Touch the Heart to Teach the Mind
“The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever-shifting, in a constant state of adjustment.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962
Zoos and aquariums have undergone a renaissance since the 1960s as they have evolved and grown, just like the environments they teach about. Since that time, the delicate balance of research, conservation, education, and entertainment has shifted drastically at these institutions, requiring directors to need as many arms as Enteroctopus membranaceus (octopus) to keep all the plates in the air and spinning. Shifts often occurred as institutions placed greater value on one aspect only to discover that, like in nature, all must be maintained equally.
PGAV Destinations interviewed five leaders in the American zoo and aquarium world to learn about this rapid evolution and the intricate complexities of balancing these four pillars in their strategic operations. The answers are more challenging than finding Gigantopithecus Canadensis (Bigfoot).
While all of these pioneers come from very different institutions, they all agree on one simple principle: touch the heart to teach the mind. By connecting guests in deeply emotional, valuable ways to the animals under their care, these institutions are able to grow the public’s awareness of the challenges these creatures face in the wild – and spur visitors to take action.
Each expert possesses their own unique take on how to touch the hearts of their guests. Whether it’s through one-on-one interactions with rare animals, heart-pounding shows, reaching them through their hand-held gizmos, or physically redesigning their institutions to meet today’s shifting family demographics, their innovative approaches to “touch the heart to teach the mind” are revealed in this issue of Destinology.
Director Emeritus, Columbus Zoo
Morning Jack! Where are you calling from?
I’m in a rainstorm on Caspersen Beach in Florida – it has one of the highest concentrations of sharks’ teeth on the planet! I just got back from three weeks in Gabon shooting eight episodes of Into the Wild. Lowland gorillas and chimps, Mandrills, egg-laying sea turtles, forest elephants – it’s going to be great!
When you started at the Columbus Zoo, What Did You Do to Turn it around?
The key to a good zoo is to make sure your guests have fun and that they leave there having learned something and loving it as a result. If people don’t love something, then they’ll never care to save it. So we started by fixing and cleaning up the Zoo, providing opportunities to make memories like pony rides and great picnic areas, and our keepers began walking around the paths with animals – like parrots and flamingos – and engaging guests head-on with fun facts. Have you ever told your kids, “We’re going to the Zoo today to learn the Latin names of the animals, where they’re from, how old they are, what they do, and we’ll take a test on it when we get home?” Of course not – so it wasn’t about making textbooks out of the signage, it was about having fun with your family in a safe place.
What’s Your Take on the Balance of Education and Entertainment at Zoos?
Look, we’re in the business of conservation – everyone preaches conservation, but the first thing you need is education. Educating people means that they’ll understand conservation, and that often means a heavy dose of entertainment to draw them into the lesson. Once they understand conservation, then they care about the issues, provide the resources for zoos to fund their research and conservation efforts (like Columbus Zoo’s 62 annual, global projects), which cycle back into making better education and entertainment – it’s a full circle.
A long time ago, our state funding got cut. We had to create things to stay alive and thrive, so we added all sorts of programs – The Wilds (the largest conservation site in the country), rides, food, photo opportunities, company parties, Christmas lights, weddings, car shows, pet adoptions, zip lines, camps, horseback riding, tours, and Zoombezi Bay – we’re the only zoo in the world with a waterpark. We had more than two million visitors last year – and Columbus, OH isn’t Orlando, Los Angeles, or New York! I promise you, the zoo world will be the answer to helping animals in the wild.
President and COO, Georgia Aquarium
What’s Your Take on Education and Entertainment at the Georgia Aquarium?
From its inception, Georgia Aquarium has embraced entertainment as a means of opening the hearts and minds of our guests and educating the public. I sometimes say that, in general, ‘education needs an injection of entertainment’ and I believe that it’s actually the biggest understatement in the world. We need to think about how children learn today, not how they learned before; and I believe that the zoological community hasn’t yet fully converted to our way of thinking along those lines. In today’s education, kids are acquiring their learning from both in-person instruction and engagement as well as sophisticated new technologies, and we have to adapt our teaching to that environment if we’re ever to tell our story effectively today – to have people of all ages understand the issues, appreciate the issues, and take action on those issues.
