The Power of the Pen: Writing as Education, Inspiration, and Provocation
Becky Lovejoy, MEd, CTM, CIG.
Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
Becky Lovejoy is a volunteer and seasonal staff member of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon, and is involved in animal and horticulture interpretive talks, working with special events and educational programs, and writing for the volunteer newsletter. She is also the author of “Zoo Tales: Wondering and Wandering at the Oregon Zoo,” © 2004.
NOTE: The actual presentation will include interaction with audience members and responses to their specific needs and questions. As a result, focus or content may change.
How can you educate, inspire and provoke your docents, visitors, and the general public, by personalizing the zoo and aquarium experience with the power of the written word? For most zoos and aquariums, the public comes for fun yet we want to educate. We blend the two in all sorts of creative ways, yet we’re always on the prowl for new approaches and inventive ways to interest and impress our visitors. In this presentation, we’ll explore how to use the “Power of the Pen” in our organizations to create experiences that have them remember their visit and come back for more. Three avenues will be highlighted: dramatic readings, newsletters, and short publications.
(The audience will be polled to see what sorts of educational information they give to the public maps, guidebooks, scavenger hunt booklets, full-length published books by authors from their zoo, magazines or newsletters for members and/or volunteers, etc. There will be a discussion of what works and why.)
Zoo and aquarium visitors, like the general public, learn in unique ways. Some learn best when they see something happen. An elephant gives birth, they see the 200-pound calf drop to the ground and get cuddled by its proud mama, and they remember that. Others want to hear all about it. They want to hear the calf and cow chirp and snuffle to one another, and they want to talk about it with others. Still others are not complete unless they can touch something. An elephant cow will probably not let a perfect stranger touch her new calf but visitors can touch artifacts from adult or baby elephants, or equipment that is used for animal husbandry or daily care.
We live in the information age and many of us need to read something. For us, if it’s written down, it’s real.
While it’s amazing to watch an elephant calf being born, we need a personal connection. For example, when we learn that it weighs 200 pounds at birth and can compare it to our own body weight, we understand. We may want to know who the parents are and something about their history, how the keepers will care for the new baby, what its name will be, and how an elephant birth is significant to the zoo and to its conservation efforts. It is not physically possible to have everyone see, hear, and touch their way to this kind of knowledge, but with the power of the pen, we can relate that information in written form.
Let’s say we’ve written a little guidebook for our visitors on elephants their social structure, their care and feeding, their breeding behaviors, and what our zoo is doing in the areas of research and conservation. By writing it down, visitors now can either skim for the highlights, study carefully for all the facts, use it for school and scouting projects, or use it as a reference to accurately impart the information to others and help with our zoo’s goal of education. The Oregon Zoo’s mission is to “inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife.” What better way than to give relevant information in a format that it can be learned, remembered and passed on?
The down side of the information age is that we are flooded with too much information. If we offer written information, we need to make it impactful and memorable so that we pull the visitor in and have him care about what he sees. Who cried when they read Bambi? At the zoo, do we have to shoot a fawn’s mother to get an emotional investment on the part of the viewer? No, there’s a better way. Let’s call on the power of the pen again, to encourage responsibility and stewardship in our visitors. Enter stage left the dramatic reading!
Did you know that the average visitor spends less than a minute at each zoo exhibit and rarely reads the interpretive signs? Did you know that in exit interviews, people enjoyed the one-on-one contact with a keeper or volunteer the most? These are critical facts to remember and design our efforts around. We need to find a way to educate and entertain the public but do it in an impactful and fun way with some personal contact. We have to slow them down as they are speeding past the tidepool to the sea lion show, and use a live person to give them something provocative to remember.
Dramatic readings can be very popular. Pi Patel in “The Life of Pi” doesn’t just say he saw a turtle, a monkey, a giraffe and some tropical birds. Instead, he sees this: “a pyramid of turtles; the iridescent snout of a mandrill; the stately silence of a giraffe; the obese, yellow open mouth of a hippo; the beak-and-claw climbing of a macaw parrot up a wire fence; the greeting claps of a shoebill’s bill.” By reading this aloud to a visitor, we can help him see things in a deeper way.
