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Thursday, May 10, 2018

An Uncomfortable Conversation

Earlier this week, I came across the article by Zookeeper Gear that I shared yesterday, lamenting the lack of racial diversity in the zookeeping profession.  I was very excited to see someone else put into words something which can been nagging me for some time.  I was less happy to see how some of my zookeeping colleagues on social media responded to the article.

To be fair, most people responded positively to the call for diversity.  In contrast, there were some pretty negative reactions.  Some were borderline racist, implying that there is something about African-Americans, Latinos, or other groups that makes them less fitting to serve as zookeepers, such as a lack of cultural appreciation of animals.  Others seem to worry that a push for diversity will lead to a quota where positions will be given to candidates based on race.  In a field as competitive as ours, I can understand how prospective white keepers could fear that their race would be a factor that would set them at a disadvantage, leading them to be selected against during hiring processes.

None of this is true.

First of all, clapping back at the racists.  They imply that there is no real advantage to having African-Americans, Latinos, etc keepers.  I disagree very much.  The idea that some races or cultures "just don't care about animals" is flat out wrong.  Just today, I gave two school presentations, one to an entirely white class, the second to a diverse, minority-majority group.  In both, the children (and their teachers and chaperones) were eager to meet the animals and learn more about them.  For both groups, I brought out our education department's boa constrictor.  In each class, the students were extremely enthusiastic about touching the giant snake and were overflowing with questions.

There is enormous benefit to having keepers with different experiences and worldviews, as they can bring different viewpoints to animal care.  Audiences of zoo visitors may respond more positively to keepers and other animal care professionals who look like them.  An African-American zoo visitor may find it much easier to approach an African-American zookeeper, to ask questions and learn about animals.  That might make it more likely to kindle a deeper, more passionate interest in wildlife and wild places.  The flip side of this is that mentors, consciously or not, tend to be more receptive to mentees that look like them.  Whether meaning to or not, white educators and zookeepers may find themselves focusing more on white members of their audience and reaching out to white students, interns, etc over those of color.  Diverse role models can help us better connect with diverse audiences.

This brings us to the second part of the riddle - if we've determined that having more diversity in zookeeping profession is desirable, how do we achieve it?  I think the best way is to reach out to minority communities and help foster the enthusiasm need to encourage a new generation of animal care professionals.

In the United States, racial minorities are most often associated with urban areas - it's a stereotype, of course, but one with some basis in fact.  Growing up in cities, it can be difficult to gain exposure to wildlife - fewer green spaces, fewer wildlife habitats, fewer chances to get acquainted with wildlife.  I can imagine zookeepers offering city children a chance to visit natural areas, as well as to meet animals in the zoo.  Such encounters could lead to a lasting love of wildlife.  Similarly, most zoos and aquariums are located in cities.  These facilities all have volunteer programs - they could make more of an effort to recruit local children as volunteers.  As these children grow to become leaders, they can serve as role models for others.

At AZA conferences and other congregations of zoo professionals, the faces are almost exclusively white.  I have met only a small handful of keepers of other races.  Many of them have been excellent keepers and conservation leaders.  Similarly, our field used to be entirely male.  The addition of women to our profession has added thousands of new insights and provided us with tremendous new leadership.  The change of our profession from all male to mixed-sex has fundamentally changed what it means to be a zookeeper.

It's made me wonder how many potentially excellent keepers, curators, vets, etc our field has missed out on because fewer people from different communities have been part of our extended family.

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