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Friday, June 30, 2017

Sending a Message

Even without encountering a staff member or speaking to an educator or reading a sign, visitors are picking up messages as they visit the zoo.  Consider the exhibits that they view the animals in.  Traditional zoo exhibits - iron bars and tile walls and concrete floors, reminiscent of prison cells - conveyed the message that animals are savage and dangerous, like human criminals.  Putting them in small cages, dominated by their architecture, seemed small, petty, playthings.  Putting them in pits, the visitor was literally - and metaphorically - looking down upon them.

In return, placing animals in large, more naturalistic displays that mirror their natural habitats is likely to invoke feelings of respect.  Immersion-style exhibits, where visitors are made to feel like they are sharing space with the animal, emphasizes the importance of the animal within its habitat.

Consider Conway's fictitious bullfrog display.  In an old-style zoo exhibit, a bullfrog is placed in a 10-gallon tank, one among many in a dark tank-filled building.  The subliminal message?  Bullfrogs are boring.  Move on and see the next one.  In Conway's version, however, bullfrogs are the star of an entire compound, the zoo devoted to exploring every aspect of their lives.  The subliminal message?  Bullfrogs are awesome!  We care about them, and you should too!

Perhaps the greatest opportunity to convey a message - a good one or a bad one - comes from the presentation of animal ambassadors.  On the one hand, they provide an excellent opportunity to share information on their natural history, their adaptations, and their conservation like no other educational medium.  On the other, it can easily convey an undesirable message if not presented correctly - hey, look, this guy has a cheetah on a leash!  That's awesome, I want one!  Or, imagine if they see a zookeeper feeding a monkey.  They may decide to do they same - only potato chips, perhaps, instead of the appropriate diet.

Education, whether in a conventional classroom or in a zoo or aquarium, isn't about the sharing of facts.  It's about conveying a message - a message that will change the way that people think, feel, and act after receiving it.  The thing about messages, however, is that we all share one, whether we intend to or not.  We are continually teaching the visitors to our facilities - but sometimes, we aren't sure what we are teaching them.  That's the dangerous part.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Animal Ambassadors

While teaching zoo and aquarium visitors about the animals under are care, educators have several tools at their disposal.  Some use interactive devices or simply props - using a pair of long forceps to pluck toy fish out a bowl of water, emulating how a stork or heron would feed, for example.  Others prefer to use biofacts - skulls, horns, bones, tusks, and the like.  Often times, however, the most extraordinary teaching tools are the animals themselves - especially those which come out to meet the public.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums defines an ambassador animal as "an animal whose role includes handling and/or training by staff or volunteers for interaction with the public and in support of institutional education and conservation goals."  Put more simply, these are the animals which interact with visitors.  

Sometimes they interact with visitors from within their enclosure - a lorikeet feeding aviary, a stingray touch tank, a giraffe-feeding station.  Sometimes they interact with visitors on zoo grounds - you might see a docent walking around with a hawk on a glove, or a snake coiled around their hand.  Sometimes, they interact off-grounds, visiting schools, community centers, and - every spring - the halls of power itself, mingling with members of Congress during the AZA's Zoo and Aquarium Day on Capitol Hill.


Animal ambassadors are trained  (or, in the case of some species, such as insects, merely habituated) members of the collection.  It is their role to be used to help educate visitors about the zoo's residents and its mission.  Perhaps they will demonstrate unique adaptations (a kinkajou's prehensile tail, a porcupine's quills) or behaviors (birds in a free-flight demonstration).  In many cases (except for animals that interact with visitors in their enclosure), these are a special class of zoo animals which live separate from the rest of the collection, usually in off-exhibit quarters.  They must be prepared to deal with a variety of situations and environments that other collection animals would not be exposed to, from elementary school auditoriums to county fairs to television studios.  

Not all animals - either as species or as individuals - are well suited to this lifestyle.  Over the years, I've trained several animals for use in programs such as these.  Some have been highly successful and have gone on to develop local rock-star status as animal stars.  Others, I've had to throw in the towel on and admit that it just wasn't working out - maybe it would have with a different trainer, or a different individual of that same species, but that particularly combination wasn't going to work, and I wasn't going to unnecessarily stress-out an animal that wasn't ready to thrive in those settings.  Some animals will work very well for some trainers or handlers, not for others.



The dark-twin of ambassador animals - which I reject entirely - are petting schemes.  Which is not to say that all contact is bad - several animal ambassadors can be touched by members of the public in a controlled, supervised manner that makes sure that the animal isn't unduly stressed.  What I refer to is plopping a baby big cat or monkey in a succession of laps for paid photo-ops.  Again referring to AZA's policy statement, the goal of ambassador animals is to further the message of the zoo or aquarium - not just to create an epic selfie.  Every zoo and aquarium has it's own policies of what contact is allowed and under what circumstances.

An ambassador animal can be anything from a Madagascar hissing cockroach, sitting idly in a presenter's hand, to a cheetah, let off its leash to sprint for a demonstration.  Used properly, they are an extraordinary asset to a zoo's educational programming, and can turn an informal chat about animals into a lesson that visitors will never forget.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Talking with Keepers (And Alligators?)

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

- Jerry Seinfeld

The zoo had only been open for the season for a few hours.  It was a beautiful early spring day and steady crowds had been coming in all morning.  We had volunteers and educators roaming the grounds with animal ambassadors, lots of action down at the petting barn, and a series of keeper chats scheduled across the zoo.  At that very moment, I was scheduled to give one, down at the alligator pool.  I made a quick announcement over the intercom, then hurried to be in place.

