Bringing Tech to the Zoo: The Digital Transformation of Zoo Atlanta

Panda cams, reptile interactive displays, and orangutan iPads — oh my! While Zoo Atlanta is certainly using technology to improve its value proposition for its human and animal “customers”, is the zoo taking full advantage of operational digital transformations?

Want to learn about animal-computer interaction (ACI) in modern-day zoos?  Ask Madu, a pivotal member of the Apps for Apes team at Zoo Atlanta[1].  Using games on a touchscreen computer designed for orangutans, her team tries to enrich the visitor experience and prompt visitors’ empathy by showing how orangutans are “just like us.”[2],[3]  In doing so, Apps for Apes aims to bring attention (and funding) to the plight of endangered wild orangutans, a population that has declined by ~70% over the last century primarily due to illegal destruction of their habitats. [4],[5]

Technological innovation is valued by visitors to the orangutan exhibit, who gave an average score of 5.7 (on a scale of 1-7, where 1 was “strongly disagree” and 7 was “strongly agree”) to the statement “Technology…enhances the zoo experience.”[6]  Madu’s Apps for Apes program also provides enrichment for the orangutans, which can otherwise become depressed and lethargic in captivity.[7]

Did I mention that Madu is a critically endangered Sumatran orangutan?


Some may wonder whether ACI in zoos is “unnatural”.  While zoo exhibits have become increasingly naturalistic over time, recent research suggests that integration of “artificial” stimuli that evoke natural behaviors (such as apes cultivating their cognitive capabilities) can benefit animal welfare without disrupting the human-animal connection.[9],[10],[11]

Why does this matter?

The zoo’s mission statement states, “We strive to inspire…all visitors to the Zoo to value wildlife on Earth and to help safeguard existing species through conservation.”[12]  By creating a tech-enabled exhibit that engages the public while also improving the quality of life and conservation opportunities for its animals, Zoo Atlanta is enhancing its service offering to both parties.

Technology has also been used to fulfill Zoo Atlanta’s customer promise in other ways, such as:

  1. In-exhibit video content: Educational videos are available inside exhibits, which increases guest awareness of wildlife conservation issues.[13] At the orangutan exhibit, knowledge retention regarding conservation by >35% after watching a video compared to a no-video control case.[14]
  2. YouTube & PandaCam: Via its public online media (165 YouTube videos with >9,000,000 views[15] and a 24/7 PandaCam[16]), Zoo Atlanta provides loyal customers as well as individuals who cannot physically access the zoo with information on animal welfare and development. The zoo tracks social media engagement as a KPI given the opportunity to increase wildlife awareness both within and beyond the Atlanta community.[17]

What else could be done?

While the technological business model choices help improve awareness, Zoo Atlanta is failing to take advantage of several operational model improvements offered by technological innovation:

  1. Maximizing donations with technology: Contributions have varied from $4M to $12M per year in recent years.[18] Despite this variability, Zoo Atlanta does not appear to be using its technological assets to maximize potential donations.  Zoo Atlanta’s YouTube videos provide no direct weblinks to donation options.  This is a missed operational opportunity, as videos can be highly effective tools for motivating donations, with 57% of people choosing to donate to nonprofits due in part to video content.[19] Similarly, it is unclear whether their PandaCam is used to entice sponsorship funds, unlike the National Zoo PandaCam which proudly announces sponsorship by Ford.[20]  The zoo should explore leveraging its video content to spark donations.
  1. Improving on-site operations: Zoo Atlanta’s Yelp page indicates complaints about concession wait times[21]. Such operational issues could be improved via development of an app that allows food pre-ordering (currently the zoo has no app).  This is already planned for a new zoo in Sydney[22] and would offer opportunities for revenue enhancement, as long lines discourage today’s visitors to Zoo Atlanta from ordering food.  A zoo app could also improve current parking problems at the facility by offering mobile payment for dynamically priced parking spaces (currently offered for free).
  1. Customer targeting improvement: The Zoo Atlanta website seems dated. While it currently places cookies on visitors’ computers, I did not experience any retargeting after leaving the website.[23] The Zoo appears to be missing opportunities to convert one-time website visitors into guests.