Have You Made Any Progress on that Front?
It’s certainly not easy – our job is to introduce issues, spur the imagination, and then encourage the visitors to learn through entertaining and engaging presentations and content. But each day we welcome a wide variety of visitors – ones who are simply seeking quality time with their families, to the ones who actively want to learn everything about the animals. We firmly believe that “how” we present our animal information, however, ensures that every guest leaves with valuable intelligence about the aquatic world. We’re making progress, along with great partners like AT&T, to provide educational platforms like our Animal Guide, which was designed for use on your mobile device. Via the Animal Guide, a wealth of educational content, images and video are immediately available to the guest at the exhibit, which greatly enhances the guest’s access to animal information while viewing the animal in person; but perhaps the best part is that the guest can also use the guide outside of the aquarium, so the learning is available 24/7/365.
Do You Feel That You’re Accomplishing Your Mission through This Mix?
Our mission and vision statement, which we call our “Compass,” says “we aim to be a premier institution delivering an awe-inspiring entertainment experience which supports animal research and conservation, inspires learning and instills a passion for the aquatic world.” It’s just human nature that people only work to conserve and protect the things they know and care about. In other words, if you’d never seen a Beluga whale before, would you know what it is or care about its perils in the wild? Probably not. That’s why we’re here – we touch the heart to teach the mind. When our guests can make a personal and emotional connection with an animal, they care; and when they care, that’s what empowers our conservation.
Director of Zoological Communications and Interpretation, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment
How Have You Seen SeaWorld’s Programming Evolve Regarding Entertainment and Education
As we’re about to celebrate our 50th anniversary, it’s easy to see how the external changes in the world – culturally, technologically, guests’ tastes – have really influenced the internal journey for SeaWorld. When you look at the evolution of education and entertainment, they have been poured into the pot from the very
beginning – but that look and feel has certainly morphed through the years. We’ve grown in some obvious and powerful ways.
Is That Balance Complicated?
Absolutely – but it’s a disservice to think that education is purely cognitive and entertainment is purely emotional – they can be a mix. It’s easy to dip into one side quickly– things can be unique, awe-inspiring, take your breath away, make you scream, and put a smile on your face – but you’ve learned nothing. On the other side, we could put a bunch of words on a sign about a particular animal; and if you choose not to read it, then we’ve accomplished nothing.
Shows are a Really Unique Component at SeaWorld. How Have Those Evolved?
They’re a defining characteristic of SeaWorld, and they’ve changed radically throughout the years as a reflection of internal and external culture. They’re like any time you pull out an old photo album – there are some things you look back on, shake your head, and say, “well I guess that’s how it was!” But shows are an incredible setting where you can engage with animals one-on-one, and you can bring the guests into powerful moments that trigger that emotional connection, so you can directly teach about issues.
Do You Have Any Great Success Cases of the Blending of Education and Entertainment?
Turtle Trek. As you leave the theater and come up the ramp, you see real turtles on the right and our game, which is effectively a sign, “Race to the Beach,” on your left. When was the last time you saw people queue up for a sign? They do! It’s just the right delivery method – they get to be sea turtles, along with family and friends, and engage in the key moments of the life of a turtle – crisis, choice, celebration – and have a much deeper and greater appreciation for them. They walk away knowing about cohabitation, nesting, man-made and natural obstacles – and they’re going to think about them more, maybe consider changing their lifestyle a bit on behalf of the animal. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary changes; but if they pick up a plastic bag while walking down the beach, remembering that interaction, then we’ve succeeded.
Vice President of Planning and Design & Chief Architect, Wildlife Conservation Society
You’ve Got a Bit of a Unique Set-up over There, Right?
