Crap Man and Wiping for Wildlife…

A conference session from Bristol Zoo’s Simon Garret excited me, he’s an old buddy of Futerra from way back in the day, and his workshop on ‘Real World Zoos & Academic Psychology’ was fascinating. The reason this sparked my intrigue was because we worked on a very pioneering (at the time) piece of research for Bristol Zoo in the early noughties that sought to directly connect the zoo visitor’s experience with sustainable behaviour change. This is important as zoos welcome 600M visitors annually around the world – quite a (ahem) captive audience if you’ll excuse the terrible pun.

Simon’s fascinating presentation focused on the work of ‘Zoos Victoria’ in Australia who had sought to build on the ‘zoo experience’ by engaging behavioural psychologists to transform the typical attitude change and ‘issue arousal’ that visitors felt into actual sustained behaviour change. By monitoring visitor’s emotional responses to different exhibits, shows and experiences within the zoo the psychologists highlighted the fact the behaviour changes around ‘Political Activism’ and‘Consumerism’ were the easiest to hit. These echoed the actions that we also recommended in Futerra’s own ‘Branding Biodiversity’ publication.

By applying a relatively simple ‘Theory of Planned Behaviour’ model to the interactive signage and engagement within the zoo the combined team of educators and psychologists started to deliver some quite extraordinary results. Their process was straightforward:

  1. Select a threatening process or impact
  2. Identify an ambassador species in the zoo to highlight the impacts of this behaviour
  3. Identify a target audience
  4. Select a target behaviour to change
  5. Confirm audience’s understanding of the behaviour and it’s impacts
  6. Identify opportunities to connect the above (1-5)



Their first success was on the use of Gorilla’s to engage zoo visitors on mobile phone recycling through a poster campaign entitled ‘They’re calling on you…’. Gorilla habitat in the Congo is threatened by Coltan mining for the mobile and hi-tech industries, so effective recycling of phones (426,000 are ‘retired’ in the US everyday) has a direct impact on the negative environmental consequences for Gorillas, biodiversity and their forest home – not to mention the huge human and social cost of illegal dangerous coltan mining itself.

The campaign led to 47,000 mobile phones being recycled by zoo visitors, raised A$100,000, attracted 122 companies to register to the programme along with 200 other organisations. By issuing ‘return envelopes’ for old phones the zoo reached a 26% return rate following talks by keepers alongside the gorillas and even a 7% return rate for envelopes simply left at the gate. The scheme’s impact was then magnified by a regional newspaper which delivered 1M more envelopes to it’s readers.


Encouraged by this achievement, the zoo then designed and launched a palm oil campaign connecting Orangutan habitat destruction with the cheap oil supply via the beasts in the zoo. The ‘Don’t Palm Us Off’ petition attracted 162,000 signatures, led to a 97% awareness of the deforestation and habitat destruction of palm oil plantations amongst zoo visitors, helped support a ‘Truth in Labelling’ bill in Parliament to force producers to reveal ‘hidden’palm oil content in products, generated a Facebook group with 31,000 members, brought in 138,000 extra web visitors to the zoo, and drove A$50,000of donations. Pretty amazing stuff I think you’ll agree…but the best was yet to come.

95% of Australians buy non-recycled toilet paper meaning the equivalent of 6.7M trees is flushed down Aussie toilets every year. This obviously has fairly large ecological implications. Using the‘Theory of Planned Behaviour’ model the zoo set itself a target of shifting 10,000 households onto buying recycled toilet roll. In doing so they were compelled to ask two key questions: ‘what does the audience believe about recycled toilet roll?’, ‘what are the best beliefs to predict or motivate behaviour change?’ Their findings were intriguing.

Their action research revealed that most zoo visitors thought recycled toilet roll was‘uncomfortable’, ‘expensive’, or ‘too thin and tears too easily’ (the ‘your fingers will go through it’ test). And crucially it was busting these myths (through a poster campaign that showed ‘Recycled toilet paper has changed’) that primarily motivated the behaviour change to purchase recycled amongst visitors, NOT the desire to save trees or wildlife although this was clearly a contextual bonus!


The ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ campaign was amazingly successful as before: 27,000 households and 45% of all zoo visitors engaged with 27% of previous‘non-compliers’ switching. Most amusingly the campaign was also controversially endorsed by a ‘21 Bum Salute’ viral and  ‘Crap Man’, a suited superhero character, with the Zoo’s executive board setting a condition on approving his presence that the number of visitor complaints be closely monitored for fear of crudely upsetting visitors. Hilariously the only complaint recorded came from a family grumbling that ‘Crap Man’ wasn’t there when they visited specially to see him!

For me the genuinely brilliant aspect of all these engagement campaigns is that they originated from a deep respect and understanding of the audience’s existing attitudes and opinions. Creatively targeting them with behaviour change campaigns that were then relevant, resonant and reasonable to them as a result. As a final flurry the zoo then experimented to see if there was a  threshold at which behaviour change engagement campaigns and demands became ‘too much’ for visitors. Amazingly practical research found that even when they saturated the zoo with the right communication it didn’t piss visitors off – instead there was a direct correlation between the number of environmentally friendly behaviours being encouraged and the level of visitor satisfaction!

So hear the call of the gorillas, don’t be palmed off and wipe for wildlife. You know it makes sense. Crap Man told you so.

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