Jessica Murphy and Jan Scherubel
Henry Vilas Zoological Park
Dane County’s Henry Vilas Zoo (HVZ) is a free 28 acre zoo located in Madison, Wisconsin. Founded in 1911, it remains one of ten free AZA-accredited zoos in the country. This is both our greatest asset, and our greatest challenge. We welcome over 725,000 visitors annually from across Wisconsin and surrounding states, and we proudly provide our community with a safe green space where nature, learning, and physical activity can be experienced together. As we enter our zoo’s second century, it is our vision to forge a connection between guests and animals and to inspire people to conserve by educating them and providing them with the tools to make an impact on the wildlife and wild places which we have come to cherish.
In 2011 the HVZ Education Department became self-funded. Our department includes a doctorally prepared full-time Conservation Education Curator, one part-time staff member and eight Zoo School teachers paid through education department revenues. These individuals are complemented with 40 experienced and highly trained Education Docents who conduct programming and handle Education Animals (i.e. those most friendly individuals and easy to handle species) and 51 Jr. Volunteers that present biofacts and interactive kits.
Despite our limited staffing resources, the HVZ Education Department has become an important asset in the Madison community and surrounding region. In 2011-2013 the department reached 91,730 visitors (an average of 30,577 per year), 43,288 of which were reached directly through formal educational programs. In 2013 alone, we reached 10,395 people in formal programming (live animal programming conducted by docents: Bleacher programs and Zoo-To-You programs, and our summer Zoo School classes) and 19,454 people with informal programs (Meet & Greets (live animals presented by docents) and conservation events) for a total of 29,849 people.
The primary goals of the Education Department are to foster an appreciation for and emotional connection to the natural world in all of our program participants. As AZADV members and HVZ Education Docents it is also our goal to be a leader in conservation education and provide a safe immersive environment where students and visitors can learn to conserve our world’s animals and their habitats. The Hot on The Trail (HOTT) radio tracking program is a natural extension of goals, serving as a link between field conservation and science and our guests. This program is designed to engage the public in an interactive experience, while teaching them the theory behind and importance of such methods.
In 2012, the HVZ Education Department received an AZADV Education Grant for Small Zoos to fund our free “Hot on the Trail” (HOTT) interactive, docent-run, radio tracking demonstration and mini workshop. This on-grounds activity educates visitors in the importance, impact and application of telemetry as a field science technique while teaching them to use the actual equipment that researchers employ. HOTT integrates an informal educational discussion of the ways researchers monitor and gather data on a variety of species within their habitat (habitat use, home range size, speed, heart and respiration rate, and even implications of how individuals interact with each other and disease transmission). HOTT demonstrates how current advances in technology offer an increasingly less invasive method of data collection with a minimal amount of disruption to species or their habitat.
The radio tracking equipment includes a TEK-1 Telonics Educational Kit (transmitter [i.e., radio collar] (with user-replaceable battery), receiver, and hand-held directional antenna). This kit contains all the necessary components to demonstrate the basic fundamentals of wildlife telemetry used in conservation research programs world-wide.
The Education Curator, who has a background in field biology, developed the HOTT training program for Education Docents in July, 2012. The plan included program objectives and rationale, written materials and one-on-one practice in use of the equipment. Each trainee was tested for their competency to independently and successfully track the radio collar on HVZ public grounds. Trainees had to be able to master the skills in order to assist our guests with the added complications of the buildings on our small zoo grounds reflecting the signal; Docents are able to help participants understand and work through this challenge.
In August, the HOTT activity was initiated in our summer education program Zoo School. This pilot consisted of a short 5 minute video of tracking incorporated into their field conservation methods lesson, followed with a 20 minute talk and demonstration by a HVZ keeper experienced in wildlife tracking. Zoo School students then participated in actual tracking session on grounds. In September, evaluation data collected on the ‘Zoo School Evaluation Form’ was used to further refine the program and an evaluation tool for use with the public was developed. The pilot evaluation form underwent three revisions.