Zoo Atlanta is well on its way to achieving a technologically-enhanced zoo experience.  But if it wants to maximize its ability to support wildlife preservation for years to come, it needs to upgrade its use of technology in operational capacities. (799 words)

[1] (Zoo Atlanta, 2014)

[2] (News, 2015)

[3] (Webber, Carter, Smith, & Vetere, 2016)

[4] (World Wildlife Fund, 2016)

[5] (Platt, 2012)

[6] (Perdue, Clay, Gaalema, & Terry L. Maple, 2011)

[7] (Platt, 2012)

[8] (News, 2015)

[9] (Carter, Webber, & Sherwen, 2015)

[10] (Webber, Carter, Smith, & Vetere, 2016)

[11] (Kutska, 2008)

[12] (Zoo Atlanta, 2014)

[13] (Wells, 2015)

[14] (Stoinski, Perdue, & Maple, 2012)

[15] (Zoo Atlanta, n.d.)

[16] (Zoo Atlanta, 2014)

[17] (Zoo Atlanta, 2014)

[18] (Zoo Atlanta, 2016)

[19] (Google; Millward Brown Digital, 2013)

[20] (Smithsonian National Zoo, n.d.)

[21] (Various, 2016)

[22] (Johnston, 2016)

[23] Retargeting occurs when an ad is shown for a website that an individual previously visited.  Source: personal experience.



Carter, M., Webber, S., & Sherwen, S. (2015). Naturalism and ACI: Augmenting Zoo Enclosures with Digital Technology. ACE ’15 Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology . Iskandar, Malaysia: Association for Computing Machinery.

Google; Millward Brown Digital. (2013, September). Mission 501(c)(3): Driving Donations, Digitaly. Retrieved from Google | Think Insights:

Johnston, R. (2016, April 7). Sydney’s Future Zoo Wants to Use Augmented Reality, Robots, and Drones. Retrieved from Gizmodo:

Kutska, D. (2008). Variation in visitor perceptions of a polar bear enclosure based on the presence of natural vs. un-natural enrichment items. Zoo Biology, 292-306.

News, A. T. (Director). (2015). Orangutans use computers at US zoo [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from

Perdue, B. M., Clay, A. W., Gaalema, D. E., & Terry L. Maple, a. T. (2011). Technology at the Zoo: The Influence of a Touchscreen Computer on Orangutans and Zoo Visitors. Zoo Biology.

Platt, J. R. (2012, January 10). Apps for Apes: Engaging Orangutans with iPads. Retrieved from Scientific American:

Smithsonian National Zoo. (n.d.). Giant Panda Cam. Retrieved from Smithsonian National Zoo:

Stoinski, T. S., Perdue, B. M., & Maple, T. L. (2012). Using Technology to Educate Zoo Visitors About Conservation. Visitor Studies, 16-27.

Various. (2016). Zoo Atlanta. Retrieved from Yelp:

Webber, S., Carter, M., Smith, W., & Vetere, F. (2016). Interactive technology and human-animal encounters at the zoo. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Retrieved from

Wells, M. (2015, April 1). Preview: Zoo Atlanta’s new Scaly Slimy Spectacular reptile exhibit goes high-tech. Retrieved from Atlanta Magazine:

World Wildlife Fund. (2016). Species: Orangutan. Retrieved from World Wildlife Fund:

Zoo Atlanta. (2014). Meet the Orangutans. Retrieved from Zoo Atlanta:

Zoo Atlanta. (2014). Vision, Mission, Values. Retrieved from Zoo Atlanta:

Zoo Atlanta. (2014). Zoo Atlanta 2013 Annual Report. Retrieved from Zoo Atlanta:

Zoo Atlanta. (2014). Zoo Atlanta Panda Cam. Retrieved from Zoo Atlanta:

Zoo Atlanta. (2016). Zoo Atlanta Annual Plans and Reports. Retrieved from Zoo Atlanta:

Zoo Atlanta. (n.d.). Zoo Atlanta. Retrieved from YouTube:



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Student comments on Bringing Tech to the Zoo: The Digital Transformation of Zoo Atlanta

  1. I think these technology applications are amazing for a zoo! I actually never considered how much the experience could be improved through technology. Thank you for sharing the videos (especially the panda video)!

    As younger generations are more used to technology, I think zoos will not have a choice to adopt technology – it will be a requirement to stay relevant. There is a lot of value from using technology and think that some of the changes the Atlanta Zoo are making are great.

    To add your your donation example, I think having QR codes at the zoo where you can directly scan and donate is another way to increase donations. People are much more willing to donate when they are in front of the animals and engaging with them. This is the best opportunity to try to get customers to give back to the Zoo.

