Nurture the Beast
Houston Zoo, Houston, TX
Save the Whales. Don’t buy Ivory. Zoo guests are well aware of the plight of these animals before arriving at the zoo. We, as zoo personnel, decide which animals and conservation needs are highlighted in our educational programs and we have the power to make people aware of much more…the world outside of the cute and popular endangered or threatened habitats or wildlife. There are many more endangered animals such as the Aruba Island Rattlesnake, Babirusa, Wattled Curassow, and of course my favorite, the Alligator Snapping Turtle that are in need of a great Public Relations Department. This paper will discuss the impact you can have on the public awareness of certain overlooked species through educational programming at your zoo. In other words, how to get people excited about “Nurturing the Beast.”
The popular media has picked up on the marketability of fuzzy animals in exotic ecosystems that are in need of help. Tropical rainforest is a known conservation need. People eat at the Rainforest Café restaurants and kids learn the “Rainforest Rap” song in schools. Little is taught to schoolchildren about native forest or other habitat loss. Zoo Conservationists can also get caught up in the exotic endangered ecology. For example, of American Zoo Association Species Survival Plans approved for Mammals over 90% are for exotic species. Native species are not necessarily fairing much better in the heavily populated world. In fact, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists 1,258 total threatened and endangered species. People tend to want to save cute animals. Koalas and pandas are much easier to sell to zoo guests as conservation needs. Childhood associations can also play a part in conservation preferences. Adults can recall seeing elephants at the circus. Empathy can easily be mustered for their cause. Other animals have a
harder road to travel. Snakes are often portrayed as the “bad guy” in cartoons. Defenders of the Wildlife have created an entire ad campaign to counteract the effects of childhood stories. Their campaign, “Little Red Riding Hood Lied” tries to dispel long time myths about wolves.
As zoo educators we have the ability to inform guests about less attractive or even vilified animals. With a strong “PR” department (that would be you) and lots of hard work any animal can become guest friendly.
Educational programming is the simplest way to inform zoo guests about conservation issues and animal facts. Biofacts can enhance the program experience and live animals for the public to see up close also helps form the bond between the guest and the animal. If live animals are not available to educational use, coordinating your program time with keeper feeding time is an alternative. This allows the guest to see the animal being active (feeding), but also allows the educator an educational opportunity. Fun facts such as, Banana slugs are the official mascot of the University of California at Santa Cruz, can also lure guests in to believing in your cause. Relating the animal to the guest also gets their interest. For example, bats pollinate the agave plants that are used to make tequila. All of your margarita-drinking guests will have a new appreciation for bats after that.
Educational graphics, handouts, and games can also introduce animals to guests. The education department at the Houston Zoo (Heather Berry and Megan Patchke) developed several games and graphics featuring Alligator Snapping Turtles. Incorporating the beauty challenged animals into graphics and interactives can introduce guests to these animals. More detailed informational handouts or graphics can further their experience. Graphics do not have to be expensive, fancy or permanent. Laminated cut and paste signs can give guests information without breaking the budget.
The Houston Zoo has housed Alligator Snapping Turtles for decades. Until I took a liking to Alligator Snapping Turtles and we began exhibiting them in a clear pool, there was not much information for the guests. Since my interest had been peaked by Stan Mays, the Herp curator, the Houston Zoo now has Alligator Snapping Turtles as far as the eye can see. Now that has not really happened, but Alligator Snapping Turtles and their conservation has become a more prominent educational program topic.
Alligator Snapping Turtles are now exhibited at the center of the zoo in the Texas Wetlands Exhibit. Alligator Snapping Turtles are also exhibited in the Children’s Zoo. The Children’s Zoo exhibit is filtered water so it has clear underwater viewing. The Children’s Zoo staff also conducts feeding presentations with the Alligator Snapping Turtles and American Alligators twice weekly. The staff also uses juvenile Alligator Snapping Turtles for the public to get up close to. This is not a public touching opportunity for obvious reasons.
The Houston Zoo has included other animals in their conservation and education programs. Vampire Bat feeding is just as popular as the sea lion feeding demonstration. International Migratory Bird Day celebrations also include information on bats and other non-charismatic animals. The local AAZK chapter has developed a Halloween fundraiser for non-charismatic animals.
In conclusion, Nurturing the Beast is a relatively easy task. Most zoo guests, especially children, appreciate learning about new animals from us. Finding creative ways to teach the public about new animals can be just as rewarding as rehashing the same conservation topics over and over again. The strange and unusual can be an ambassador for conservation that is just as popular as furry mega vertebrates.