Concurrently, an open ended questionnaire was developed by the Education Curator and an experienced researcher/Docent Day Captain and administered by 2 additional experienced Docent Day Captains competent with radio tracking skills to 3 separate HVZ guest mixed age groups. A total number of 18 guests participated. Based on feedback from guests and from the Docents administering the questionnaire, the form was revised. Major changes included developing category labels for most frequent responses, refining open ended questions and clarifying objectives of the tool. The questionnaire was returned to the Education Curator and the Docents for comments and evaluation. A third and final evaluation tool was prepared and tested with HVZ guests on zoo grounds.
The training of HOTT Program Docents was expanded and included use of the final data collection tool. In late September, the HOTT program was pilot tested on zoo grounds with randomly invited small groups of HVZ guests. After minimal revision, the program was officially launched in October 2012 and is continuing. The program has been incorporated into our summer Zoo School sessions for children K – 12 and all our Animal Conservation events e.g. Polar Bear Day, Orangutan Caring Week, International Red Panda Day, and International Migratory Bird Day. Frequently, a HVZ Zookeeper with field experience in radio tracking (including tracking wild migrating sand hill cranes from Florida to Wisconsin) participates in the HOTT program. In addition to these special events, HOTT radio tracking occurs throughout the year during regular zoo hours.
Docents hide a transmitting animal telemetry collar in sites accessible to Docent volunteers but not the public throughout the zoo, not in animal habitats, for example in our rain garden, or behind a fence next to a Zookeeper access door. Visitors are invited to track and find the collar using the radio tracking equipment. The HOTT activity is integrated into a brief and fun age-appropriate educational discussion of the ways researchers monitor and gather data on a variety of species within their native habitats. Docents explain how advances in radio tracking technology lead to less invasive methods of data collection resulting in minimal disruption to wildlife and their environment.
As of July 2014, over 260 individuals of all ages have participated in aspects of the HOTT activity the majority by HVZ visitors. During all Zoo School sessions children are introduced to radio tracking, view an actual field video of tracking, and are able to handle the equipment. The Jr. Zookeeper classes, grades 6 and higher, track the collar on grounds during their class sessions.
HVZ visitors of all ages actively track the collar. Training is not complex, and is quickly mastered by participants. Experience indicates family groups are more interested in participating than either small groups of just kids or adults. All have been successful in finding the collar within 20 minutes. We have found it is important to listen to other guests while tracking with a few. We explain the program, invite them to follow along, or join our next session. We assure guests this is a fun onsite HVZ conservation experience and that we have not lost an animal! Analyses of evaluations indicate the HOTT radio tracking program is uniformly enjoyed by participants. When questioned, all would participate again. Comments indicate an understanding of the equipment and how to use it. ‘I learned how to radio track! It was fun.’ Visitors evidence an understanding of radio tracking in the field with wild animal in comments such as ‘…Used by scientist and researchers to track polar bears, gorillas, lizards, cranes, coyotes and wolves.’ and as one child put it: ‘to make sure animals are healthy.’
HVZ is a strong supporter of field wildlife conservation efforts. We believe wildlife conservation research is vital partnership to the captive conservation done in zoos. “Hot on the Trail” is an interactive complement to on grounds exhibits and conservation day events. This also serves as a powerful communication tool for conservation events such as International Polar Bear Day, where we collect donations to support polar bear conservation research conducted by Polar Bears International (PBI), including satellite telemetry. After groups completed the HOTT activity, we gave them a link to PBI’s “Bear Tracker” webpage so that they can watch real time location data of female polar bears in the wild. We have found the interactive components such as HOTT directly increase retention of conservation messages, and verbal reports indicate more guests are recycling, picking up trash, and conserving both energy and water to reduce their carbon footprint to help the planet.
Finally, by exposing a wide range of people to this experience, we also hope to inspire budding field biologists that may not otherwise encounter it to consider wildlife conservation as a profession.
* Jessica Murphy; Henry Vilas Zoological Park Education Docent and Day Captain; AZADV Member
* Jan Scherubel; Henry Vilas Zoological Park Education Docent and Day Captain; AZADV Member