Sure enough, a crowd soon formed at the fence, and I prepared to begin.  I introduced myself, I introduced the alligators, and I started to go into my carefully planned speech about them - all a build-up to a quick feeding demonstration - when a little old lady pushed her way to the front of the crowd.

"Excuse me," she said, looking around in a slightly puzzled manner.  "When will the alligators talk?"

I tried to think of a suitable answer.  All I came back with was... "Huh?"

"The loudspeaker.  It said that there would be an alligator talk.  When do the alligators talk?  I really want to see that."

"Ma'am... this is the alligator talk."

"But when do they talk?"

"They don't.  They're alligators."  At which point, I managed to segue into how alligators do make lots of noises, and even start vocalizing before they have even hatched, but I could tell I'd lost her.  As she walked away, I could only muse about how maybe she should have gone to the parrot talk.


Many zoos, large and small, have education departments, as well as docents and other volunteers.  The folks that most visitors want to hear the most from, however, are the keepers themselves.  The keepers are the ones who actually work with the animals, who have the best stories, who know the animals and their personalities and their quirks the best.  Regrettably, they often are the ones who are least interested in sharing those tidbits.

It's an unfortunate reality that many keepers tend to be a bit asocial towards the public.  They are there because they care about their animals - deeply - and too often associate the public with its worst elements - the glassbangers, the feeders, and that annoying guy who insists on howling his head off at the wolves.  Sure, they realize that the public is essential to the continuance of the zoo.  They just don't want to be the ones to do it.

Still, and with apologies to the educators, they are the ones that NEED to do it.  Zoo education isn't so much a matter of enriching minds, it's the business of touching hearts.  You can fill up someone's head with facts, cool or dull, but in the end, you need them to care about the animals.  That's what will make them check the ingredients for palm oil when they go grocery shopping, or opt for the more sustainable seafood, or maybe even call their congressperson to express support for the Endangered Species Act.  Caring means forming a connection.  The keepers are the members of the staff who best exemplify that connection.  By sharing their bonds with the animal to the public, they invite the public to care, also.

Besides, due to their relationships with the animals, keeper talks have the potential to be far more dynamic than other educational experiences.  They can be combined with feeding demonstrations, or training sessions, or enrichment offerings, allowing visitors to have a brand new insight into the animals.  Shortly after my exchange with the dotty-gator-talk-lady, I entered the gator exhibit with a pair of tongs and a bucket of rats and chicken chunks.  Five seconds later, our sleeping pile of alligators - which many of the visitors took to be fake - became a series of whirling, food-crazed dervishes, and, in the eyes of many of those guests, the coolest thing they'd seen all day, week, or month.  



Keeper talks are often scheduled and planned well in advance.  They don't have to be, though.  Many of my favorite interactions with visitors have been the almost accidental ones - the ones where I pass by an exhibit, point out a hidden animal in passing, and suddenly get peppered with excited questions.   Or the ones where I'm doing something in an exhibit - hanging a piece of browse, oiling a tortoise shell, or adding an armload of nesting material for a pair of birds - and get asked the inevitable, "What are you doing?"

A lot of the time, these are things we have to do anyway in the interest of animal care, we might as well invite the public to come and see them as the learning experiences that they are.  It gives them a better appreciation of the animals, as well as the care and devotion that goes into keeping them happy and healthy.  It gives them a chance to ask questions and dispel false impressions that they might otherwise walk away with.

So yes, most of the keepers I've known over the years are a bit on the shy-side... at least when it comes to public speaking.  Many of them would rather leave such encounters to others, those who enjoy them more.  Many have come to realize, however, that keeper talks are the some of the best tools for really reaching visitors about the animals... and that keepers are the best advocates. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum)

Texas Horned Lizard
Phrynosoma cornutum (Harlan, 1825)

Range: South-Central United States, Northern Mexico
Habitat: Deserts, Prairies, Scrubland
Diet: Ants (Especially Harvester Ants), Beetles, Grasshoppers
Social Grouping: Solitary, Loose Groups
Reproduction: Breed from late April through July.  Lay eggs in moist sandy areas, where they incubate for 45-55 days.  No parental care is provided.  Fully grown by 3 years old.
Lifespan: 5-8 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern


  • Average body length 7 centimeters, but may be up to 12 centimeters.  Males are larger than females.  The body is squat and rounded with a blunt nsount an short legs, resulting in the nickname "horned toad."
  • Back is tan or grey with highlights of white, red, or yellow, as well as black spots.  The underside of tan or grey.
  • The Latin name translates to "Toad-Body with Horns", in reference to the horn-like projections growing from the back of the lizard's head.  Smaller spines are found on the back and sides.
  • Active by day.  If too hot, the lizard will burrow in the sand or hide in the shade.  During the cooler parts of the year, they will hibernate
  • When frightened, horned lizards will puff themselves up to appear larger.  If danger persists, the lizard will squirt a stream of blood (up to 1.3 of their body's volume) out of a pore near the eye
  • During rains, horned lizards flatten themselves on the ground and lower their heads so that rainwater is funneled into their mouths.
  • Horned lizards have declined in recent years due to loss of habitat, the use of pesticides, and the introduction of invasive fire ants, which displace the harvester ants that the lizards feed upon
  • Sometimes sold and kept as a pet, but typically prove hard to keep due to their specialized diet.  Released pets have resulted in introduced populations in parts of the southeastern United States
  • Horned toads have featured prominently in the artwork of southwestern Native Americans and were considered sacred by some tribes.  They are the mascot of Texas Christian University and the official state reptile of Texas

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Zoo Review: American International Rattlesnake Museum

William Conway's "How to Exhibit a Bullfrog" has always been my guiding light for if I ever got to design a major zoo exhibit.  The thought of educating visitors holistically about a species really appealed to me - I thought of versions of it for prairie dogs, alligators, Asian elephants, and jaguars, among other species.  The closest I've seen so far is the Gomek Forever museum at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see a facility designed around this concept, and I rushed to pay a visit.  The results were... so-so.