Reading aloud is fun. In writing my book, I tried to understand what went on in an exhibit and then communicated it to the reader. What if an intern or volunteer read excerpts from a personal diary, about their experience at a zoo or aquarium? A crowd would gather we all want to know someone’s secret thoughts in a journal and people would leave with a new viewpoint and some one-on-one contact with another person. What if an English class or debate team wanted to practice their public speaking and could read from their descriptive essays? There are many ways you can involve staff, visitors and special groups and read aloud. Here are a couple of excerpts. The first is from “Zoo Tales: Wondering and Wandering at the Oregon Zoo.” It’s a series of e-mails to a father reflecting a growing involvement as a volunteer at the zoo, when the father just wants the daughter to get a respectable and paying job as a secretary. It’s a peek into the personal life of someone, which we’re all interested in…
I went through my file cabinets to make room for zoo stuff. There was a bunch of old transcripts, letters of reference and old job applications. It was great to throw them all out. Gad, it seems like so long ago when I first moved here and started looking for work, but it’s only been a year. What a ride it’s been!
Life here is grand. I’m skipping out on two holiday parties, and instead am hanging out at the elephant barn watching them train the “girls.” It takes your breath away. I can’t figure out why it’s so amazing — these gargantuan animals, comical and cute, dangerous as heck, trotting around the yard with grins, putting wrinkled butts carefully down on drums and raising their columnar legs into the air in response to keeper commands it’s simply wonderful! I’m sitting there grinning, and wondering what got a guy to want to be a keeper when he grew up? I think I know. Where else can you be in the presence of so much mystery and wonder, with the unexpected always around the next corner? We spent four hours bolting together strips of fire hose to make a hay net for the elephants this afternoon. I guess this is why I didn’t get a paid job as an office manager or something, as I always threatened I’d do…
Here is a magical descriptive passage, an excerpt from Michael Ventura’s book: “The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God.”
“I’m beginning to think of the zoo as a center, a node, out of which radiates the unthinkable solitude of the bison, the unwavering watchfulness of the tiger, the sweet dignity of the giraffe, the playful tenderness of the chimpanzee, the delicacy of the gerenuk, the stillness of the jaguar radiating out in waves upon the city, like fountains of spirit, from which all drink without knowing, and to which people take their children not to see but to drink, to drink from this stream to replenish what is being lost: solitude and watchfulness, tenderness, dignity and delicacy, stillness and sweetness here, where the world is ending, they are in plenty.”
Now, let’s do our own creative exercise. (The audience will participate in a group exercise where they compose an evocative poem drawn from their own zoo or aquarium experience that is then read aloud. We’ll pretend that no one here has been to a zoo or aquarium before, take an index card, and write one short line or phrase about what we love about the zoo. We’ll assign people to focus on each of our senses sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste. We’ll collect the cards and find an audience member to read in their best oratorical style. A poem is created!)
We’ve borrowed from other authors and we’ve made our own poem. Now what? Let’s brainstorm some ways that we can incorporate these at our zoo or aquarium. (Input will be solicited from the audience. Ideas might include wandering poets, storytellers that read from a script allowing more volunteers with marginal public speaking skills to interact with the public, butcher paper put up by specific exhibits and hosted by a facilitator who encourages written comments to be displayed, a scavenger hunt to give people some focus and a feeling of completion and success as they tour a zoo, recitation of the famous elephant poem by people who act out the parts, etc.)
Everyone wants to get behind-the-scenes. We not only want to pet the tiger and swim with the dolphin, but we want to know something more, something deeper. As a zoo or aquarium, we also have constraints time, safety, whether the animal wants visitors or not. Perhaps with the Power of the Pen, we can go where the public rarely goes, and tell them what it’s like. Let’s visit the Snowy Owl for a moment in this excerpt from “Zoo Tales.”
“I feel the energy of the keeper and he is a kind man. He works with the natural instincts of the bird and does what is necessary to keep a wild animal captive in the best way possible. He takes his gentleness across the barrier between two species and enters the world of the wild ones with a loving touch.”
“I don’t know his story but the keeper may have been there when the first owl pecked his sleepy way out of a warm speckled egg. He may have brought a sleeping bag in for night feedings if the bird needed to be hand-reared. He may have read books; e-mailed keepers at other zoos; and held hurried conferences with other keepers, conservation and veterinary staff at the zoo, for how to best deal with each bruised wing, chipped beak, or overgrown talon. There is an intricate history and reservoir of knowledge behind every decision he makes, that I can only imagine.”
