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Saturday, May 11, 2013

By Any Other Name...

The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their proper name
 – Confucius
At one zoo where I used to work, a major part of my job was to give educational talks about our animals.  I learned quickly that the biggest hits were the animals that I could take out from their enclosures to meet the public, especially if guests were allowed to touch.  My biggest star was a young binturong that I had helped raise.  He was probably the best outreach animal I’d ever worked with – curious, eager, playful.  Grasping his prehensile tail like a leash, I’d walk him along a railing, inviting visitors to catch a whiff of his scent, so strangely like buttery movie popcorn.  Some visitors were even given the chance to touch his tail.  I’d give a short (under five minutes) talk about binturongs – what they were, where they came from.  Guests loved it.  When I’d meet those same visitors an hour later, or on a later visit, they all remembered their interaction.   They just could never remember what the animal was.

My little rock-star, shortly after he was born. 
Get enough zookeepers together and I guarantee, they will start going off about the things they have heard visitors call animals.  Some of them are understandable – if they  can’t tell an alligator from a crocodile or a seal from a sea lion, that’s not surprising, and it offers a window for us to begin a conversation.  But what do you do when they call a giant anteater a gorilla (after all, they both walk on their knuckles)?  Or decide that penguins are baby whales?  I’ve heard parents teach their children that okapis are the result of giraffes mating with zebras.  Is there any way to salvage that conversation, or do you keep walking?
These conversations with colleagues can be amusing – there are several threads along these lines on the facebook group “You Know You’re a Zookeeper When…”, but they are a sign of something far more serious.  Our job is to inspire people to care about wildlife and want to conserve it.  How can we do that if people can’t even figure out what the animal is?!?  I recall one visitor, seeing a display of tuatara (one of the most unique, most extraordinary reptiles on the planet), identify them as iguanas and comment that they were all over her parents’ yard in Florida.  It was no good trying to convince her that these animals were in need of protection; she knew they were everywhere, hadn’t she seen them?
Is it that visitors are born with a certain number of animals in their heads, and that there is no room to add new ones?  Doubtful – before The Lion King and Meerkat Manor, who outside of the profession had heard of meerkats?  For an extinct example, who but the most die-hard dinosaur buffs knew Velociraptor before Crichton and Speilberg introduced it to the world?

There needs to be a way for zoo and aquarium professions to make their animals better known to the public, and a simple sign (which - let's be honest - no one will read anyway) at the front of the exhibit just isn't going to cut it.  

Animals talks, interactions, media appearances... some of my older, more set-in-their-ways colleagues shudder at the thought of them.  "Whoring out the animals," they call it... so be it.  If it gets people to talk about the animals in a positive light, doesn't cause undue stress to the animals, and allows them to keep their dignity, then I am all for it.  If people don't know that an animal exists, how can they  care enough about it to help save it?

Despite my disappointing results with the binturong, I still like to think that I reached someone.  So take your kinkajou to a news station, or your tawny frogmouth out to meet visitors.  Do some interactions or keeper talks, use whatever animals you deem suitable and help your guests to broaden their horizons.

It's not that hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  I want to see how hard it is to teach an old visitor a new animal.

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