It's very easy to miss the grandiosely named American International Rattlesnake Museum.  Tucked away between the small stores and tourist spots of Albuquerque's Old Town, there is little to outwardly indicate what lies inside.  Through the front door and past the gift shop (where you will be issued a Certificate of Bravery... I kid you not.  I'm seriously thinking of having mine framed and hung over my desk) is one of the most impressive collections of rattlesnakes ever assembled under one roof.

It was ironically the gift shop which gave me the most positive vibe about the place.  A sign hung prominently stated that (and I'm paraphrasing here, as I forgot to take a picture) "The zoo doesn't sell rhino horns, the aquarium doesn't sell shark fins, we don't sell rattles."  Not that the three are necessarily equal, seeing as rattles often fall of naturally, which seldom happens to shark fins, but I liked the message it sent.  Then I went inside.

The museum is a series of small rooms, lined with terrariums of not only rattlesnakes, but a hodgepodge of other reptiles and amphibians.  Rattlesnakes, to be sure, are species which ask little of their caretakers in captivity, and the majority of the displays are simply glass-fronted wooden boxes, floored with sand or wood chips and decorated with a few plants and rocks.  Some looked a little small for the size of the occupants (rattlesnakes seldom move much, which I think can make it easy for a caretaker to misjudge how large an enclosure should be), but none were what I would call unacceptable... it's just that I remembered some of the much bigger, more beautiful displays I'd seen at other facilities (I'm thinking, for example, of the western diamondback exhibit at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo's Desert Dome), and finding myself wishing that the museum had opted for fewer, larger, better displays.  Heck, they probably couldn't have done larger, mixed-species exhibits if they wanted to preserve the diversity of the collection.


Apart from the snakes, the museum component consisted largely of shelves of stuff.  Some of it was kind of kitschy (obvious touristy knickknacks), some was kind of cool (like the display case of snake oils that peddlers used to sell in the Old West).  There were some bones and skulls, some graphics, and televisions playing David Attenborough's Life in Cold Blood.  The most interesting educational feature I saw was a low table of sand, with large river stones in it.  Each stone had a trivia question about rattlesnakes painted on one side, the answer of the other.  It was a fun, simple interactive device... though on second thought, a room full of a) semi-supervised children, b) glass-fronted rattlesnake habitats, and c) fist-sized rocks might not have been the ideal combination.

I'm glad I went to the Rattlesnake Museum - it was certainly worth a look - but it failed to meet my hope of finding Conway's vision realized somewhere.  Which was frustrating, because I think much of it could have been done with some better organization and messaging.  There was lots of stuff and a lot of animals, but together they didn't tell much of a story.  There were missed opportunities - the New World sidewinder rattlesnake was displayed next to the Old World sidewinder viper, which could have been a better-told story of convergent evolution.  Gila monsters were on display, as well as scorpions and tarantulas - these could have all been grouped together to better tell the story of venom.  I think it would have been really cool to have some specimens of the rattlesnake's natural prey - kangaroo mice or rabbits, for instance - on hand, but I can understand why the museum wouldn't - you bring in mammals, you open yourself up to annual USDA inspections, which they might not have wanted to get involved with.


One notable omission that concerned me - I don't think I saw a single mention anywhere about rattlesnake roundups, one of the greatest welfare and conservation issues associated with rattlesnakes in this country.  This is especially important in the western United States, where visitors to the museum could potentially be from states where roundups still occur, and where their voices could be put to use in changing these practices.

So in conclusion, the American International Rattlesnake Museum was a cool visit... but not the rattlesnake version of Conway's bullfrog.  I suppose I'll have to keep looking for that.



Monday, June 19, 2017

My Favorite Bed-Time Story

"I sensed that M. was devilishly pleased my now subdued demeanour and I hastened to point out that, after all, he had started the discussion by demanding a proper exhibit for bullfrogs - but that this display offered a great deal more than bullfrogs.  'That', he rejoined, 'is what makes it a proper exhibit of bullfrogs."

Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom (the Bronx Zoo), ruled by a wise old king (William Conway)... The kingdom was a mostly happy one, but the old king felt that there must be some way to make it even happier for his subjects.  Then one night, he had a dream.

Okay, that's not quite how it goes.

When I first got to the age where the thought of entering the zoo field began to pass from a daydream to an actual possibility, I had one major thought in my head.  I was going to build exhibits.  And not just any exhibits - the best exhibits that there were, the ones that would delight the animals, marvel the visitors, and set the bar for the next one-hundred years.  Even though I'd never been there, I knew on some level that the exhibits I wanted to emulate the most were at the Bronx Zoo.


Perhaps even more so because I had never been there at the time, the Bronx took on an exaggerated importance to me, and its director at the time, William Conway, was some sort of philosopher king.  I read pretty much every article by him that I could find.  There was one, however, which made an enormous impact on me.  It was called, simply, "How to exhibit a bullfrog: a bed-time story for zoo men" (we'll excuse Conway on that last point - this was in the 1970's, and women had just begun their eventual conquest of the zookeeping profession).

