What your zoo can teach you

It is tough, but fun, being a child interested in wildlife. While adults around you squeal at lizards, run from bats and shudder at snakes, you sit ignored despite bursting with facts that can diffuse crises.

It is also tough, but fun, being a zoo educator engaging with such a child. Every day, Steffi John at the Madras Crocodile Bank and Centre for Herpetology is met with a flurry of questions and observations — from “An iguana has three eyes? So it’s like a god!” to “Do snakes have gems hidden inside their stomachs?”

Be it during her guided tours of the Croc Bank in pre-pandemic times, or the current slew of online workshops, it is Steffi’s job to gently cut through the clutter of misinformation while continuing to foster curiosity about Nature.

She does it everyday, to ensure that her audience feels emotionally connected to the reptiles she is dedicated to conserving. That goal is something she has in common with those who work with frogs in Argentina, koalas in Australia and monkeys in Europe.

Which is why, last week, Steffi addressed an international webinar, speaking about her work before people from New Zealand, Australia, the UK and other countries. They are all part of the International Zoo Educators Association, a platform that brings together people from 60 countries and regions. “The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a book on conservation education strategy. We cover a chapter a month. This month, I was one of the presenters for the fourth chapter, and discussed what worked well, what needs to improve and what I can do better as a zoo educator,” says Steffi.

The right message

Who are zoo educators? They could be working in formal urban spaces with typical enclosures that one imagines at the word “zoo”, like the sprawling San Diego Zoo. They could also be working for aquariums, research spaces, or global, non-governmental efforts like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Judy Mann

Judy Mann   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

What they have in common is their role; they are the bridge between the academic and field experts working to conserve animals, and the general public who want to know about those animals. All of them have been facing similar challenges over the past year and a half — making sure their audience continues to learn and care about species conservation. Because in a world put on hold by a zoonotic pandemic, the stakes only get higher, year after year.

Says Steffi, “Though our end goal is the same, our approaches differ because we are all from different cultures. We were supposed to have a conference in the US last year, but because of COVID it had to be turned into a video conference. People from all over the world came, and gave presentations; It is all about exchanging ideas and understanding how creative we can make our programmes.”

“We deal with everyone from three-year-olds to grandmas and grandpas. The essence is to tell stories that inspire care,” Judy Mann, president-elect and current vice president of IZE, explains over a phone call from Durban, South Africa. Judy is also conservation strategist at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research. She adds, “There has been an evolution in both the way zoos operate, and in how they are perceived. The good zoos are top contributors to conservation effort, research and mobilising public opinion,” she points out, while also highlighting the need to shut down bad zoos, that “do not have the animals’ well-being at heart.”

Keeping patrons engaged

To that end, the crocodile bank has been keeping its patrons informed and engaged online for the better part of this year. There are usually two sessions a month, some open to all on Instagram and others for a closed, paying group on Zoom. “We have a session on snakebite prevention with our project coordinator Gnaneswar Ch on July 18; it is ₹300 per person. We also have a session on king cobras by Rom Whitaker, and a ‘tiny tots’ session about baby reptiles with Nikhil Whitaker coming up,” says Steffi.

In all of these, questions, answers and facts will be key. Iguanas, for instance, do have a “third eye” of sorts, but it is better known as a parietal eye. It looks more like a scale than a full-fledged eye, and can only sense light and movement — not shapes, colours or any other finer details. Its job, from its position at the top of the iguana’s head, is to watch out for winged predators that might swoop down from the sky. Steffi explains all of this with a smile, gently laughing away the idea of anything divine.

She adds, “As for the gemstones question, I always reply that if snakes gave us gemstones I wouldn’t be here at all, and instead be vacationing on an exotic beach somewhere.”

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 4:28:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/international-zoo-educators-association-and-pandemic-challenges/article35340977.ece

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