We do! We have a full-service design shop of 30 architects, landscapers, exhibit developers, graphic designers, and more which create things for all five of our New York City parks and some other select organizations.
What’s It Like Tying Five Different Zoos and Aquariums Together as one Entity?
All five are very different entities – Prospect Park Zoo is locally targeted and geared towards children; Queens Zoo is based on North and South America fauna and is also locally targeted; New York Aquarium is still only partially open but evolving greatly as that part of the city evolves; Central Park gets the most visitors being right in the heart of the city; and the Bronx Zoo has everything drawing large numbers of guests from the tri-state. We try to be the central brain of the five and carry lessons from one to the next. The common consistency is that we try to connect guests’ visits to the work we’re doing out in the field, which we’re still growing at the smaller zoos.
How Have You Seen the Blend of Education and Entertainment Evolve at Your Zoos?
The goal is to foster a love of wildlife – that’s an emotional response, which is a gateway to more cognitive learning. Learning has always taken place through the whole context, and people continue to learn through creative ways. For a while that trend was learning through play, and that’s where you see how we’ve designed a lot of our exhibits – with mechanical interactives, graphics, and now more technology. That’s the latest trend – technology. You just want to be sure you’re not using technology just for the sake of it – you want the right tool for the best way to engage someone in a particular story or conversation. No matter the technology, our strength is the live animal. There will never be anything like sitting on the other side of the glass from a live gorilla.
Anything Exciting in the Pipeline?
Our new 55,000 sq. ft. shark exhibit. When you’re standing anywhere in New York City, you just see blue water – and people think it’s just deep nothingness just below. But New Yorkers are a lot more aware of the water surrounding us after hurricane Sandy. We’re going to reveal the beautiful, unexpected things below the surface – sea horses, sea stars, anemones, and a canyon as big as the Grand Canyon right off of the coast. We’re going to connect the city to the water all around it and the life beneath it.
President and CEO, Shedd Aquarium
How Have You Seen the Shedd Evolve?
In the 20 years I’ve been here, the biggest change has happened in the last ten years. The public’s awareness has grown in that we’re fun and educational, and the new culture is encouraging us to be even more out front with our messages. We’re getting our guests and even more local partners engaged with our experiences and
how we care for the animals.
For instance, we have a whole new section based on the Great Lakes – we’re in a great position to communicate the challenges, like invasive species and pollution, with the public. All of the smaller, focused organizations that are coming up with solutions to help the Lakes face the challenge of getting that information to the public – and that’s where we’ve been instrumental in helping.
How Has Your Staff Changed – Is There Still a Traditional Zookeeper?
Education is just now assumed, it’s part of our being, our reason for existing, it has to be second nature. We look for people who are really effective one-on-one: great communicators for talking to guests and leading tours, outgoing, very knowledgeable, highly educated, very committed, and with a love and passion for their work.
You’re in one of the Top-Ten Visited Cities in the Country. How Do You Deal with that Diverse Audience?
During the economic downturn, we had a very local audience. We watched our expenses carefully and re-arranged our programming so that something was always happening at the Shedd. The Hispanic section of Chicago is a growing area – they do things culturally as families, and we’re seeing more and more large groups of Hispanic families coming in on the weekends – so we’re learning more about that culture and how to engage them.
After the economy started to bounce back, Mayor Rahm Emanuel put a high priority on our tourism market. Now, in the right season, 70% of our daily attendance can be from outside the metropolitan area. So we’re working to integrate all our materials with multiple languages.
What Was Your Involvement in the 2016 Bid for the Summer Olympics?
The Shedd was very involved, as we would’ve been the site for the rowing events. A steering committee carefully studied Atlanta’s model for handling large crowds, drew up plans on how to leverage our outside space for tens of thousands of guests, and put the bid together. It was really fun to see it all come together.Read the Digital Magazine Edition