Keeper notes posted for the public to see are also a powerful way to illuminate the joys and challenges of the day-to-day care of our animals, using the printed word.
Who has a newsletter for their volunteers and/or for the zoo members at large? Newsletter articles highlight the shared experience among volunteers and members, and builds enthusiasm and commitment. If you are the editor or want to start a newsletter, give specific instructions and ideas about topics and word count, to give your writers some focus. Then stay in touch with them about upcoming deadlines, and thank them profusely for their efforts once you get their copy. Encouraging fresh new voices to write is great. Less-than-professional efforts show us that everyone can be a writer, and builds a sense of teamwork and inclusion among volunteers and members many of whom will never see one another if they are part of a large organization.
(The audience will discuss the importance of having objectives for newsletters informing about events, recruitment and PR, education, team-building, etc. and how to achieve them.)
How about self-published booklets, workbooks, collections of writings by zoo visitors or volunteers, or full-length books written by volunteers or staff? Use basic computer programs, pay some small printing costs, and you’re in business for pleasure or profit! Deciding on a project and involving others builds enthusiasm, encourages learning, and creates commitment to the goals of your organization. Let me tell you a bit about my own book-writing journey, and you can see how this works.
I received a book called “A Year in the Life of the Philadelphia Zoo” when I first started volunteering at the Oregon Zoo. I was a horticulture volunteer and got behind-the-scenes to prune shrubs in the Snowy Owl enclosure. I became a “groupie” and listened to dozens of keeper talks that were held throughout the zoo. I was fascinated by an elephant keeper and his discussions about how elephants might become extinct in our lifetime.
The book, my Snowy Owl experience, and hearing a talk, inspired me to begin some essays, which eventually became my book. The first essay was on Snowy Owls, and then came the technical aspects of the butterfly exhibit, spiritual thoughts on the elk, questioning about how the leopard exhibit was constructed, and flights of fancy with the giraffes and sea lions. A book was born.
The Power of the Pen did not stop then. I created a “virtual community” on a computer listserv and e-mailed essay drafts to 25 people every Friday for 10 months. They were either inspired by my great writing, or knew they could do better and started putting pen to paper themselves. Zoo staff and volunteers acted as editors and reviewers of the book. Initial bids from printers show we can print as few as 75 books at a time, making it possible to have a portion of the sales as a fundraiser for the volunteer program. At the time of this writing, the plan is for volunteers and staff to be the first buyers, and then other markets will be explored such as the zoo gift store and local bookstores. Sharing essays was my way to give credibility and importance to the joys and challenges of the work we were doing as volunteers and staff, and it impacted dozens of people along the way.
If several people had projects like this at your organization, think of the impact it would have this Power of the Pen!
No time to write an entire book? How about something smaller? What do zoo visitors take with them besides a sunburn and souvenir cup besides memories and photos? How about something written? The “Heart of Africa Journal” from the San Diego Wild Animal Park has a map, sketches and descriptions of plants and animals, and a strong conservation message that runs through its 37 pages, reminding us that we are stewards of this earth. How about a scavenger hunt booklet where you can direct your visitor around the grounds and make sure he doesn’t miss anything? Why not consider a format like “Chicken Soup for the Zoo Visitor’s Soul” and solicit submissions? Everyone likes to see themselves in print. You could encourage school groups and camps to write and create collections of writings and illustrations, and print them out as books for the children to keep as lasting memories. How about making calendars as fundraisers use photographers, and animal fact folks, and do some creative writing.
(Audience will brainstorm novel ideas to meet the goals of their zoos and aquariums.)
We’ve covered a variety of effective techniques that each depend on the Power of the Pen dramatic readings, newsletter articles, and creating publications of various types. Each can take people to a place of deep questioning about man and his place on the planet, as he co-exists with animals. If we involve the zoo visitor in something as memorable as a “poet-in-residence moment” — just 10 minutes of their time in a fun setting — imagine how much richer their zoo experience would be! Ultimately, our aim is to bring education, inspiration and provocation to all audiences, so that the zoo or aquarium experience is deeper and has lasting impact.
(The remainder of the program will be used for questions and answers from the audience.)