Bears and Brambles Say “I Do”: Wedding Flora & Fauna at the Oregon Zoo
Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
Becky Lovejoy is a volunteer and seasonal staff member of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon. She works in its volunteer horticulture program, gives animal and horticulture interpretive talks, works with special events and educational programs, and writes for the volunteer newsletter. She is also the author of “Zoo Tales: Wondering and Wandering at the Oregon Zoo,” © 2004.
NOTE: The actual presentation will include interaction with audience members and responses to their specific
needs and questions. As a result, focus or content may change.
Forty years ago, zoo animals were in cages. Landscaping was concrete and iron bars. Today, naturalistic exhibits based on immersion principles are everywhere, where plants, water features, and “architecture” in the form of logs and rocks, replicate the animals’ original habitat. Animals and their habitat are inseparable, so animal-focused volunteer programs and horticulture departments should work together to support the mission and goals of their organization.
I started my work at the Oregon zoo as a horticulture volunteer. My first day was spent in the rain, cutting down truckloads of bamboo to feed as browse to our six elephants. As I learned more about the elephants’ demands for continuous enrichment, I realized how much an animal depends on a habitat that has plants, rocks, and water features to be content. I then worked on a special projects team that built a northwest exhibit, re-creating a forest complete with trees, ferns, groundcover, streams and pools, a marsh and a beaver dam, and artificial rock formations. Again, I saw the value in putting our pair of bald eagles here instead of in a bare cage, so that the public could understand the complex environment that needed to be preserved so these threatened birds could thrive.
Why is horticulture important for wildlife in captivity? There are many reasons, the first of which is that animals are inseparable from their environment. Plants provide food, shelter and enrichment for animals, which helps them be healthy and thrive while living in captivity. Zoos in warm climates find that attendance goes up when they can provide shady walkways and leafy areas for people to linger so there is a direct cost-benefit to landscaping found in ticket sales. Landscaping allows interaction, especially with kids. Watch young children and you’ll find they are often just as fascinated with ferns and reeds, blossoms and berries, than with the animals. Plants allow them to touch, smell, and interact, while animals other than those in petting zoos are mostly out-of-reach. Ask any pollster what the most common American hobbies are and animals and gardening will always be on the top of the list. If you want to increase revenue at the gate, attract those who love plants and gardening as well as those who come to see wildlife, by having beautiful plants and special events highlighting flora. Landscaped zoos and aquariums become like parks and are safe and relaxing places to walk, attracting families, seniors and others who attend regularly with annual memberships. Lastly, planed landscaping can yield truckloads of browse for animals, which provides enrichment, encourages natural foraging behaviors, saves on food bills, and keeps plant debris out of landfills.
The Oregon Zoo has a well-developed volunteer program and 1700 people contribute their time. Our horticulture program used to be with the Construction and Maintenance Department. Landscaping was often out-sourced and gardeners did the basic maintenance. Then, staff began doing design work and more areas of the zoo were landscaped with browsable plants and with specific plant groups: bamboo, northwest native plants, heritage plants circa 1900, and Chilean and Asian collections. The result was flourishing plant life that was intentional and enhanced the animal collection tremendously. The organizational chart shifted, and gardeners under “Construction and Maintenance” became a horticulture department with a new place on the sheet part of “Living Collections.” We now share the spotlight with the animal collection, veterinary services, and the research and conservation department, and Living Collections is an integrated whole. Volunteers quickly signed up to help gardeners with harvesting browse, pruning and planting, and other gardening tasks. The Zoo’s mission statement is to “inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife.” The Horticulture Department’s mission is to “improve the future for wildlife by stimulating an appreciation for how plants relate to animals and people.” The Education Department’s volunteer program and the horticulture volunteers now had two similar missions, and horticulture volunteers are asked to take the animal-based training so they can understand the animals in the exhibits they were pruning and planting in.
Conversely, animal interpretive volunteers are given materials and encouragement to tell the public about the habitat as well as the animal as they design their themed talks.
(More details and updated information will be available at the presentation about the history and future plans of the Horticulture Department and Education Volunteer Program.)
Beautiful flora is a decided benefit at your zoo or aquarium. How can you integrate it with aspects of your animal-based programs? Start with your organizational mission and goals. Then analyze your current situation and strategize where you want to go. Here are some practical tips, using four of the many aspects of a typical program: volunteers, signage, fundraising, and conservation projects.
(Throughout these discussions, organizations will be asked to share what they do and post questions to the group, so we can learn from one another.)
Volunteers: How do you get volunteers enthused about horticulture – to care about the roses, not just the rhinos? The first thing is to see if your organization already sees animals as part of a habitat. Do you have naturalistic displays? Do you talk about the animal’s diet and where they find shelter? Plants will probably be prominent in those discussions. Stand in front of an exhibit and see what features catch the eye and include them in your interpretive talks. Our rhino exhibit has what we affectionately call the most expensive tree in the zoo. The species is quite common, but the story we tell is the many fences, barriers, and shields we’ve constructed out of wood, bamboo, mesh, metal, and boulders, to keep the rhinos from tearing down their shade tree. Telling this story to visitors uses a plant to tell them an intriguing story of what zoo staff learned about rhino behaviors in order to keep this tree alive.
