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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. 

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