How stewardship relates to conservation is a fairly obvious connection: the first image you may have is of people, out in the field, working directly with wild animals and getting their hands dirty, figuratively and literally. However, outreach to connect with and inform people about animals and ecosystems is critical to building a sustainable culture of conservation. Ambassadorship, introducing people to individual animals from different species, connects people with animals from diverse geographies and ecosystems. Education teaches people why those animals or environments are important, and how to interact with or protect them.
I grew up going to zoos. The San Francisco Zoo, primarily. Back when the entrance was a steep hill down to a historic building where I amassed a good collection of Zoobooks Magazine. The zoo still had elephants then, including an aged matriarch that my mom had seen when she was a child. The small cats (well, small by lion and tiger standards. We’re talking snow leopards and jaguars here) were housed in small boxy cages covered in wire mesh, primarily decorated with cement.
Since that time, remnants of the zoo’s past have been upgraded and replaced, with plans for even more improvement in the works. This is a trend that is occurring at zoos across the country.
But no matter what the zoo looked like, I deeply remember the animals. The first experiences I had with amazing creatures like the rhinos and the hippos. (Okay, honestly apparently my favorite animal was the chicken in the petting zoo.) The time I got to pet a koala (those buggers are super oily!) and feed a giraffe. When Grizzly Gulch just opened and I could stand just on the other side of glass next to a newly rescued grizzly bear cub, before she went scampering off to swim and fish for a tasty snack. I went to members’ nights and got to see the bears behind the scenes and feed the rhinos. Once a keeper let me feed an anteater a hard boiled egg yolk out of my hand (seems obvious in retrospect, but their tongues are really narrow!) I even helped volunteer one year to pass out browse to members coming to see Gauhati the rhino.
And that is why education by ambassadorship is so important. I witnessed the visitors feeding Gauhati his special treats, staring in wonder as his prehensile lips gripped the branches and snapped the limbs to get at the delicate leaves, yelping in delight as they descended out of the dark tunnels behind the habitat. Those visitors had experienced something special, one that would be hard to forget or let go of.
I certainly haven’t.
Sure, most zoo visitors don’t have that up close and personal encounter, and most of them won’t work in conservation. But no matter what–they are connecting.
There are alternatives to zoos that also provide this function, usually emphasizing local wildlife. Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek, CA does this well, as does the Randall Museum in San Francisco. Some of these types of groups also have vans that bring ambassador animals to local schools where kids can see the animals up close in their own environments.
These connections can be fostered on a level much deeper than that of seeing a picture in a book or on TV or on YouTube. Ideally, these connections leads to empathy which will hopefully lead to future funding and political support of the stewardship organizations.
In addition to ambassadors, zoos also provide education directly to people who would otherwise never have the ability to see these animals in the wild. Through signage and exhibits, zoos can detail the issues surrounding their survival in the wild. Many zoos have a form of zoo school for young children (admittedly, I am a proud graduate of one of these programs) teaching about why these animals are important. They bring in speakers from those stewardship organizations to educate the public, they donate money to organizations working across the globe. They sell trinkets in the gift shops made by communities benefitting from stewardship organizations. They bring the greater world back home and show people a glimpse of the world we live in.
Jack Hanna is an excellent example of someone maximizing outreach on multiple platforms. He is the director emeritus at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. He has hosted multiple daytime TV shows, focused on teaching children about animals across the world. He has been a guest on multiple late night TV shows, bringing ambassador animals from the zoo to millions of viewers. Utilizing these modes of outreach helps teach and educate people across the US and the world about why animals and conservation is important.
Educational awareness is not limited to educating people about animals that live far outside their world experience. I mentioned Lindsay Wildlife Experience and Randall Museum earlier, which both focus on educating about the local wildlife. Programs like these also exist for communities living with our so-called exotic animals.
Art of Conservation is a unique and amazing program whose mission is to work with local communities, in particular the children, to encourage conservation and biodiversity in their local area. Currently, they are located in Tulum, Mexico, emphasizing the protection of the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, and the other land and sea dwelling animals in the region. Art of Conservation is also a fantastic example of building local capacity and buy-in from the community. When I first learned about this project, they were operating in Musanze, Rwanda, working with schoolchildren to encourage them to protect the critically endangered mountain gorilla living in their backyard. The local team has since taken over full operations as Conservation Heritage – Turambe, and maintaining their mission with the community.
Outreach education, through animal ambassadors connecting one animal to one person at a time, or through TV shows where one animal can reach thousands, if not millions, of people at one time is critically important. Building those connections, building that empathy, and learning why this is so important is the first step towards doing something about it.
Postscript note: There is a much broader discussion to be had about the role of zoos, but I’m not going to delve into that argument in this particular post. My stance is that zoos in general play a pivotal role in education based conservation, though some are much more effective than others.