Animals have always been one of my favorite things, so it is no wonder my Friday afternoons are spent volunteering at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens. Being a volunteer educator has been a hobby of mine since I moved to Cincinnati for my first year of college here at UC. Most often seen as the individual in the employee shirt with an ID badge, walking around to guests sparking conversation, or sharing information over an artifact at an education cart, being part of the education program has been a valuable experience. Some of the most valuable information discovered while being an educator includes learning the most about the exhibits the zoo has to offer guests and the purpose of those exhibits. One of the most rewarding portions of the hobby involve service to many international campaigns promoting the conservation of wildlife, like my personal favorite, Rebuilding the Pride Campaign. First and for most, what do educators do and why should people care about what they have to say?
What Exactly Is An Educator?
Most people have never heard of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Volunteer Education Program. Volunteer educators (VEs) staff Wild Discover Zones. Each season there are zones placed around the zoo at exhibits containing valuable interpretive information for guests. VEs also act as Hosts for school field trips and school events. Each zone is like a “classroom” on wheels and the VEs interact with guests, answer questions about the animals, and deliver important conservation messages pertaining to that zones animal or region. This year the education program is staffing many zones including Africa, Pollination Station, CREW, Swan Lake, Elephant Reserve, Gorilla World, and more. Every zone has an important message for guests, but one of my personal favorites is the message the Africa exhibit offers.
Bringing Africa to Cincinnati
Guests can enjoy the spirit of Africa in the newly renovated exhibit, opened in 2013. While visiting Africa visitors have an opportunity to help one of the Zoo’s biggest conservation missions based in Kenya. Educators at this exhibit converse with guests about Rebuilding the Pride campaign and the lions that happen to call Cincinnati, OH home (including many questions about our new lion cubs born this year, shown below). According to Thane Maynard, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Zoo, we want educators to get the visitors “to leave here feeling connected with Africa and feeling inspired to help save wildlife in wild places”. Most people do not ever get the opportunity to visit Africa, but that does not mean their actions cannot make a difference, even 8,000 miles away. That is one of the biggest pieces of the “message” the educators offer.
What is the Message?
VEs explain to the guests that the problem in Kenya, the one that the Cincinnati Zoo and many other partners are trying to fix, is the diminishing wild lion population. The Maasai people have been hunting the wild lions that roam the South Rift Valley because the cats have been pawing around their cattle a little too often. The Maasai people are very nomad-like, living off the land and rely on the cattle they herd as their income. Maasai and wildlife in the area migrate seasonally due to the changing resources of food and fresh water, and the number of run-ins has been increasing. The loss of cattle to wild lions is upsetting to the Maasai people, and in order to protect their life savings, the retaliations have been lowering the lion’s population.
Rebuilding the Pride is a very powerful conservation act, unifying the Maasai people of Kenya and the lions that roam the land. This program aims to restore the lion population as well as reduce the amount of livestock killed. Research assistants are beginning to track the movement of both Maasai livestock and lions in order to avoid confrontation and unnecessary damage. Some wild lions have been fit with GPS collars, so that the herders know where the prides are moving that day in order to lead their livestock in the opposite direction. Herders are often seen now with tablets, tracking the information brought in by the collars. The program also has created a Conflict Response Team to assistant and ease confrontations by accompanying herders while they move through areas with lions, and rescuing livestock that are in danger of becoming a lion’s lunch.
Awesome Story, But Why Does It Matter To Me?
Educators often struggle to get guests to understand the purpose behind conservation and why the Zoo spends so much time and effort trying to get people to appreciate it. People have no problem standing there, listening to the stories VEs have to tell, but most of the time they walk away and the information they just spent time learning leaves their brain. In order to help tie that information into something more tangible to guests, VEs promote making a connection to Africa. It is especially rewarding to help younger children find a connection to a place so far away and make them realize what they do here can change what is happening elsewhere. One of the things educators do to promote this connection is to suggest investing in a Lions and Livelihoods bracelet made by the Maasai women. Revenue from these bracelets helps provide the Rebuilding the Pride campaign with resources but also provides tuition for local schools.
These bracelets not only donate money to the conservation program, it creates a unifying symbol to the Maasai people all the way across the world. Hearing about saving a group of lions is a great story, but actually being able to become a part of that story is a gift. Thane Maynard says it best, “The bracelets are a symbol of coexistence of humans and wildlife – and the Zoo wants to inspire its visitors with this message of coexistence” in hopes that they will take the message home and put it into place in their communities. Educators serve as the medium between promoting the campaign and sending people home with a new sense of purpose and a part of something bigger than themselves.
Why Do Educators Do What They Do?
It is an amazing thing to see the traditional Maasai people so eager to live in coexistence; the compassion is a quality we could all learn to acquire. Conservation is something that requires action, but it is also a story that deserves to be told. Educators have a responsibility to the zoo, to the guests, but also to the animals to share these stories that they cannot share themselves. Promotion of the campaigns is not always about donating as much money as possible; it is also about spreading the word and creating awareness.
I spend my afternoons telling countless guests the same story repeatedly because of a hope that maybe just one time, it will stick and the story will be retold. As much as I hope guests learn from me, I learn from the guests as well. The perks of being a VE do not just include an inside knowledge of the zoos many exhibits, it includes becoming a part of things that exist outside our city and seeing the stories change the lives of guests as they take a journey through Africa.