Robin Greene-Avison, BS
A recent excavation in Egypt revealed that what we now call zoos probably existed as far back a 3500 BC. Exotic animal collections have been maintained in China and Greece as well as far back as 366 BC. The oldest zoo in the world that still exists today is the Tiergarten Schonbrunn, which is in Vienna and was constructed as part of the Schonbrunn Palace in 1752. The wild animals contained here were to satisfy the viewing pleasure of the imperial family. It was opened to the public in the late 1700s.
Until the early 19th century, zoos symbolized power and wealth. It was in London, Paris, and Dublin that they emerged focusing on providing educational exhibits to the public with an emphasis for entertainment and inspiration. The London Zoo, located in London’s Regent’s Park was established in the middle of the city for the public, so that it could cater to the large London population. This zoo was widely copied as the model for public city zoos that were rapidly gaining popularity. Many zoos started to train volunteers to interact with the visitors to tell them about the collections of animals that were on display.
The original volunteer fleet, started out as zoo ambassadors who greeted visitors, distributed maps, and were made handy for “facility” directions. Eventually, the “docent” was introduced to provide more information about the animals than signage had room for. The word docent is derived from the Latin word “doceo” which means “I teach”. Traditionally, the zoo docent is a volunteer teacher who shares their knowledge of their zoo with visitors. They are usually introduced to a collection and given some information, but will frequently select favorite stations and learn more about that species on their own. They will then share the combined knowledge, sometimes using the aid of bio-facts provided by the zoo.
When ecology became a matter of interest in the 1970’s, zoo professionals were seen to become increasingly more aware of the need to stress the importance of conservation issues. The American Zoo Association backed this decision and said that this should be made the highest of priorities. Many large zoos stopped the practice of using large animals for public trick performances. Exhibit spaces were enlarged, and more enrichment was provided. Many started the elimination of the popular “rides” on large animals.
The mission did not stop there. Zoo staff (professional and volunteer) was expected to play verbal roles as conservation advocates. The role of the zoo is no longer merely an avenue for entertainment. We now see the function of the modern zoo and docent is not only to teach the Zoo visitors about the animals, but to also to incorporate lessons about conservation.
Traditionally, the docent would provide information specific to a species and maybe some interesting facts about its habits. Now, the role of the modern docent is to help offer an interpretation of wildlife, and the status of their current ecosystems. The information needs to be disseminated in a way that should be geared to help the visitor better understand what he or she can do to help to protect it for future generations. Many individuals within the zoo community have found that visitors have a better success at information comprehension and retention when it comes to comprehension of conservation, when they are allowed to participate in information discovery for themselves.
Conservation education can be effectively delivered in manner by which the visitor is able to participate in deducing the information for themselves from clues (facts) provided by the modern docent. This teaching method goes back to a style that has been referred to as the “Socratic method” of teaching whereby we give the visitors questions before we give them the answers. Often times we encourage them, to deduce the answers for themselves as we persuade them into the right direction with factual clues in the interaction.
Many docents have never been involved in a well-organized discussion. Posing facilitating questions is a creative challenge that may be a difficult concept for some docents. If they try the technique, they may not be successful the first time through the event. Well, the good news is, the guests may not be that familiar with the technique as well. They won’t know if the attempt by the docent was a good one or a bad one. Instructors of the technique recommend that docents try to craft a few scripts out to try on children first. Children are the most interested in engaging in the method, and will be the audience from which confidence building and technique refinement can be made. Docents can quickly learn how the technique works without failure with children. (It should be should be dually noted, that while most children seem to love these challenges, some adult guests may not welcome the forwardness of this approach and should not be “pushed” to participate in this style of interaction. In which case, the normal dissemination of information may be the better choice for delivery of conservation messages).
There are 6 basic question sets you can keep in mind to help you get started:
- Questions for Clarification – “Why did you say that?”
- Questions that Probe Assumptions – “What can we assume from that?”
- Questions that Probe Reasons and Evidence – “What would be an example?” “What causes that to happen?”
- Questions about Viewpoint and Perspectives – “What would be an alternative?” “What might happen?”
- Questions that Probe Implications and Consequences – “What are the consequences of that?”
- Questions about the Question – “Why do you think I asked this question?” “How does this apply to everyday life?”
Docent: “Look at that big dog!”
Child: “That’s not a dog! It’s a sheep!”
Docent: “Why do you say that?”
Child: “Dogs don’t have hooves!”
Docent: “What stands out to you about that clouded leopard?”
Adult: “The tail is very long”
Docent: “Squirrels have really long tails too. What relationship can you make between the squirrel tail and this leopard’s tail?”
Adult: “Perhaps balancing when it climbs trees?”
The aim of this presentation will be to elaborate on the above scenarios where conservation topics for both age groups will be demonstrated. Different thoughts will be discussed as to how the Zoo Docent may challenge themselves to offer stimulating ways to prompt the audience into figuring out the facts for themselves to makes it a satisfying and rewarding experience for the visitor. This practice will also offer an opportunity to eliminate what used to be become a “static routine” for the docent given every individual will present a different age and intellectual challenge given the situation. The main goal will be to produce a guest that will be more thoughtful after they leave the Zoo about what they can do about their choices and how they may affect the environment as a result of them. Hopefully this can be accomplished by the guidance of an insightful modern zoo docent!