Conway's article is presented as a dream, in which he is confronted by a charismatic, devil-like character who takes him to task for his sins.  His sins, in this case, are mediocre zoo exhibits - rare and exotic animals in bland, otherwise empty enclosures, with a label stuck on front.  This, back in the 1970's, was called "Conservation" and "Education."  "You don't gave a proper exhibit of bullfrogs!" the devil fumes, to which Conway essentially replies, "Who cares about a damned bullfrog?"  It turns out, no one really does... yet.


Conway's devilish companion then proceeds to take him for a dream-tour of "The World of Bullfrogs", a sprawling building that shows the visitor every aspect of the bullfrog.  Sure, the simple, 20-gallon tank is replaced by a massive pond habitat with underwater viewing... but there is so much more to it.  There are displays of bullfrogs in different stages of their life-cycle.  Close amphibian relatives of the bullfrog are display here, as are the bullfrog's predators and prey.  Graphics detail the evolutionary history of the bullfrog, its annual cycle through the seasons, and its role in history, culture, and literature, as well as its conservation status.  Visitors can learn about bullfrogs through movie clips, audio recordings, and interactive games.  Then, exhausted by all of their learning, they can sit for a themed snack on a porch overlooking yet more bullfrogs.



By the end of their tour (which doesn't even cover the whole building), a now-shamefaced Conway is made to realize that a zoo doesn't need to have 50,000 species on display - it just needs to have better exhibits of the species that it does display.  In an old-style zoo exhibit, visitors would see a bullfrog.  In this dream-display, they would not only fully experience one, they would understand one.

In this closing, Conway quips, "By now, some of you may suspect that I am pulling your leg; that I really haven't had such a dream about the exhibition of bullfrogs; but if you think that, you would be wrong.  To develop such an exhibit in the Bronx Zoo is one of our fondest dreams."

Since reading this article back in the pre-Internet days, (when I nervously wrote to Conway himself and received a copy in the mail), it's been one of mine, too.  One day, I hope to build one.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day

I've spent a lot of this month droning on about education.  I've talked about messaging, and what we should be messaging, and how best to convey that messaging.  One thing I haven't talked about is who should be doing the teaching.  I've talked a lot about how zoos and aquariums can share educational messages.  I've talked about teachers.  But in many cases, the most important teachers are the ones that have no formal role, either at the zoo or in the school system.

In my case, that teacher was my dad.

Both of my parents worked growing up, my mom in a soulless, evil corporation, my dad self-employed.  They were both extremely busy (still are, as it happens), but still managed to make plenty of time for my brother and me growing up.  They helped with homework.  They came to sports events (until I was mercifully allowed to quit), and music performances (where I played abominably), and the only slightly-less cringe-worthy theatrical productions.  And, when I was good (and sometimes when I wasn't), they indulged me in my favorite treat ever.  We'd go to the zoo.

Of all the members of my family, nuclear and extended, he was the one who most shared my excitement about animals and nurtured it in me.  I have memories of a him showing me salamanders he found while out on the job, or learning to identify local birds for a merit badge in Boy Scouts, or explaining to me firmly but gently why buying the baby caiman in the pet store wasn't the great idea that I was sure it was.  Mostly, I remember the zoo.


Growing up, I'd probably go to the local zoo (about a half hour drive away) once a month, taken by my dad.  He'd herd me patiently down the paths, taking the same route through the exhibits each time.   Going down the paths, he'd encourage me to read the signs and learn to recognize the animals.  He'd push me to make connections and think a little harder about concepts.  He made me slow down instead of racing wildly from one animal to the next.  He asked me questions about the animals (which I now suspect that he already knew the answers to), not only to make me think, but to help me build some pride in the store of knowledge I was building up.  He also taught me to stand up for animals.  I remember one visit to the National Zoo, seeing my normally mild-mannered dad bellowing at some teenagers who were throwing sticks at an alligator, scattering them like birds, then searching for a keeper so he could give a description of them, so staff could be on the look-out if they tried anything like that again.

As I entered high school, I began volunteering at our local zoo, first three times a week, then almost every day.  It wasn't until I became an adult, with the worries of time and mileage adding up on an old car, and the exhaustion of having worked all day and just wanting to rest, that I came to realize what an effort that was for him.  He never complained.  As high school wound down and I began to look at colleges, he went with me on the road-trips.  Each usually happened to be by a near zoo or two.  And when I did graduate from college and got my first zoo job across the country, he drove with me to help me settle into a new zoo... and it was with him that I walked around my new zoo for the first time.

My parents both still work, a lot more than they really should, to be honest, and I don't see them as often as I really should.  I still call home a few times a week, mostly to rant and rave about whatever is going on/wrong at the zoo this week.  A year or two ago, my dad suggested that we go on another zoo trip, just like the good old days, and we drove out to Toledo and Cleveland.  I had a friend working at each and was able to get us in for free and get him a behind-the-scenes tour at each zoo.  It made me happy, like I was treating him for a change.

There were plenty of people who helped me along to where I am now in my career in the zoo profession.  My mom, lacking in animal enthusiasm as she was (the last time I took her through my zoo on a tour, I think she had her eyes covered half the time, convinced I was about to get myself killed as I showed her a few favorite animals), supported me, pushing me to do better in my schooling, editing and proof-reading resumes and cover letters, and counseling me on how to navigate my first workplace dramas.  My older brother gamely pitched in with ferrying me to and from the zoo once he was old enough to drive.  Some teachers in school and professors in college helped me learn how to learn, and at each zoo and aquarium I've been at, there's been at least one person more senior than I who was willing to take the time to teach me.

