Before accepting his current role as Director of the Jacksonville Zoo, Tony Vecchio served as the Director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon. Oregon Zoo has a history of commitment to the conservation of the native wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, and during Mr. Vecchio's tenure, the zoo was preparing to join in efforts to save another iconic native species - the California condor. And so, as zoo directors are wont to do, Mr. Vecchio got his begging sack and began going door to door.
The thing was, many of the local businessmen and moneybags didn't seem interested. They heard the facts and the figures and the conservation story of the condor... and no one seemed too inclined to part with cash. Then, during one of his frequent spiels, Mr. Vecchio ad-libbed a bit. He mentioned that Lewis and Clark had encountered condors during their exploration of the area. "Beautiful buzzard of the Columbia," they called it, even capturing one live. Suddenly, folks were more interested.
Tony Vecchio recounted this story to me - and a room full of other zoo and aquarium professionals - during a workshop he was giving on the power of stories to motivate visitors and change behavior. It also speaks to the power of animals in our culture and history.
Some zoos have utilized this fascination to help educate visitors about animals. Many zoos use story-times to attract parents with small children, with an animal-themed story seguing into facts about the real, live animals. Akron Zoo has an entire major section of its campus designated as Legends Of the Wild, with condors, jaguars, and other animals featured prominently in myth and culture. William Conway's How to Exhibit a Bullfrog advocated for the inclusion of displays on an animal's role in culture and literature.
Perhaps more zoos could expand upon the concept, forging new partnerships to attract new audiences. Animal-themed movies at the zoo, with keepers serving as "Mythbusters" (the Jennifer Lopez horror flick Anaconda, for instance, or Jaws at the aquarium. Harry Potter and owls?). Reaching out to churches, mosques, or synagogues to hold discussions on "Animals of the Bible/Koran/Torah. Animal-themed yoga. Animal-inspired music by orchestras. Curriculum tie-ins with school literature classes - Life of Pi could be read by students, then incorporate a field trip to the zoo. The possibilities are nearly endless.
True, few of these things have much to do with the animals themselves. The anaconda in a 1990's horror movie bears little resemblance to the snake dozing half-submerged in a pool in the reptile house. As Tony Vecchio discovered with his condors, however, if you can help people make a connection with the animal, no matter how tenuous, you have the foundation to start building a real relationship that may impact the species for the better.
Don't believe me? Well, Oregon Zoo got its condor facility...