How do you zoo?

    March 6, 2018
    by Allison Price

    My toddler son’s favorite book (currently) is The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper. Most of us are probably familiar with the story—an engine pulling a train full of toys and food for children breaks down, and the toys are stranded. Several other engines pass by, but each refuses to pull the broken-down train over the mountain and into town. That is, until a small, blue engine agrees, despite her size, to give it a try. All the while she climbs the mountain, chanting (chugging?) “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” As you likely know, she is successful in bringing the train to its destination.

    I like this story not only for its lesson of perseverance, but also for its message of helping others, even when it seems hard, because it’s the right thing to do. In many ways, I feel it’s a metaphor for the field of environmental education—trying to do our part to save the world, because nature needs us, and because we are pretty sure we can make a difference.

    Nowhere do I see this more clearly than in my particular field of environmental education—zoos and aquariums. Our profession is global and diverse, ranging from small municipal zoos to large non-profit 501(c)(3)s. In North America, more than 220 zoos and aquariums are accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). And while our organizations have worked together on animal-centered projects like population sustainability, wildlife reintroduction, and research for decades, I’m particularly excited about how we work together on the other side of conservation—the people side. 

    In addition to serving as an advisor to Blue Sky Funders Forum, I am currently the Vice-Chair of AZA’s Conservation Education Committee (CEC). As Vice-Chair, I have a front-row seat to some amazing advances that my colleagues continent-wide have made in the name of nature and wildlife. Some of these include: 

    • A visitor studies effort based on our national “Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research,” to align all the AZA-accredited zoos in North America on one visitor studies framework in order to better assess our collective impact on public conservation attitudes and behaviors.
    • A huge effort by zoos, aquariums, and funders in launching and growing programs and infrastructure for nature play, both on zoo/aquarium grounds and throughout their communities.
    • A rich research and evaluation program on empathy and how to cultivate and marshal it in learning programs.
    • In situ conservation outreach programs that incorporate not only the facts and figures of science, but also the curiosity, emotions, and needs of people across cultures. These programs are critically important if we are to be successful in preserving and restoring swaths of land and the species that live there.
    • Thousands of internships and volunteer opportunities for teens and young adults, to train our future generations how to be the next biologists, science teachers, or even simply eco-minded accountants.
    • Professional interpretive programming that uses proven techniques, like thematic interpretation, and new frameworks, like mission-based dialogue, to connect to our audiences and address their questions, interests, and concerns.
    • An integration of conservation, marketing, corporate relationships, and education to save species. The most notable recent example is the “Invest in the Nest” Kickstarter challenge, which blew past its original fundraising goal and its subsequent stretch goal to raise more than $190,000 for African penguin artificial nest boxes. And it’s worth noting that many participating zoos and aquariums in the effort don’t even have this species at their facility!  

    These examples only scratch the surface of what is going on behind the scenes of your favorite summer camp, field trip, or animal encounter. Unfortunately, we still face an uphill battle demonstrating to some that zoos and aquariums are conservation organizations, accomplishing more than “showing” animals and “telling” the public about them. As a result, some folks question what a visit to the zoo really gets them, other than a few hours of diversion. Research indicates that the public trusts their local zoo or aquarium more than our profession as a whole. In other words, they believe their local community members do good work, but they aren’t sure how they feel about “zoos in general.” 

    At Lincoln Park Zoo, we have turned that challenge into an opportunity. Last year we wrote an interpretive plan for the entire zoo that aligns all of our exhibit signs and interpretive programs under one interpretive framework. Now we are embarking on an extensive re-write and redesign of every sign (about 1,000 items) and interpretive program (about 50), where each one will have a unified message of either animal care and well-being, conservation and science, or collaborative work with our partners and neighbors. We are hoping that by making our conservation, care, and community stories more visible and transparent, our guests can begin to see the remarkable impact that a zoo can have on local and international wildlife—and on themselves.

    But that will not be enough to accomplish our task. We are out to save the world. We know that visits to zoos and aquariums foster an increased sense of curiosity and appreciation for animals, and they can make people feel more motivated to act on behalf of nature. So our next challenge—both at Lincoln Park Zoo and across the entire profession—is to mobilize that goodwill into real participation in the conservation movement. That, as we like to joke, is the “holy grail” of environmental education.

    We also know no one organization can do it alone. Soon AZA will be launching a national communications campaign that seeks to increase the public’s awareness of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, and the great work we do each day. This type of unifying strategy is a step in the right direction, with the goal of a greater public understanding about our work.

    Working collectively is the reason I serve on the AZA Conservation Education Committee and why I serve as an advisor to Blue Sky Funders Forum. As I look at the evolution of environmental education within zoos and aquariums, I like to imagine our profession’s earliest trailblazers chugging uphill, faithfully chanting “I think I can” as they sought to inspire the public to care for wildlife. And I hope that in the not so distant future, we practitioners will be able to look back at our work, and we will echo the little engine’s triumphant final words of the book: “I thought I could.”

    Allison is the director of learning experiences at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago where she oversees educational programming in the areas of Guest Engagement (interpretation), Child and Family Programs, and Student and Teacher Programs. In addition to this oversight, Allison works on exhibit design initiatives and co-chairs the zoo’s green team and guest experience committees. In her tenure at Lincoln Park Zoo, Allison has overseen the execution of several grants, from small corporate gifts to large federal grants. She is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the National Association for Interpretation, and serves as the vice-chair of the AZA Conservation Education Committee. Allison holds a bachelor's degree from Butler University and a master's degree in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Outside of the office, Allison is a board game geek and mother to a young son.


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