From Lust To Dust: Explaining Those Awkward Subjects Sex, Poop, Illness and Death
Ellen Rogalin and Betty Goodman
Apple Valley, Minnesota
While we as volunteers and docents see our zoos as havens of conservation and education, most people visit zoos to be entertained, to have fun or to keep the kids busy for a few hours. It’s our job to help these people have a good time and perhaps even without them knowing it to help them to care for and understand the importance of all living things.
Almost all living things plants and animals (including humans) share the same life cycle. Sex, disposal of wastes, illness and death are a constant in life. While these may be sometimes uncomfortable for zoo visitors to observe and difficult aspects of zoo life for us to explain, they are also the most important for they provide the strongest common bond between the “exotic” zoo animal and the zoo visitor.
There’s a wonderful children’s book by Taro Gomi called Everyone Poops. Well, one way or another, everyone also has sex, becomes ill and dies.
But people come to a zoo to see active, healthy animals. They don’t like to see or hear about animals that are ill or that have died. Parents don’t know quite what to say to their youngsters who happen on a “romantic interlude” between two Japanese macaques, an elephant defecating or an old, dying tiger.
Have you ever been faced with these situations or something similar?
- A father explaining to his son that there’s an eel swimming below the beluga whale
- A child asking you what that “worm” is on the glass lizard that you’re holding
- Parents asking you to explain to their children what happens to the baby chicks when they’re no longer on exhibit
- Having to keep the public away from the dolphin pool because there’s a dead dolphin calf on the bottom of the pool and the mother dolphin won’t allow the keepers to take the calf
- Showing off a pregnant hedgehog to people one week, and explaining to the same people a few weeks later why the hedgehog is no longer pregnant and there are no baby hedgehogs
In this paper, we will give examples and present ideas for how to talk about these day-to-day events with visitors of all ages so they will leave your zoo or aquarium well entertained, better educated, more caring and eager to return.
Here are a few basic guidelines.
- Don’t embarrass or bluntly contradict a parent in front of their child.
- Don’t make up stories or fairy tales.
- Don’t get emotional.
- Remember sex, poop, illness and death are a natural part of life try to convey that to the visitor to help them relate to, rather than be turned off by, their fellow fauna.
- Correct incorrect information gently, when you can but don’t ruin a visitor’s visit to do it.
- Make sure the information you are giving is consistent with the information your zoo or aquarium wishes to be given to the public.
At the Minnesota Zoo, we’ve had plenty of experience learning how to explain “awkward” subjects to visitors. During the rest of this session, we’ll talk about some of our experiences, add tidbits of knowledge we’ve gathered, and give you a chance share and learn from one another.