But with all of the help I've gotten along the way, I feel pretty sure -  wouldn't have become a zookeeper without my father.  Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Touch-Screen Signage

Exhibit signage is the basic unit of zoo-based education - everyone exhibit has one, at the very least explaining what animal is in the enclosure.  As technology has continued to develop, more zoos are moving towards more sophisticated, modern educational tools.  Among those are touch-screens.

I first encountered touch-screens in a zoo setting at the Dallas World Aquarium.  I found myself in massive, free-flight aviaries full of many species that I had never seen before and wanting to know more about.  After stalking back and forth looking for more conventional signage, I finally noticed the computer screens scattered around the enclosure.  A few random taps later, I was hooked.

There are many advantages to using computer touch-screens as opposed to regular signage.  They can hold an enormous amount of information on a small device.  You can put as much data on as you like, and have it expand out to meet the visitor's informational needs.  If they just want to know what a duck in an aviary is called, they can see it easily.  If that duck appeals to you for some reason, you can keep tapping away, seeing all the information that there is to display about it in great detail.

You want to add video or sound clips?  Go ahead,  it's a great way to highlight behaviors that are fascinating but might not be seen by many visitors, such as a rattlesnake striking, or a chimpanzee using a twig to fish for termites.  You have a lot of visitors who speak languages other than English?  No problem - you can have settings to change the language. Changes to the collection?  These devices are much easier to update than traditional signage.


With so many advantages, why aren't these touch-screens in use everywhere?

For one thing, they are expensive.  This is especially problematic if you have them in an outdoor setting, where they are exposed to the elements (or an indoor area, even, if it happens to be an aviary where birds are raining down poop and uneaten food on them).  They may be installed in the fanfare and funding of a new exhibit, but once they are broken, they might not be replaced.  Also, because they are expensive, there tend to be few of them, and they are quickly monopolized by folks who may be more interested in pushing buttons of the screen to see what happens then actually reading about the animals.  I was at the Shedd Aquarium a few years ago, and almost had a seizure from the rapidly flickering touch-screens being manipulated by excited kids.

I think I'm also a slight hold-out just because of the technological aspect.  Visitors - especially kids - spend much of their day looking at screens.  Do we want them to come to the zoo and aquarium to look at more screens - or to look at animals?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Give Me a Sign

Relatively few zoo and aquarium visitors enroll in camps.  Field trips capture only a portion of the guests who enter the gates.  Only a small percentage of the visitors on a given day will be at a specific keeper talk or feeding demonstration.  These educational opportunities will only reach a relative few people every day.

Instead, most visitors will rely on a single tool for most of their animal information.  The most basic item in the zoo's educational arsenal.  The sign.

And I immediately sensed a few of my colleagues rolling their eyes.

There are many kinds of signs in the zoo.  There are directional signs.  There are rule signs.  There are temporary signs.  There are guest safety signs.  Most prevalent of all are the informational signs.

It's almost taken as a given among many people that signs are useless.  Mostly, in their eyes, because no one uses them.  The thought of reading the information provided seems to escape many guests; just the other day, I heard an adult exclaim, "Look at the coyotes!"... while the was literally leaning against a sign that said "WOLF" (the same applies to other kinds of signs as well - also last week, I saw a parent stand their kid atop the "Please Keep Off of Fence" sign nailed to an exhibit railing... all I could think was, "I think I've seen this movie before...").

Anyway, this is a common view point... and one that I disagree with entirely.  I think a well-made sign that conveys good information is one of the best educational tools available.  Sure, it's not as engaging as an actual demonstration or a chance to interact with a staff member (or animal!).  But unlike many educational opportunities, it has the potential to easily and cheaply reach everyone.

So what makes a good sign?

It should be attractive.  More than attractive - visually arresting.  A sign has to at least temporarily hold the attention of a visitor who has a thousand other things to look at,  It should be visually appealing with attention-getting images.  At the very least, one good picture of the species, multiple if there is sexual dimorphism.  (Note: for some animal imagery, there is a line between fascinating and disgusting).  There are no rules for color scheme, except maybe avoid road-cone orange.  Some zoos prefer very bright, colorful signs that catch the eye.  Others prefer signage that blends in and creates a natural feeling.

And don't be afraid to be unusual.  One of the coolest signs that I ever saw was the black rhino sign at the Lincoln Park Zoo.  It was life-sized and shaped like a rhino, letting visitors stand right up against it and get a sense of the size of these animals.  Also, interactive is good, too.  Many zoos have signs of wingspans of various birds, encouraging visitors to stand up and spread their arms, seeing how they measure up to a condor, an eagle, a hawk, or a kestrel.


It should be brief.  Remember the elevator speech.  Few visitors will delay the pleasure of seeing the animal for too long, even for a well-made sign.  The sign isn't going to teach them all that there is to know about the animal; what it ideally will do is introduce the animal, then encourage them to seek out more information about it,  I'd say 100 words is an ideal summary,  If possible, use images to replace words.  For example, use a map to highlight an animal's geographic range, rather than words.  Represent whether or not it is endangered visually with a thermometer or other graphic rather than text.  Save your words for a brief message that conveys an essential impression of the species.

It should be universal.  No sign is going to reach every member of an audience... especially if every member of the audience doesn't share a common language.  Still, the sign should work for a broad, general audience of adults and kids.  If you have to error one way or the other, I would suggest simple, child-friendly text with maybe a few technical words introduced, but explained ("These animals are nocturnal (active by night)".  Adults who are reading the signs with children can use these as teachable moments to share information with the kids.