  2. This article is really interesting. I would have never thought about apes using technology.

    I could not resist but think about how this could enrich and change our understanding of animals and their way of thinking.

    Is it possible to teach them a kind of language tom communicate with us or to help them being understood and improve their living situations in the zoo? The second suggestion could be easily achieved by letting them tap on a picture (could be food or anything else) resulting in a mechanism which provides this specific object or food or anything to them. You could also let visitors give them the ordered item.
    Also: would it be possible to teach the animals some games visitors can play with them online after donating some money to the zoo?

    I am so amazed by this incredibly interesting use of technology – there are plenty of ways, the zoo could make further money with it in order to not only benefit but also to improve living situations for the animals.

    There is also a woman who dedicated her live to living and working with apes to understand them better. See

  3. This is a really interesting article. I too agree that the zoo can better harness technology to ensure it is able to support wildlife preservation for years to come. The zoo seems to be leaving a lot of money on the table by not having a donation button on their PandaCam. Filming the pandas and featuring it on their site is a great way to raise awareness and funds for the zoo. I wonder, however, if introducing technology into the wild is appropriate. Sure, giving an iPad to orangutans is one way to help us realize that they are “just like us.” But, does doing this actually enhance the animal’s quality of life? I would argue not. Instead of creating artificial “connections” to humans via technology, I wonder if the zoo should instead focus more on in-exhibit video content. Helping us engage at the zoo, through narratives and films of the animals in captivity, may be a more appropriate way to get us to see the similarities between our two species.

  4. This is a really interesting article and I completely agree that the zoo seems to be leaving money on the table in several ways. It’s surprising that the PandaCam isn’t being used as a fundraising tool, and that cookies aren’t employed to convert website visitors. I was also shocked that despite being so technologically advanced in some ways, the zoo itself does not have an app.

    In addition to your customer-facing suggestions, I’m wondering if there are ways for the Atlanta Zoo to use digital technology to improve internal operations. For example, could zoo employees have an internal app that helps them keep track of facts and trends in wildlife conservation, as well as logistics like who is working what shift?

  5. Great article! It seems like they can strategically use technology is to expand their target market and appeal to different age groups. I used to go to the Atlanta zoo all the time growing up, and while I haven’t been in probably 15 years and am not sure how it has changed, I definitely remember feeling like I had aged out at some point. The most exciting parts of the zoo were targeted towards younger kids, like the petting zoo. With technology they can try to provide a better experience for older age groups. The learning-focused apps and info displays should definitely appeal to adults. I’m sure there are tons of ways to ‘gamify’ the entire zoo for older kids as well – such as a points system based on how many exhibits you check-in at.

  6. This is a great example of how a business is using technology to create a more interactive experience for attendees both during, before, and after the visit. I am particularly excited about how the Zoo uses YouTube and their PandaCam (!!) to engage audiences at home. This helps to build excitement, traffic, and social media marketing for the zoo. While not the same per se, this really reminds me of the use of RFID at events and concerts. RFID enables technology-forward wristbands that allow attendees to have a more connected experience. For example, attendees can check-into booths, post photos through social media, and pay for food and drinks while at the event. It is interesting how technology in both scenarios is enhancing a connected attendee experience. Technology also allows the businesses to capture more data on the attendees, allowing them to streamline their operations and hopefully to be more profitable in doing so.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments! For the sake of clarity, just wanted to mention that the actual PandaCam page does have a small “Support our cubs” button further down the page, but it’s nowhere near the level of funding / sponsorship used for other PandaCams. And the YouTube videos have no links to support the zoo, which still boggles my mind.

    Speaking of which, for the sake of more on-topic cute animal videos: shows the link between porcupines and the potential to raise support for a zoo.

  8. Very interesting read! This is a great example of how technology can maximize value of an already existing facility. As Brian mentioned, I think these idea can appeal to wide range of generations and have potential to turn people’s steps toward the zoo. I also really hope that the technology will be used not only for people coming to the zoo but for the better living situation of animals.

  9. I loved your article! I like how technology is making zoos more accessible to people. I think in addition to entertainment and raising donations, the cameras can be used to track and study animal behavior in order to improve their overall care. The zoo could even educate those watching the live feeds about potential signs of sickness and report those back to the zoo (sort of crowdsourcing their care). Doing so could further drive engagement as well as donations for care.

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