Our Malaysian sun bears have logs and tree trunks and we use that dramatic structure to explain their foraging habits. We also have a heating element in a crotch and use that to give visitors an appreciation of how keepers help the animals adapt to a climate that is unlike that of their native land. Aga in, the plant life is a complement to the bears and teaches us how the animal and the plants around them are inseparable.
Wed animals and plants in your organization by expanding docent training to include both in interpretive talks, providing informatio n in newsletters and reference documents for volunteers, and having prominent plants or landscape features in your exhibits to talk about. How else can you integrate the two?
Signage: Re-evaluate your signage. Should bluebells and bongos get equal billing? Animals can be secretive and wily and hard to find. Plant life stays still and can be enjoyed by all at any time. Why not point out noteworthy plants so that there is always something to learn at an exhibit, whether the animal is in its den, off-exhibit, or hiding?
Remember, too, that some people coming to zoos have as much of an interest in the plants than the animals. Perhaps they can relate to a familiar plant more than an exotic animal. They might have a rose garden or bamboo collection and want to see how your zoo compares. Maybe the fall color or spring blossoms get them out of the house and over to your zoo. We can draw them in with signage, and entertain and educate them in the process.
Wed animals and plants with your signage because people will look where you point, and think where you direct their thoughts. Having them be aware of what the animal eats can lead them to thoughts about habitat preservation. Opening their eyes to changes of the foliage from season-to-season reminds them how we all are part of a much bigger cycle of nature. Having gardening talks about plants identified by signs brings them alive to people, and provides that essential one-on-one contact with a person that visitors want. How else can signage educate and inspire your visitors to care about the plants and wildlife on exhibit at your organization?
Fundraising/Cost saving : Fundraising is a constant challenge for most organizations. How do you keep your programs fresh and dynamic, interest new people in contributing to your cause, and have something newsworthy for press releases and TV bites? Try a new twist have platypus and plants figure in.
The Oregon Zoo aims for at least two major plant events per year to complement the many animal-based programs and celebrations. We celebrate wildflowers in the spring and attract thousands of visitors who might not have been in the zoo before. We landscape with native plants whenever possible that have the look of almost any environment from the grassland to the rainforest, the mountain ranges to the desert. Gardeners are inspired, and see ways that they can create these environments in their own backyards with plants local to the area. Both efforts expend the types of people that visit our zoo, bringing us revenue from plant sales and ticketed talks, and giving us a broader base to draw from for memberships and fundraising.
Cost savings are also seen as we incorporate animal volunteers into the horticulture program. Not everyone can work behind-the-scenes with a keeper, so we have the next best thing — volunteer opportunities to collect browse, build enrichment items out of plant materials, and build bamboo fences and trellises for new exhibits. Other zoos have entire browse orchards that need to be maintained, have volunteers “adopt” a section of the zoo or aquarium grounds to maintain, seek donations of plants or speakers about plants for fundraisers, and have government agencies and non-profits that donate printed materials on integrated pest management, composting, using drought tolerant plants, and other sustainable gardening practices, that they can give to the public.
What other ways can animal and plant programs combine forces for fundraising and cost savings efforts?
Conservation projects: Grant funded projects are an important addition for an organization’s revenue. Why not widen the net when searching for projects and find those where you can replicate endangered habitats as well as protect endangered species?
The Oregon Zoo has been involved in a couple of exciting projects. One is to restore the habitat of the Silver Spot Butterfly. We commonly have concerns about the loss of old growth forests here in the northwest but an even more fragile and threatened environment are the grasslands that are being taken over by farmland. We have collected lupines, which grow in hedgerows, raise them in our greenhouses, and plant them on the zoo grounds to provide food and shelter for the endangered Silver Spot Butterfly. We have an upland prairie exhibit where they will grow, delighting visitors and of course, the Silver Spot Butterfly!
We also have a Western Pond Turtle exhibit and laboratory, where we give baby pond turtles a head start. The invasive bullfrog eats Pond Turtles when they are young, and is decimating the population. Specially trained volunteers collect the eggs, the zoo hatches the turtles and protects them for a year until they are too big for a bullfrog meal, and then volunteers return them to the wild. Our pond exhibit is a beautiful example of a man-made habitat for wildlife, and is also is a key conservation project that brings us revenue and helps us educate the public.
We’ve talked about why animals and their habitat are inseparable, and why animal-focused volunteer programs and horticulture departments should work together. We just touched on a few facets of this complex issue expanding docent training, re-evaluating signage, complementing fundraising with plant focuses, and considering more conservation projects that replicate endangered habitats as well as protect endangered species.
In the words of our mission statement, I hope the work of the Oregon Zoo and the ideas you’ve heard here from other zoos and aquariums will inspire you to take a closer look at this team approach to “inspiring our community to create a better future for wildlife.”
(The remainder of the program will be used for questions and answers from the audience.)