Several years ago, I had the pleasure of touring Richard Louv – arguably the father of the children and nature movement – around Disney’s Animal Kingdom. As we stood in front of the okapi exhibit, I was proud to see a young child focused on this amazing animal--he and his parents in rapt discussion--only to have Richard say, “Jackie, they’re looking at the squirrel.”
As professionals in this field, we’re often fixated on species from other lands, forgetting that children – and often their parents – never tire of seeing native animals, and that these animals remain magical to them. A child interacting with a squirrel—or a rabbit--likely outweighs their fascination with that okapi. They learn to care about and understand what happens to these native species. Too often, conservation and ecology are taught as something that happens in the Serengeti, rather than in our own neighborhood. We should always remember that life begins in our own backyard.
During our partnerships with many of you, we’ve seen wonderful examples of impressive new habitats for animals from around the world. Similarly, we’ve seen compelling examples of international conservation efforts. Although there are stellar examples of how individual actions can directly impact a threat to wildlife on another continent (for example, supporting an ivory ban for elephants or recycling cellphones for gorillas), in many cases it’s much more difficult to understand an individual’s direct impact on this species (and less relatable to your guests) versus helping a local species from their “backyard,” such as sea turtles nesting on a local beach. Don’t misunderstand--we love gorillas, elephants, and giraffes!
However, there’s a magic that happens when you provide an experience with local wildlife – particularly threatened species – and combine that with the work that you’re doing to help those species. Those local wildlife species offer incredible opportunities to engage your staff and volunteers to share their passion, and even better, to find ways to directly engage these volunteers, members, and local youth in the field work you’re doing to save these animals. Many of you are already doing this and know that the passion elicited by those experiences can be life changing. (Of course, you can provide experiences with non-local species as well, but it’s generally more difficult and expensive.)
When you focus on native species, you can tell the story of Fred, the sea turtle that you’re tracking in the Gulf, or engage your guests in tracking the pika that they just saw while hiking in the Rockies, or in restoring their own piece of ecosystem – whether that’s re-growing seagrasses in the Chesapeake Bay, protecting piping plovers in the Great Lakes, head-starting turtles, or planting oyster beds in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida.
And, there’s an added benefit: You are all beloved by your communities and beyond that, you can, and should, be the trusted voice that makes the current extinction crisis personal for your guests. By connecting your guests with native animals and to the work you’re doing to save these creatures, and by actively involving them in this work, you’re inspiring people to care about wildlife and to act on their behalf. By playing a leadership role focusing on local species, working with local conservation partners, and telling these stories, you take on the role of the trusted voice for wildlife in your community. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all conservation is local, and our efforts can grow from there. (Here’s a case where smaller organizations may have an advantage—their ability to be more nimble may offer an edge, particularly in playing a large conservation role in a smaller community.)
In this way, all our zoos and aquariums can become the trusted voice for conservation in their communities. So, when people have questions, they reach out to you. And when you tell them what Fred needs to survive in the wild, your guests trust you to help.
All zoos and aquariums can make such an impact. Contact us to learn more about how Zoo Advisors can assist you to achieve your conservation efforts—in your backyard or around the world.