It should be interesting.  Or relevant.  Ideally both.  When you write your draft text, step back, read it aloud, and then ask... who cares?  You only have that brief moment to make an impression, so make it an interesting one.  If you're telling guests about Arabian oryxes, don't use your window to explain that they have a single calf at a time - tell how they nearly went extinct and were saved.  Don't tell people how many subspecies of clouded leopard there are - describe how amazing they are at climbing - maybe complimented by photos of a cat hanging upside down from its back feet, or climbing a branch upside-down.

Attractive.  Brief.  Universal.  Interesting.  All things that this post maybe isn't entirely.  I better go work on my elevator post.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator

"Territorial behavior in animals doesn't surprise us, but we rarely speak of it in human terms.  I noticed that the heads of different zoo departments were equally territorial, defending their turf, and that included me as well... It always amused me how observing animals often made me reflect on humans."

When Annette Libeskind Berkovits describes herself as "an accidental" zoo curator, she's not joking.

Throughout the course of a childhood that spanned three continents, there was nothing to suggest that animals would ever play a prominent role in her life.  She had only two pets - a dog, which she was terrified of and almost accidentally killed, and a bullfrog tadpole... which she did accidentally kill.  Seeking to re-enter the workforce, she applied to a somewhat mysterious job advertisement that was a little short of details.

Imagine her surprise when, a few days later, she got a call from the Bronx Zoo.

If Berkovits was a novice to the field of zoo education (as became quickly clear on her awkward, animal-packed first day), then she had the double-handicap of being a novice in a field with no experts.  When she accepted her position at the Bronx Zoo, the field of zoo-based education was still in its infancy.  Essentially, her job consisted of holding an animal ambassador and talking to visitors.  Over the next several years, she worked to re-invent her position, using the zoo as a classroom to convey powerful educational messages about wildlife, coming up with increasingly innovative ways of reaching audiences young and old.  One chapter describes TV appearances (with Captain Kangaroo, no less), while another details the creation of the zoo's first summer camp program - an idea that is now extremely widespread, but was controversial and trailblazing at the time.

Not all of these educational-adventures take place at the Bronx.  WCS conservation programs are active in countries across the world, and it seems that their education programs follow closely behind.  In one chapter, Berkovits describes a visit to Belize to implement a conservation education program, while in another, she ushers a crowd of VIPs (including one trustee from hell) through communist China.  Likewise, there are several wildlife stories that take place within the Berkovits family, reminding us that you aren't just an educator or a conservationist when you are at work - you occupy the job all the time.

Like any zoo memoir, however, it's the animals that take center-stage.  On this blog, I've reviewed a few other books about the Bronx Zoo, and I noticed a few stories from other memoirs that popped up here (notably the king cobra escape detailed in You Belong In A Zoo!) - the same story, but told through fresh eyes and a much different perspective.  Much of the book centers around the animal-shy Annette as she comes to terms with the constant presence of her winged, four-footed, or scaly colleagues.  It's fascinating to watch the transition of a woman who is so terrified of cats that she insists her neighbor lock up her house cat before she'll come over for a visit then finding herself working with a very affectionate, half-grown puma.

It's that trait - an initial separation from animals - which made Annette Berkovits an "accidental" zoo curator.  It's also what makes her such a fascinating, insightful narrator.  So many books that I've read about zoos and aquariums are written by the Gerald Durrells or the Peter Brazaitises - people who have always loved animals and always wanted to work with them.  Those people are great, and I'm glad that they are out there - I consider myself one of them.  But those aren't the people who we really need to be getting into zoos and aquariums - we're already reaching them.

Instead, we need people like Annette Berkovits - someone who may have the passion and drive to do fantastic things for wildlife... but just needs someone to make that sometimes awkward first introduction.



Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Flood of Field Trips

I once dated a girl from rural northern Vermont.  She liked to say that there were four seasons up there, just like everywhere else, but they were different seasons - winter, still winter, semi-winter, and construction.   I've heard our groundskeeper jokingly refer to his four seasons as mulching, watering, raking, and snow-shoveling.

As near as I can tell, our Education Department has four seasons, too - Camp, School Visit, Quiet, and Field Trip.  The later has a tendency to feel the longest.

Every year, over 10,000 school children descend upon our little zoo.  Their buses fill up the parking lot almost completely.  Their voices blot out even the loudest of the animals' calls.  Sometimes, I think I can feel the macadam shake under the impact of their sneaker-clad feet.


Field trips are one of the greatest challenges of a zoo to manage.  They involve thousands of guests coming in, all at once, on a select few days.  The child to adult ratio is the most skewed we ever see (as opposed to the summer, when children are most often brought by their parents), which often means more lost children, more minor injuries, and more kids getting into trouble.  There are endless logistical hurdles, including how to handle bus parking, coordinating lunch time, and, often, arranging keeper talks and education presentations.

Which is all good and manageable, in the end.  That's not my beef with field trips.

My issue is that it seems like kids are largely just dumped loose in the zoo.  It's treated as a day off, a chance to run around and blow off steam at the end of the school year.  Except for maybe a worksheet, not much effort is often made to encourage the kids to learn too much.  Sometimes, it seems like zoo field trips are just something that is done for tradition's sake, without much thought being given to how to best learn from the experience.

