Saint Louis Zoo Tackles One Health Initiative and Demonstrates the Benefits of Zoos to Human Health

By Jordan Schaul | HuffPost | 02/01/2016 4:04pm EST | Updated 02/01/2017

Many accredited zoos and aquariums have embraced the One Health initiative, which aims to improve human, animal, and ecosystem health for a global community.

For the greater part of our evolutionary history, we as humans have been tied to the natural world. Only in recent centuries has urbanization advanced to such a degree that we find ourselves disconnected from nature.

In recent times, the re-emergence of infectious diseases has resulted from the ecological encroachment on wildlife habitat. Urbanization and western medicine have influenced the spread of infectious pathogens, but stress-related noninfectious diseases are of equal concern. These plague people living in the developed world, as well as the developing world and, can greatly compromise our well-being and longevity.

Many accredited zoos and aquariums have embraced the One Health initiative, which aims to improve human, animal, and ecosystem health for a global community. In doing so, they not only find themselves poised to safely combat the transmission of disease agents that potentially jump host species or share host species through complex life cycles, but they serve as living laboratories for clinical medicine targeting chronic disease concerns for humans and animals alike.

Through a collaborative study, the Saint Louis Zoo and the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine recently showed the human health benefits to visitors at an interactive zoo exhibit through an innovative zoo-based research project. Their work supports the general findings of earlier studies, which confirmed that safely managed interfacing with captive wildlife reduces patron stress. Results indicated that such experiences enhance psychological health, including decreased tension and increased energy. The results also indicated that the touch tank experience may reduce blood pressure, as shown at a Japanese zoo. Reduction in blood pressure is a well-known physiological parameter of stress.

According to their report, which was recently published in the journal Zoo Biology, "The research supports the potential for experiences at zoos and aquariums to be part of an overall effort to improve public well-being by reconnecting people with nature." As part of the role of zoos in One Health, this study is groundbreaking and demonstrates how zoos may provide significant health benefits for their visitors."

Dr. Sharon Deem -- director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine led the study, which examined the effects of interacting with animals through a touch tank experience. The touch tank permits patrons to contact marine animals, including stingrays and horseshoe crabs. Specifically, they looked at heart rate variability and mood, as physiological and psychological parameters of stress. Although, the physiological parameters did not fully support the researcher's hypothesis, as a more complex picture of patron heart rates were encountered and more reminiscent of a roller coaster ride, the psychological health benefits were striking. In fact, it supports the overall notion that an interactive exhibit can have immediate benefits on the health and well-being of zoo visitors.

Zoos are dynamic and engaging public attractions. They divert our attention away from technology and can help combat nature deficit disorder, which is detrimental to our health and welfare and the cultivation of a wildlife conservation ethic.

Mental health expert and author of Generation Stressed, Michele Kambolis said, "The latest brain science research tells us there are important reasons for The Saint Louis Zoo's findings. Walking in nature and being around animals leads to a surge in feel good neurochemicals like dopamine. In fact, just thinking about nature is powerful enough to calm our nervous system and bring on feelings of well-being. In our technologically focused 'age of anxiety' connecting with nature becomes all the more valuable if we are to become more resilient in the face of stress."

Deem, S.L. 2015. Conservation Medicine to One Health: The Role of Zoologic Veterinarians. In: Miller, R.E. and M.E. Fowler (eds.), Fowler's Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine: Volume 8. Saunders Elsevier, Saint Louis, Missouri. Pp. 698-703.

Sakagami T, Ohta M. 2010. The effect of visiting zoos on human health and quality of life. Anim Sci J 81(1):129-34.

Sarhmann, J., Niedbalski, A., Bradshaw, L., Johnson, R.A., and Deem, S.L. 2016. Changes in Human Health Parameters Associated with a Touch Tank Experience at a Zoological Institution. Zoo Biology (early online DOI: 10.1002/zoo.21257).