A Meeting of Minds

September 2017

By Mary Ellen Collins   

Animal Ambassador Program Partners

 “The eagle was awesome!”

“We touched the armadillo!”

“We saw grunion babies hatch!”

Ask a guest of any age what made their trip to an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility special, and you will likely hear about the animal ambassadors. From a sea star in a touch tank to a lynx in a stage presentation, the ambassadors are an integral part of entertaining, educating and encouraging conservation-minded action among visitors.

Across the AZA landscape there is a trend toward increased collaboration on animal ambassador programs between education and animal care teams. As more educators learn best practices for handling animals, trainers are taking on a larger role in visitor presentations.  And they can all benefit from the support of the Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group, which was created several years ago to address ambassador-related concerns and practices. The group has created a newsletter and now spearheads a WIKI site that was originally created by staff at the Philadelphia Zoo in Philadelphia, Pa. The SAG’s current activities include compiling a bibliography of ambassador animal resources and working with Species Survival Plans® and Taxon Advisory Groups to create a best practices template for using an SSP animal as an ambassador.

“Everyone comes to this from different perspectives, and it’s different at every facility,” said Karen Povey, conservation engagement manager at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., and the inaugural chair of the SAG. “All models have benefits and challenges. We’re figuring out ways for all of us to come together so everything works smoothly for everyone.”

Focus on Teamwork

Educators at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore., have a history of providing interpretive training for the husbandry staff, but they just recently started learning how to work with ambassador animals themselves.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium's pelican’s primary trainer and an education person make presentations together, with the trainer handling the animal and the educator talking to the audience © Oregon Coast Aquarium

“About two years ago, we decided we wanted to incorporate more animals into our programming to create more opportunities for public interaction,” said Kerry Carlin Morgan, director of education and volunteer services at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Husbandry has responsibility for the majority of ambassador animal programs, but the educators now work with a pelican and an opossum.

“The really positive relationship we have with husbandry made it easy to learn how to tag team in doing interpretations,” said Morgan. “It would be really difficult to do this kind of programming if education were isolated.”

The pelican’s primary trainer and an education person make presentations together, with the trainer handling the animal and the educator talking to the audience. And the educators who have been trained in the protocols of working with the opossum make those presentations on their own.

“Involving education [in working with the ambassadors] expands opportunities for our guests and broadens the suite of critters that they can interact with,” said Morgan. “Working collaboratively produces a nice blend.”

At the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, Calif., the partnership dynamic has long been a built-in part of the operational structure. “It is the culture of our institution that we have to be a team, and it has been that way as long as I’ve been here,” said Ed Mastro, exhibit director.  “Everyone can be considered an educator.” Officially, his staff is responsible for animal care; and Program Director Jim DePompei’s staff members, who receive training from Mastro’s team, handle education programs in an on-site classroom, outside at the beach, and occasionally at a local school.

“There is no behind the scenes, because all of our animal care is done in the public eye,” said Mastro. “When [animal care] staff are hired, they are told they also have to engage with people.” From DePompei’s perspective, “The main advantage to working closely with Ed's team is that the education programs rely on the exhibits, and the exhibits are created to help facilitate educational programs.  The more our visitors understand the connection we have with animals right off the coast, hopefully that will foster conservation tendencies and change behavior.”

Focus on the Animals  

With numerous requests to use ambassador animals, everyone must be sensitive to stresses that can affect an animal’s wellbeing. Jacqueline Menish, curator of behavioral husbandry at the Nashville Zoo in Nashville, Tenn., has implemented several measures that alert her team to the fact that an animal needs a break. Her team handles most of the ambassador animals, does all of the community programs, and trains the education staff to handle smaller mammals, birds and reptiles.              

