can help involve students in topics such as adaptations, natural history, ecology, conservation, empathy and appreciation of wildlife.  Even though educational animals have the potential to engage audiences with content, this strategy spans the line between active and passive learning. Educators should not rely on the animal to provide engagement but should utilize multiple active learning techniques alongside the use of an educational animal to keep their audience engaged. After the initial excitement of a being close to a wild animal fades, children can get distracted and lose focus. Simple techniques such as storytelling, personal responses and think-pair-shares can keep the audience engaged with the program and the animal.

There are no established best practices for the use of educational/ ambassador animals.
However, it should be noted, that not all animals can serve as educational animals.  It is imperative, for animals to have the right temperament, be under the control of the handler, and not be stressed by human presence.

Peer reviewed articles:

  • King, D., Ritchie, S., Sandhu, M., & Henderson, S. (2015). Emotionally intense science     activities. International Journal of Science Education, 37(12).
  • Morgan, M. J., & James, H. (1989). Predicting effectiveness of wildlife education programs: A study of students’ attitudes and knowledge toward snakes. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 17(4).
  • Tribe, A., & Brown, P. R. (2000). The role of wildlife rescue groups in the care and rehabilitation of Australian fauna. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 5(2), 69-85.