Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Field Guide to Guest Crowd Types

Today I want to talk about the phenomenon of group-mentality.

Now THAT'S a race I'd sign up for!
I'm not going to delve into some of the most horrific examples of this in human history (or...sadly...current events in many parts of the world).  But we know that a human's psyche is often altered when in a group setting.  Especially when they feel they are anonymous and/or can diffuse responsibility within the group, humans are prone to "deindividuate" in an emotionally-charged mob setting.

This deindividuation can be great or not so great.  And it made me wonder recently if this applies to the massive groups of people/audiences we as animal care professionals encounter at our zoo or aquarium.

Deindividuation Girls
Has anyone else noticed that there is usually no mix of guests when the group is large?  When I say "large", I guess that really depends on your situation.  Where I work now, we have a relatively big amphitheater that can seat hundreds of people.  Thirty people in our amp is definitely not "large".  But if you're doing a keeper chat in a relatively small area, 30 people is a huge group.  So it's relative.

Nonetheless, a large group quickly becomes one of five (5) major categories in my experience.  Let's take a look at them.

1. The Engaged and Interested Crowd (EAI Crowd)


One of the best groups to encounter, the EAI Crowd is not only super into whatever is happening in your show/narration/chat, they are really interested in what's going on from an academic standpoint.  They ask thoughtful questions.  In fact, almost every guest you encounter sounds like they've been researching animal care or natural history for 20 years.  Even the kids.  All the precocious children in your area are in the EAI crowd, drawn to intelligent conversation like moths to a flame.

One guest wants to know if it's REALLY true that corvids are studied extensively for their cognitive abilities.  The next guest wants to know if dolphins have blood types.  The 3 year old reminds you that the true plural of "octopus" is actually "octopodes", you know, because of Greek and everything.

EAI crowds recharge you, no matter what your level of introversion is.  They make you excited to talk to guests, give you a renewed sense of purpose.  They enter your world as strangers and leave as legends; you'll share your experience with them on Facebook and at dinner parties.  Oh, we bow do you EAI audiences!



Maybe not as intellectual as the EAIs, but EIA crowds are a very close second in terms of fun audiences.  These people are just AMAZED at EVERYTHING.  WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DID YOU SEE THAT DOLPHIN TAKE A BREATH????? HONEY DID YOU GET A PICTURE OF THAT GORILLA'S PINKY FINGER WE SAW FOR 8/17ths OF A SECOND?? THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF OUR LIVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If you're in a show setting, these are the crowds who cheer for everything.  They laugh heartily at all of your jokes on microphone.  They watch the animals doing their thing in their free time, all the while beaming with excitement.  When they're not smiling from ear to ear, they've plastered a camera to their face or are taking 8 trillion photos with their iphones.

In EIA crowds, no one seems unhappy.  "What a great crowd," you'll say to yourself.

This is also the crowd that is just DYING to get soaked by a water animal.  Or any animal who can splash/spit water.  And when you ask that animal to soak the crowd, the crowd cheers.  Their smiles cannot be dampened, although you've soaked them through to their very soul.  They'll spend the rest of the day in soggy shoes, but they will wear them with pride.

3. The Are You Alive Crowd (AYA Crowd)


Picture this.  You are about to do a narrated dolphin training session.  You walk out to your typical narration spot, the dolphins porpoising around you, excited for what the session will bring.  You stare at hundreds of faces, who have waited for 30 minutes to see "something" happen in the dolphin habitat. 

You and your team of humans and dolphins play, learn, and inspire.   And you, the narrator, are articulately orating.  You've been touched by a higher power to deliver your conservation message without any stumbling. Your words are floating beautifully into the ether, full of promise, hope, education, inspiration.

A dolphin emits a gorgeous back breach, showcasing her power and skill in a classic but awe-inspiring natural behavior.  A tidal wave of warm saltwater sloshes over the side, soaking the people in the first couple of rows.  You look to gauge the crowd's reaction: are they smiling? Do they seem intrigued? 

No. No, they are not.  They are not smiling.  They are not frowning.  They are not moving.  They are staring at a fixed point in space.  Their brains have probably been sucked out of their skulls by aliens when you weren't looking.  No, they are surrogate humans...decoys, maybe....placed BY aliens.  No, they are all members of Blue Man Group and will never, ever, ever smile no matter what.

Dang it, it's the brain-eating aliens again!

This is the zombie crowd.  AYA audiences are one of the worst, and you cannot find a single outlier person who is smiling or even reacting to what's going on.  AYAs are bored by your keeper chat, or presentation.  They'd rather see something really cool, like aliens sucking the brains out of someone's skull. 

You leave feeling confused, drained, dead inside (but not as dead as your audience).

4. The Crabby Crab Crowd (CC)

Not today, friend.  We're fresh out.

The. Worst.

Sorry, AYAs are pretty bad but at least they are not hostile.  The CC crowd has spawned from hell, oozing up from a netherworld and ready to rain all over your parade.

EVERYONE is upset.  The admission prices are too high.  The dolphins have "nowhere to sleep".  The zebras don't have as many stripes as we were led to believe. And oh, you're going to hear about it.  You'll get all kinds of life advice, too.  Because CC crowd anger is not limited to the spectrum of whatever animal exhibit they're watching, or even the entire zoo or aquarium.  Some of them don't like how you speak on a microphone.  Some of them don't agree with your life choices on an ethical level, while others feel you're wasting your life doing frivolous work ("get a real job").

The best way I've found to navigate through a sea of crabs is to try to a) remember the most obnoxious quote of the crowd for later enjoyment and b) imagine myself neck-deep in donuts and/or doublestuf oreos.

5. ??????????? (??)


Also known as Full Moon Syndrome (although studies have shown there doesn't actually have to be a full moon), these crowds are full of um, interesting people.  Some of them are delightfully bizarre, some of them terrifying.  The questions you get are from another universe, the discussions are so off-the-wall you begin questioning your lucidity (am I dreaming? am I dead and this is the some kind of bizarre afterlife?).

Here are some examples of some of the experiences my coworkers and I have encountered:

* Dolphins are from another planet and were brought here by dugong-man hybrids from
  another planet

* Can we charge our healing crystals by the habitat and come back later when they are

* "I love this place so much.  When I die I'm going to put my ashes in a beautiful statue of
    dolphins turning into angels and have them display it here."


It seems as though all five audience categories are ripe for research.  Any sociologists out there ought to look into why like-minded people - all from random origins - wind up at the same keeper chat.  Or does it just take a couple of really angry or really happy people to influence the entire vibe of the crowd?

I don't know.  But either way, it's best to quickly identify what sort of audience you're dealing with and prepare accordingly.  And as always, try to connect, even in the toughest times. Our connection to guests is one of the most important aspects of our jobs. The worst thing to do is lose your cool; because even in a Crab Crowd, you may be able to improve someone's day or outlook.  In fact, it's even MORE important to try to make that connection in a CC or AYA audience.

And hey, if times are really tough, you know the animals will always make you smile!


  1. I always feel so bad for people speaking to CCs or AYAs.

  2. Cat - how do you always manage to see into my brain and what I'm thinking?
    Awesome job, yet again.