Photograph of a man standing in front of an upland hillside.

Samuel Richardson

University of Birmingham


The effects of immersive exhibits on animal behaviour, welfare, and zoo visitor learning


  • Dr Jackie Chappell
  • Professor Susannah Thorpe
  • Dr Becca Biddle 

PhD Summary

Most modern zoos have four main goals built into their mission statements: Conservation, Education, Scientific research, and Entertainment, all while maintaining the highest welfare standards possible for their captive animals. However, balancing these goals can be difficult as a focus on one can be to the detriment of another.  

Immersive exhibits are naturalistic enclosures which allow both the visitor and the animal living within to feel like they are in the animal’s natural habitat together. These types of enclosures are becoming increasingly popular in the forms of walk-through enclosures e.g., aviaries, butterfly houses, and lemur walk-through exhibits. However, many have to be continually staffed by education rangers (at a cost to the zoo) to keep the animal’s safe, but it is unknown whether the rangers’ interactions with visitors increase their knowledge or the enjoyment they receive from the exhibit. Additionally the visitor’s effect on the animals within these exhibits is not as well studied when compared to traditional or naturalistic enclosures. 

This project will address these research gaps by working closely with our CASE partner Twycross Zoo on the project, as well as working with other zoos when appropriate. The project will combine behavioural studies on both zoo animals and visitors, with questionnaires on visitors’ attitudes, knowledge and experience, to investigate these complex effects. Knowledge gained from this data will then be used to develop with enclosure modifications and management changes to encourage natural behaviours, to support and inform future conservation breeding and reintroduction, while maintaining the exhibit’s educational role. 

Previous activity

Since completing my masters I have done many jobs. I worked for the environmental department of my local council, I was a research assistant for the Brook Animal Hospital, and I worked up in the Scottish Highlands on a nature reserve. However, in my most recent role I was teaching a wildlife conservation and land management course at a university in Essex.  

In my spare time I was also undertaking independent research work into how primate environmental enrichment usage has change overtime in both zoos and laboratories. I presented the results of this work as a poster at the UFAW 2022 conference, and my manuscript was accepted for publication by the journal of Animal Behaviour and Cognition, in 2023.  

Why did you choose doctoral research?

I find undertaking animal behaviour research fulfilling and engaging, not only because it allows me to investigate a subject in which I am deeply interested, it also has the benefit of producing tangible results which can greatly improve the lives of captive animals. These aspects coupled with the ability to work with some fascinatingly intelligent people, and the opportunity to learn and grow as a scientist are what motivated me to undertake doctoral research. 

Why did you choose CENTA?

I chose CENTA for multiple reasons. The first is that as all researchers are taken in as a cohort which allows us to build our social networks, so that doctorial research is not as isolating. The second is that CENTA promotes a healthy work-life balance centred around flexible learning. The third and final reason is that CENTA provides a range of integrated training and support that are encompassing of specific and generalised transferable skills.  

Future plans

My time spent at the University of Birmingham will help me develop the skills I need to become a confident and competent researcher. This will allow me to hopefully secure a postdoc and after that I hope to continue researching. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to head a lab of my own, where I’ll explore fascinating questions on animal behaviour and evolution.