One way in which zoos attempt to fulfill their goal of conservation is by educating visitors about the importance of protecting wildlife. Research has only begun to examine the effectiveness of zoos in place-based learning, and there has been much debate about how such informal learning is defined and measured. Free-choice learning research has demonstrated that educational outcomes are often indirect, constructed by the visitor as much as they are influenced by the zoo's educational staff. This constructivist definition of education includes emotional dimensions and personal meaning-making that occur in the social context of visiting, as well as any structured interpretive material provided on signs and through live presentations. This paper presents an examination of how the zoo is experienced by the visitor, through surveys and through observations of how visitors watch animals and incorporate those viewings into their social experience. Results from surveys of 206 zoo visitors show that support for protecting both individual animals and species is associated with learning, with wanting to know more, and with a feeling of connection to the animal. An analysis of 1,900 overheard visitor conversations suggests that zoo animals are used to facilitate topical interaction among social groups and to explore the connections that people share with nonhuman animals. The authors propose that these perceived positive connections may be related to support for conservation initiatives, and conclude that a visit to the zoo appears to be a positive emotional experience that leaves visitors interested in learning more about animals, irrespective of their reading the exhibit labels. Zoo Biol 28:377–397, 2009. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.