“It comes down to open and honest communication,” she said. “I need educators to tell us if something happens, like if a loud noise scared an animal when they were doing a presentation with it. We’ve reinforced with them that it’s not possible to over share with us, and I’ve told my staff to be receptive to everything they say. We’ve also asked them to give us a written summary of how a session went.  I put that on an Outlook calendar and attach to the animal record. Rather than relying on word of mouth anecdotes that might not get passed on to everyone concerned, this strengthens the ability of keepers to be on top of situations.

“It’s been great. The education team realizes we’re not looking to take anything away from them. They’re partnering with us to provide information we need in order to catch things early and tweak them. They realize that if we pull back an animal, it’s because the animal has an issue.” Scheduling lunches with their education colleagues has also strengthened the relationship. “Getting together for social time reminds us that nothing is personal. We all support each other and everything we do is on behalf of the animals.”

“Getting together for social time reminds us that nothing is personal. We all support each other and everything we do is on behalf of the animals.”

Maintaining optimal habitats is also a priority for all ambassador animals, said Nicki Boyd, the San Diego Zoo’s behavior husbandry manager. “A lot of ambassador animals are behind the scenes, but it’s a best practice to give all of them a way to express natural behavior. Whether on exhibit or behind the scenes, they should have climbing structures (as appropriate), substrate, grass or plants whenever possible.”

While focusing on the wellbeing of the Zoo’s animal ambassador, Boyd is one of a number of husbandry pros who have successfully introduced SSP animals into the ambassador program.

“We had mother-reared brother and sister servals and tried to train both of them. The brother was comfortable but the sister was not, so she got to stay with mom. As soon as they were weaned at six months, the brother spent longer and longer times away from mom, and he is finally full-time at the Children’s Zoo.  Most guests don’t know about SSPs and this shows a really good story about conservation.”

Focus on Education  

At Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium staff in the education department receive training on how to work with snakes and smaller animals and to ensure that the animal handlers deliver correct messaging in their programs with the larger ambassadors.

“Our Wild Wonders Outdoor Theatre does a very large show that won the AZA education award,” said Povey. It’s a huge collaboration.” Her team works with the handlers to determine a theme and key messages and then the handlers write the scripts.

“It’s a priority for us to foster empathy for animals among our visitors and provide the tools for them to take conservation actions,” said Povey. “Our goal is that when a guest comes in, they hear a repeated message ... and conservation engagement makes sure those two things are infused in everything the keepers do [with ambassador animals].

“When we first met with all the keepers to talk about empathy, we gave them very detailed documents. They said it was too overwhelming with too much information, so we switched to having staff meet with keepers in small groups. We don’t want to give them a script, but we want to make sure we have a common voice. [The effort] is still evolving, but they’re buying into it more and more.”

The California Science Center in Los Angeles, Calif., has a brand new animal ambassador program that evolved from the opening of the Ecosystems Gallery that focuses on the science of ecology. “We have always been a science-based learning institution,” said Misha Body, director of husbandry at the California Science Center. “We expanded the size of our living collection and created a living collections department to care for them.”

The husbandry team wanted to do more public programs, which required them to be trained in the visitor-driven, inquiry-based education approach that is a hallmark of the Center’s programming.

“Learning the inquiry-based method was really challenging for some of the staff,” said Body. “Some came in thinking ‘I know how to do this,’ but it’s a different way of interacting with guests. It’s closely tied to the scientific method and is more about guiding people through a process rather than just speaking to a group. But they understand the goal and how this method of inquiry achieves the goal.” Melissa Loebl, husbandry supervisor at the California Science Center, learned the method from education colleagues and is now teaching the husbandry staff.

Loebl is also working with the volunteer coordinator on an Ambassador Animal Volunteer Program. “Once they have enough training, they will be allowed to handle some animals, and part of the requirement will be public speaking. That will help us shape inquiry-based learning and provide more opportunities for us to expand,” she said.

Giving inspiring presentations while keeping animal welfare top of mind can be a balancing act, but every trainer and educator who makes it work brings their facility closer to reaching a meaningful goal and achieving a collective mission.

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.


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