Sending Conservation To New Heights: The Little Rock Zoo BOP Program
Presenters: Amanda Galiano (contact) and Kenley Money
Little Rock Zoo Docents
In Little Rock, we let our conservation message soar on the wings of eagles . . . and the occasional vulture, hawk or falcon. While many zoos just display raptors, the Little Rock Zoo chooses an “in your face” approach to educate the public. Our programs feature fun facts, flying and lots of information. The cornerstone of our programs is personal exposure to the animals. While having your photograph taken with a bald eagle may seem like “showboating” to some, docents know the importance of personal interaction with animals. People never forget personal encounters. They can change lives. They can ignite a passion that will ultimately lead to conservation.
The Docent Program
The Little Rock Zoo Docent Program is unique because it’s one of the only programs in the AZA where docents handle and assist in training birds of prey (BOP). Little Rock Zoo docents undergo an extensive 10-week training course on general zoo information and basic biology. From there, many elect to take advanced training courses in BOP handling and care.
The advanced courses train docents to educate the public about the birds, but docents also learn ways to educate the birds through training and handling techniques. Docents learn how to properly handle the bird, how to keep the bird and the public safe when handling and are given instruction on the types and behaviors of wild raptors.
In addition, docents have opportunities to take part in day-to-day care and maintenance of the animals. Docents in Little Rock participate in all levels of bird care, assisting the education keeper with everything from daily maintenance of the mew or bird holding area, to monthly maintenance of talons and beaks.
This hands-on care helps make our program unique and our docents more knowledgeable. Textbook definitions can give insight to wild behaviors, but this information does not always correlate with captive situations. While sometimes captive situations can be explained with wild behavior, sometimes wild behaviors can be eloquently illustrated to the public using captive ones. Being involved with raptor care gives docents an edge when talking to crowds about them or answering questions. There are even a few wildlife (specifically BOP) rehabilitators on our docent team. These members share yet another perspective with visitors and other docents.
Conservation is all about sharing. We share our passion, knowledge and expertise every day, without even thinking about it. Our docents are encouraged to share their expertise on a more tangible level through a mentoring program. Even before taking raptor classes, docents can be mentored by a senior raptor handling docent. These docents can take newbies under their wing and teach them basic information and handling. At the discretion of the mentor (and/or education staff), new docents can work up from “beginner birds,” to birds who require more attention, specialized training or special handling techniques. Each docent must understand the limitations of the birds and their own limitations before moving on.
The Little Rock Zoo is widely recognized in Arkansas and even in neighboring states as one of the premier sources for educational interpretation. Docents are invited present at local festivals, alongside park interpreters at our many state parks, to schools and local organizations and we have even been asked to visit other states to do programs.
The Little Rock Zoo BOP program has received such notoriety because of its volunteers and the unique, conservation centered programs we put on. While many bird programs are fun, not many are fun and educational. Little Rock strives to entertain with flying birds and fun facts that kids will remember, but also to educate the public so they will understand the importance of these birds to the ecosystem. We seek to debunk myths and arm visitors with knowledge. In rural Arkansas, many people still believe that birds of prey are ruthless killers. It is essential for the public to be educated about these birds and their important impact on the ecosystem. Only then can they respect these birds and respect is the first step in bringing home any conservation message.
We have a relatively large collection of around 20 different birds representing over a dozen species and including 2 bald eagles. Many are injured Arkansas natives deemed non-releasable by local rehabbers. We can even point out some of these species in the sky over the zoo. Teaching people to love the wildlife in their own backyards, and what harm humans have the potential to inflict (or prevent) is very important to conservation efforts. Teaching city kids that these birds aren’t off in some foreign place but right here in our state and maybe even in their neighborhoods can cause an awakening that can have amazing results.
Among our onsite programs are classes for young children about BOP, roving interpretation with the animals and special event programs featuring the birds. We also do several types of offsite programs. The programs are show and tell type programs where a bird is introduced (sometimes we have a “special guest” fly in from off stage), some fun facts and information about the bird is shared and then we introduce the next bird, telling about it while contrasting it with the others. We emphasize the bird’s habitat in Arkansas, bringing home the message that these birds are local. We also mention their conservation status. For example, we often use bald eagles as a conservation success story.
Bald eagles are native to Arkansas and were considered endangered in recent history due to habitat destruction and DDT contamination. However, because of conservation efforts, their populations are growing and they are now classified as “threatened.” This is an archetypal story of what we can do on both sides of the conservation: how we can help and how we can harm. This is the basis of conservation.
Humans can and do make a difference. If our birds can inspire people to make a positive difference, they’ve done their job.
Keeping Up The Act
Keeping volunteers inspired and preventing burn out is among the hardest part of any volunteer program and it can be a daunting task. The Little Rock Zoo gives all docents perks but in the BOP program specifically, docents are given the chance to go on week-long “reaches” to the state parks. They are “on the job” but this trip is something many docents look forward to every year. At these programs, docents get to rub shoulders with rehabbers, falconers and park interpreters. We share information and best of all, get a good look at their birds.
Incentives are also in place so that docents who spend more hours with the birds get to do fun things like participating in flight training and handling more advanced birds. The biggest perk is that we are able to be close to an animal that few ever get a chance to see and share that with the rest of the world. The docents know how special these birds are and how privileged they are to handle them.
Not only are we privileged to handle these birds, we are privileged to share the earth with them. Our main job is to be sure our passion for our birds and other animals is shared with anyone who visits our zoo. Perhaps we can inspire future naturalists, interpreters or docents, but inspiring someone to look out their window and think about what they see makes our job worth it.
Renowned biologist Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) said it best when she wrote, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of a least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” I think this applies to people of all ages. Sometimes we need someone to show us the way. Docents are more than just teachers; we’re guides to help people rediscover their inner wonder. Wonder is the first step to passion and passion is what fuels conservation.