Molding Your Conservation Bell
Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Garden, Los Angeles, CA
Is your docent program active in conservation efforts? Maybe it’s time you began molding your Conservation Bell.
Why should you develop an active Conservation Program?
- Docents convey the concept of conservation, but inspirational educators teach by example.
- Global conservation challenges can be overwhelming. Enabling your docents to make a difference as individuals, changes powerlessness to empowerment.
- Too often, the conservation work in which our zoos participate goes on behind the scenes. A Conservation Program can bring those efforts to the attention of your community and increase the conservation profile of your zoo.
In 2002, the Los Angeles Zoo docents began with a tiny, hand bell: a docent Conservation Committee and the goal to involve docents and student volunteers in active conservation projects locally and/or internationally. The story of our “Liberty Bell” is one of both disappointing gongs and resounding successes. We hope you can learn from our mistakes, take note of our accomplishments, and begin molding your own Conservation Bell.
Where do you start to build an active conservation team?
- Find a few passionate individuals
- Clarify your goals
- Identify your limitations
- Find a starting note
We began with a single conservation project.
The Wavering One Note
We thought pursuing one project would keep us focused, but beware of ringing a single conservation note. Through a docent, we had a connection with a leading conservation entity, the National Park Service (NPS).
The Lead Biologist for the island fox was excited about a possible connection with our Zoo and docent program. We chose the island fox from the California Channel Islands as our first conservation subject because:
- A breeding pair had newly gone on exhibit at the Zoo.
- They were about to be listed as an Endangered Species.
- Their conservation dilemma was mostly man made.
- The foxes and the National Park Services’ conservation efforts were in need of PR.
- Opportunities existed for volunteers to build breeding pens on the islands.
- Invasive alien plants needed to be removed from the islands.
- Breeding behavior studies were needed regarding the foxes.
- Island foxes are cute!
Everything seemed positive. We put together a four-part plan, invited the National Park Service to the Zoo, and made a presentation to our Interim Zoo Director and Senior Staff. We planned to:
1. Host a one-day Fox Festival at the Zoo to raise public awareness about the island fox
2. Organize 8-person teams to go out to the islands and help build breeding pens
3. Use groups of volunteers, including students, to assist with alien plant removal
4. Use docents trained in behavioral research methods to document fox breeding behavior data from National Park Service videotapes
By spring of 2003, we had approval from our Interim Director. The Fox Festival was set for June 5, 2004. There was an excitement among the docent population. We were on our way.
Then, our one note began to waver. The NPS botanist never returned our calls or e-mails. NO alien plant removal. The NPS videotapes did not have enough documentation or adequate fox visibility for scientific data collection. NO behavioral research project. Fox populations on the islands went into a dramatic decline during the spring and summer. Pen building on the island was postponed. A new Zoo Director arrived. Planning for the Fox Festival continued, very quietly. We decided to let the new Director settle-in and get to know us, before we asked for his support of the Fox Festival.
All of our efforts and expectations had gone into one grand bell and it was cracked. A dull thud was about to toll the end of our Conservation Committee. Docents were disappointed. Enthusiasm was fading. We needed something that would give us an immediate positive outcome.
Flexibility and the Value of Changing Your Tune
We brainstormed and came up with short-term projects to lift docent morale and reinvigorate the notion of “active conservation.” Using pre-existing programs and known conservation entities, we completed three successful projects between September 20th and October 31, 2003.
- Apes Helping Apes: Over 4 days we raised $1000 for the Wanariset Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Borneo. A Zoo Enrichment program was encouraging our orangutans to string beads. Four necklaces strung by Zoo orangutans were raffled, one each day (tickets $2 each or 3 for $5). We knew of Wanariset’s need and good work because several docents had visited and a docent was doing doctorate work there.
- Biking for the Birds: We raised $250 to support the efforts of a keeper and a docent who were bike riding to raise funds for the World Parrot Trust. A docent acted as their support crew and we helped with their victory picnic.
- Wolf Awareness Week: October 20-25th, we manned a “Wolf Biofact Cart” in the Zoo to raise awareness about wolves and to highlight the wolves we have on exhibit. Along with the biofacts, we had a three question quiz “Would You Make A Good Wolf?”
These three projects reinvigorated our Conservation efforts and set the note for two field projects.
Project Feeder Watch: A citizen science program collecting research data for the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. We established a data collection site within the Zoo. Wild Birds Unlimited sponsored our bird feeders and seed. We held bird identification training sessions and began data collection on two consecutive days, every other week as per Cornell protocol. We collected 22 hours of data representing 20 species of birds.
Gibbon Conservation Center: A Conservation Team provided tree trimming and grounds maintenance at this breeding facility for rare gibbon species. This was a weekend event allowing our students volunteers to be actively involved.
Building one part of a long-term project while other parts are on hold can be like trying to achieve four-part harmony.
In December 2003, the National Park Service shipped building materials to the islands. The pens were going to be built. Our 8-person teams were on standby, ready to go out to the islands on three days notice. Three times, we were alerted and canceled. But while one element of the Fox Project was gonging, The Fox Festival was beginning to resonate. In March of 2004, four subspecies of the island fox were listed as Endangered. With suggestions from the Santa Barbara Zoo and their Fox Festival, our committee of approximately 15 docents and student volunteers, with NO budget, set out to host our first Fox Festival, a one-day event for 5-8,000 people.
We joined efforts with our Roots & Shoots youth group, Enrichment volunteers and Zoo Keepers.
The Fox Festival
Island foxes are small animals in a large Zoo. We set up seven stations to lead people to the fox enclosure and increase awareness of the conservation issues regarding the island fox and the Channel Islands. The day also included the following events:
- A presentation by Tim Coonan, Island Fox Lead Biologist, National Park Service
- “Three Little Foxes” a play written and performed by Student Volunteers on the general situation ofthe island fox and how it came to be endangered.
- Keeper Talks with Enrichment at the fox enclosure
Following the example of several established conservation organizations; we have decided to pursue a fixed number of projects at any one time:
- 2 long-term projects (multifaceted and continuing over several years, i.e. Island foxes)
- 6 short-term projects (fixed-time efforts with a completion goal)
Finding a Starting Note
Conservation projects can be as varied as your docent membership. Find out what individuals are already involved in. What TAGs or SSPs are at your Zoo? Does a keeper or a curator have a project they’d love to see pursued? What conservation efforts are going on in your community that you can put a Zoo face on? Checkout conservation representatives at AZAD, you might find one that would be a good match for your Zoo.
We are continuing to mold our “Liberty Bell” with conservation efforts at our Zoo. As Docents, let us all be the bell ringers that help Conservation resonate throughout our communities.