Search This Blog

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tell Me a Story...

"Stories are like spiders, with all their long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each."

- Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

I like talking to visitors. 

It’s a failing, I’ve been told by some coworkers, especially those of the “We became zookeepers so we didn’t have to deal with people!” stripe. 

Not the kind of talks that involve explaining why they can’t feed the monkeys, or that there’s a reason we have two rows of fencing separating them from the bears (and no, it’s not a challenge).  And yes, they can say some things that drive me up the wall.  But I still like talking with visitors.  I like talking to them about our animals, both in the zoo and out in the wild.  I like building support and enthusiasm for their local zoo (or, if they are out-of-towners, encouraging them to come back).  But mostly, I like telling stories.

The stories I like to tell, of course, are about the animals.  Some of them are just funny anecdotes: animal does something cute and unexpected, or animal gets the better of a keeper, or animal shows incredible behavior.  (This being the social media age, I make a point of not telling stories I wouldn’t want to see plastered all over the blogosphere).  Stories are a useful tool – they can disarm a visitor, encourage them to sit and stay a little longer, and sometimes even help them learn something.

Mostly I tell stories to make a connection.  In a sense, this entire blog is a series of stories, some I admit being more engaging then others.

We’re a storytelling-species.  We’ve been swapping yarns since the Bible was a rough-draft and before anyone knew even how to put pen to paper.  In cultures where writing was never developed, stories were still passed on from generation to generation.  Put a bunch of strangers in a room and they’ll make small talk about movies, TV, music – all stories.  Put a bunch of friends together and they’ll talk about the stories of their daily lives.  Being a storytelling species, we value good storytelling.  That’s why Steven Spielberg has billions and why the absolutely atrocious novel that I’ve tried to write off and on for years lurks in a folder under the sink, where even I don’t have to look at it.

Above all, stories shape the way that we think and feel about the world around us, and they can have a big impact on how we interact with that world.  Want a real life example?  No matter how you feel about the subject of orcas in captivity, there’s no doubt that the movie (I won’t call it a documentary) Blackfish has started a lot of people talking about SeaWorld, and not a lot of it in a manner that SeaWorld has liked. 

Actually, it was Blackfish which got me on this train of thought in the first place.  Many of the best stories I know are the ones from the world of zoos and aquariums.  I often find myself breaking these out at work, either to explain to a dubious guest why we need zoos, or to given the background to the story of an animal.  We have great stories in our zoo world.  The only downside is we stink at sharing them.  Instead, we tend to rattle of facts, thinking that if we spit enough of them out, like watermelon seeds, one or two of them will stick somewhere.  They seldom do.  We should work on that.

What I would like to see is an inter-zoo (possibly sponsored by AZA, or EAZA, or some other governing body) documentary team.  The purpose of this team would be to produce films for popular audiences detailing stories from the world of zoos.  True stories, which in many ways are the best kind.   

Remember when March of the Penguins came out and EVERYTHING was penguins for months?

I suggested this once before to a group of zookeepers and they all said that they thought it would just come across as propaganda and backfire.  I’m not proposing we make, say, a Blackfish rebuttal documentary, or films bashing PETA, ZooCheck, or other organizations that we often find ourselves in opposition with.  We wouldn’t even be addressing those folks at all (though I do worry that we’ve let them set the tone of conversations about zoos too much).  Instead, we should be worrying about giving people a reason to cheer for zoos and aquariums, a reminder of what good things we do, and what we can continue to do with their support.

Some ideas of documentaries I’d love to see made:

·         American Phoenix: detailing the fall and rise of the California condor, one of a handful of species snatched from the edge of extinction by zoos.  Similar programs could be made for the Arabian oryx, black-footed ferret, and other species.  Not only will it build PR for zoos and support for the condor, it’s also a (reasonably) happy-ending story.  In these days of conservation doom and gloom, we want people to see that there have been successes as well as defeats.

·         Saving the Suarez Seven: detailing how some unlikely allies – the AZA and (*gulp*) PETA worked together to remove seven abused polar bears from a Mexican circus and find them homes in American zoos.  A story that shows that even opposing parties can put aside their egos and do what’s best for animals when the need arises.

·         Last Wave of the Golden Frog: sort of the other side of the coin as the condor film, this would focus on the amphibian extinction crisis, using the Panamanian golden frog as a poster child.  It would show that although the frogs are gone in the wild they survive in zoos, and effort are being made to save other amphibian species from a similar fate

Besides these major productions, small zoos and aquariums can tell their own stories.  It’s easy – just document what you do!  Rehabbing an injured or orphaned animal, or taking in an unwanted or illegal exotic pet?  Working with a critically endangered species, maybe even one with reintroduction potential?  Have a really locally famous critter in your zoo?  Take pictures, take video, post signs, post stuff on your website!

In other words, tell a story.  Everyone wants to hear it.


  1., The Toronto Zoo elephant saga, Tuberculosis and political corruption that's my story. The greatest animal welfare lie ever told.

    1. For any readers not familiar with that story, Zoos Matter wrote a three part editorial on the subject (see August 30, 2013)

  2. This brings up a very important point. I don't think zoos, aquariums, etc, are talking enough and the people who are talking too much are the activists. This needs to change, because the only info people are getting is more often than not, a lie.