Another observation - students on field trips all tend to be on the younger side of the spectrum.  I feel that the zoo would actually be a great living classroom for older students, students who are better at making connections, handling abstract concepts (like conservation, adaptations, and animal behavior), and better equipped to supplement what they learn at the zoo with homework or research projects back at school.   Even university students could benefit from time at the zoo in many ways, depending on their major.  Biology majors could study the animals of course, but psychology majors could study training and enrichment, chemistry majors could study water quality, education majors with signage, business majors with non-profit accounting, etc.

A change to zoo-based-education for schoolchildren can't begin with the students, though.  It needs to begin with teachers.  Zoos and aquariums should work harder to bring teachers and other educators in on their programs - special teacher workshops for instance, discounted memberships for teachers, and other ways to encourage teachers to become a part of the zoo's network.  We need to help them recognize the zoo as a partner and a tool that they can better use for their classroom, and maybe help them identify new ways to incorporate it into their studies.  The zoo may end up being the best outdoor classroom they have.

PS: One final note.  I loved going to the zoo as a small child, especially on field trips.  I have come to feel, however, that zoos are a poor choice for a class' first ever field trip.  Students on their first field trip may have a hard time understanding that the rules of school still apply, even though they are off grounds.  I'd say it's best to have that lesson reinforced in a smaller, more enclosed, easier to control environment, not twenty-five acres of wild animals.  Come to the zoo when they're a little more familiar with the idea of what is expected on a field trip.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Sporcle Quiz: Animalology

Zoology is the study of animals; the very name "zoo" is short for "zoological park" - a place for the study of animals.  That field, in turn, is broken down into dozens of other, more specialized fields.  Can you identify the correct animal-ology?


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Camp Keeper

We're in the quiet before the storm right now.  The last of the field trip kids have rolled off into the sunset on their cheese-buses.  We've got some summer tourists starting to appear, like the first few migratory birds that let you know the season is about to change.  The mornings are silent (at least as silent as a zoo ever is) and child-free... for another week or so.

Then camp begins.

Almost every zoo I've ever worked at has offered camp in one form or another.  They've ranged from daycare programs for kids so young that they can hardly walk without falling over to teenage volunteer programs that work alongside zoo staff.  At most facilities, campers are nominally the responsibility of the education department.  That doesn't matter too much, as the responsibility inevitably spills over to encompass the entire staff.  Managing a zoo-full of kids is a big job.

What the children do in camp varies mostly by age.  For very young kids, it typically doesn't differ much from other day cares.  There are arts and crafts, games, sing-a-longs, and, of course, naps and snacks (side note: I've decided that no longer having designated nap and snack periods throughout the day is the worst part of adulting).  There tends to be an animal twist to most of these activities, as well as walks around the zoo, and maybe some special feedings or demonstrations, as well as meetings with animal ambassadors.


The older the campers, typically the more "zoo-ish" the camp.  At our zoo, for example, campers may help keepers make enrichment items (which they then get to see in use), do little projects around zoo grounds, and tour behind the scenes (under careful keeper supervision).  Some of the oldest campers even have the option of enrolling in a camp where they can work alongside the keepers in caring for some of the zoo animals, sort of like a "So-You-Wanna-Be-A-Zookeeper?" type deal.

Not too surprisingly, I was in zoo camp as a kid.  More surprisingly, I didn't like it too, too much.  Camp tends to mean group activities, which tend to be held to the lowest-common-denominator.  Kids who are too young in the group (or just kind of immature) can hold back the group, and keep the rest from enjoying the full scope of activities.  The difference was that I wanted to be a zookeeper when I grew up.  Most of the others were there as a substitute to daycare.  Camp leaders have a tendency to manage kids collectively, so kids acting up can have negative consequences for everyone (maybe I'm just bitter - we had a few camp clowns in my zoo camp as a kid, which resulted in the loss of a few activities).

Still, I can't deny that many of our campers seem to love it.  Some of our past campers have even gone on to become docents or involved in other capacities.  For many camp participants (yes, me too), camp provides a first introduction to the world of the zoo.  For some of them, it might be the first step towards falling in love.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Tentacled Snake (Erpeton tentaculatum)

Tentacled Snake
Erpeton tentaculatum (Lacepede, 1800)

Range: Coastal Southeast Asia
Habitat: Stagnant/Slow Bodies of Moving Fresh or Brackish Water, Ditches, Rice Paddies
Diet: Small Fish
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Ovivioparous (eggs hatch inside body of the mother, young born live).  Up to 10 young are produced in a litter, which is delivered underwater.
Lifespan: 12 Years
Conservation Status: Not Evaluated



  • Average size 50-75 centimeters, but up to 90 centimeters long, and weigh up to 150 grams
  • Body coloration varies from dark brown to pale gray or tan.  Specimens often have contrasting stripes or blotches.
  • The species name refers to the two small "tentacles", up to 2 centimeters long, on the snout.  These are believed to be used for the detection of prey.  They are the only snake species to possess tentacles
  • Capable of staying underwater for up to 30 minutes without coming up for air.  They are highly aquatic and move very awkwardly on land
  • During the dry season, they may bury themselves in the mud until the rains replenish their water sources
  • Hunt by resting motionlessly in the water, their bodies curved into a "J" shape ready to strike.  When a fish approaches, the snake twitches part of its body, startling the fish into swimming closer to the mouth.
  • Tentacled snakes are very mildly venomous - their venom is specialized for the fish that they prey upon, and has no impact on humans except for - in some cases - mild itching.  The small fangs are located in the back of the mouth

Monday, June 5, 2017

Elevator Education

I tell my friends, not really joking, that if I was born a year or two later, I'd have been diagnosed with ADHD, or maybe ADD.  As it were, a fair number of my classmates were, and when I first began working with kids during my late high school, early college years, I noticed an increased number of them were, too.  It's not that I was particularly hyperactive, bouncing off the walls.  It's just that I had a hard time paying attention and focusing on any one thing, for any length of time.

I still do.  Only now, I don't think of it as an anomaly.  It seems like almost everyone has difficulty paying attention to any one thing for too long these days.  Maybe it's always been that way.  Maybe the scientists and artists and creators who are able to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, absorbing every detail, maybe they are the outliers.

What I take away from this, then, is the the fact that short-attention spans are a characteristic of zoo and aquarium visitors as they are any other segment of the population.  I was reading a study a while back that said that the average visitor spends 30 seconds to 90 seconds at an enclosure.  Maybe longer if there is a baby, or a feeding demonstration, or perhaps the animal is playing with some enrichment, but not too much longer.

And if you want to experience a really short attention span, try talking to visitors as an educator.

A lot of the educators and docents I've worked with have labored under a misapprehension.  That misapprehension was that the visitors came to the zoo to hear them talk, and to have their heads filled with an impressive assortment of facts.  They do not.  They come to see the animals, enjoy some time with friends or family, and have a nice day out.  They can be very receptive to education, but on their terms.  And the most important term is that isn't boring, and certainly not too time-consuming.  And so, with every animal in the zoo, I try to develop an elevator speech.

An elevator speech, if you aren't familiar with it, is the concept that you have find yourself in an elevator with someone, and you have the duration of that ride to convey an idea to that person.  No, the elevator never breaks down, leaving you two trapped together so you have a captive audience for hours until the fire department rescues you both.  You've got a minute or so to convey a message, that being the length of their attention span.  All you have to do is choose what the message will be.

The message should have a few attributes.  Accuracy is a good place to start - make sure what you're saying is true.  We've already covered brevity.  Perhaps the most important is to try and make it so that visitors find it interesting, relatable, and perhaps even relevant.   For example, check out these two blurbs I've overheard keepers sharing with visitors about capybaras:

Number 1: Hello.  These are capybaras.  They are the largest rodent in the world.  They can weigh over 100 pounds and measure 4 feet long.  They have eyes and ears and nostrils on the top of their faces to help them see, hear, and smell while the rest of their body is under the water.  They live in northern and central South America and are found in wetlands.  They eat grasses and aquatic vegetation.  Any questions?

Number 2: Hello, and welcome to the zoo.  These are Al and Peggy, our capybara.  These guys are the largest rodents in the world - you can sort of think of a capybara as a guinea pig the size of a sheep that thinks its a hippo.  Capybara do act a lot like hippos - they spend a lot of their time in the wetlands and underwater, sometimes with just their faces over the surface, eating lots of wetland plants.  Do you have any questions about the capybara?

Sure, number 2 is slightly longer, but it's a lot more likely to hold the interest of the visitors.  It doesn't contain numbers (I avoid numbers in talks unless there is a specific reason one is cool and noteworthy, like how fast a cheetah can run, or how much an elephant eats in a day).  Instead, it creates imagery and makes comparisons with more familiar things.  Note that it also repeats the animal's name - capybara - four times, improving the odds of visitors actually remembering what they are called.

The best way to perfect your elevator speech is to talk to as many visitors about the animals as you can.  Take note of what interests them, and incorporate that into your speech as a hook.  Also, ask yourself - if I want this person to leave here knowing only one thing about this animal, what is it?  Is it that rattlesnakes aren't monsters trying to kill us all?  That tamarins don't make good pets?  That polar bears are threatened by climate change?

Whatever it is that you want to say, say it quickly.  You've got their attention - and you only have about sixty seconds to keep it.

Friday, June 2, 2017

From the News: Climate Change Is Tough to Teach, So Aquariums and Zoos Are Stepping In

After yesterday's disappointing news regarding the US and its withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Accord, I can think of no better piece of news to share than this article from Education Week.  Education at the zoo isn't just about teaching people what an animal is called or where to find it on the map.  It's about helping people make connections and deepen their understanding of wildlife and the habitats that support them, helping them become better informed and better equipped to protect wild animals, locally and around the globe.

Over the next few years, I suspect our role is going to become that much important.

Climate Change Is Tough to Teach, So Aquariums and Zoos Are Stepping In


Louise Bradshaw, the education director at the Saint Louis Zoo, said her training on climate change was useful in helping the zoo create the new polar bear exhibit shown behind her. —Sid Hastings for Education Week

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Education at the Zoo

“If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years educate children. ”

- Confucius 

Over the years of writing this blog, I've primarily focused on two things.  Firstly, on the lives of the keepers and aquarists who care for animals in zoos and aquariums.  Secondly, on the greater conservation goals of those organizations.  The first describes my daily day, the second of what my coworkers and I labor in the service of.  Easy enough.  You write about what you know.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the zoo is all about the keepers and the kept.  Especially in larger zoos, there is a larger team at play.  There are administrators and veterinarians, horticulturalists and maintenance teams, marketers and customer service staff.  There is also the field that I originally started off in, and what got me my first zoo paycheck - Education.

Education is often described as the partner of the zoo's other primary goal, Conservation.  The two go hand in hand; all of our research programs and captive-breeding and reintroduction schemes aside, all of our efforts will be for naught if we don't instill knowledge and a desire for a better world for wildlife in our visitors.  This month, we'll explore the world of zoo education.