When the Saint Louis Zoo in St. Louis, Mo., began to plan a new polar bear exhibit in 2013, they were determined that it reflect the Arctic communities who live up close and personal with the large white marine mammals.
“We wanted to bring Indigenous voices to the forefront,” said Lisa Lidgus, conservation education liaison at the Saint Louis Zoo. And they wanted to learn about the effects of climate change from the experts.
In 2014, Lidgus and her colleagues from the Zoo and the Alaska Nanuuq Commission visited the Native villages of Little Diomede, Wales, Gambell, Savoonga, and Point Lay for a series of meetings held in school rooms, cafeterias, community centers, and Tribal Council offices. They went without any preconceived ideas or expectations.
“We were a blank slate,” said Lidgus. “We just wanted to sit down, listen, and learn. The villagers have direct experience with the effects of climate change on the polar bears and their own environment.”
Although Lidgus and her colleagues didn’t use the term radical listening, that’s what they were doing. What is radical listening and how is it different from the ways in which Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities have always involved their partners? For one thing, it means coming in with questions, not answers said Shelly Grow, vice-president of conservation science at AZA. It means getting the community involved earlier in the process and being willing to listen and adapt, rather than going in with a defined plan or responding with your own thoughts.
Too often conservationists have tried to solve environmental challenges without listening to the indigenous communities who are living day-to-day with those challenges. Residents of the Alaskan Arctic, the Indonesian rain forest, the grass prairies in the mid-west, and even South Baltimore, are living up-close and personal with melting ice caps, denuded forests, denigrated landscapes, and litter-filled rivers.
“It’s really important to understand the priorities, needs, and front-of-mind realities in the community in which you are going to be doing the work,” said Shareen Knowlton, director of education at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I.
“Everybody wants to be heard, not merely listened to,” said Jackie Ogden, retired vice president of Disney Animals, Science and Environment for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “And even more, they want their voices to be reflected in the decision,” she said.
Curtis Bennett, director of equity and community engagement at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., emphasized that a community’s voices must be “centered” in developing and implementing outcomes. For more than ten years, as part of the Masonville Cove Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, the National Aquarium along with the Maryland Department of Transportation, Living Classrooms Foundation, Maryland Port Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working closely with communities in South Baltimore.
Together they created the Masonville Cove Small Watershed Action Plan (SWAP), in which the community prioritized the neighborhood’s major environmental concerns, along with suggestions about how to address them. One of the top issues was trash pollution, not just in the rivers and the bay but most importantly in the neighborhood. Some of the strategies developed through the co-design process included organizing community clean-ups and providing resources for residents to share trash reduction and prevention methods within their neighborhoods.
Back in St. Louis, those conversations with Alaska Native partners—or community curators as Lidgus calls them—became an integral part of the McDonnell Polar Bear Point exhibit. The exhibit wouldn’t exist without the Alaska Native people, said Lidgus. For example, the walkway leading to the exhibit reflects a village landscape with boats, drying racks, and even a snow mobile. No totem poles or tall evergreens; these familiar items in many polar bear exhibits don’t exist in villages in the Alaskan Arctic.
The interior of the exhibit resembles a traditional home in an Inupiaq village with some important differences. One wall is open to the tank where Kali, the resident polar bear from Point Lay, can be seen swimming in his deep pool. Other walls have TV monitors showing video journals created by school children in the villages. These interviews make climate change personal and relevant. Visitors can relate to an elderly man as he talks about the difference in his environment now as compared to when he was young. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen a live polar bear,” Leonard Apangalooksu from Gambell, Alaska explained. His neighbor Clement Ungott suggests one of the reasons. “The thick ice used to come in from the north, and it doesn’t come anymore for many, many years now,” he said.
The concept of radical listening turns the whole idea of how to protect the environment on its head. It changes the conservation dynamic away from the idea that outside experts know best.
Kinari Webb is founder of Health in Harmony, an international non-profit dedicated to reversing global warming and preserving the rainforests. Using radical listening, Webb and her colleagues held conversations ten years ago with a number of communities living on the edge of the Indonesian rain forest.
“Within an hour and a-half, every group independently brought up the same two things that would help prevent harvesting of the trees,” said Webb. “Healthcare and organic farming training.”
With the local buy-in, rain forest logging in Borneo, Indonesia has declined 90 percent over the past ten years. “We’ve proven radical listening is an effective model,” said Webb.
Take events in Denver last year.
Stefan Ekernas, Rocky Mountains Great Plains program director at the Denver Zoo in Denver, Colo., worked with partners, including the Pueblo of Pojoaque, to restore bison to the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in Watrous, New Mexico. In March 2020, the Zoo made a decision to focus their conservation efforts closer to home. That left Ekernas free to bring his experience at Rio Mora to a partnership between the Zoo and Denver Mountain Parks in the disposition of bison herds owned by the city.
Ekernas was aware that in order to control herd numbers, some of the animals were sold annually at auction to the highest bidders, usually meat producers. Last year, while wandering around the dusty, noisy, crowded roundup, Ekernas wondered if there was another way to accomplish this. He sought out members of the multi-tribe non-profit, the Tall Bull Memorial Council, asked lots of questions about their goals and what they needed to restore the tall grass prairies. Then he listened to the answers.
“It wasn’t a little bit of listening,” he said. “That’s entirely what it was.”
This past spring for the first time, 14 bison were transferred to the herd owned by the Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho. These Native American tribes, pushed from the Denver area in the late 19th century, are now living in Oklahoma, so the animals are more than a means to restore prairie grasslands. “We’re using the bison as the beginning of a reconciliation process,” Ekernas said.
Radical listening works within the AZA itself, as a recent experience demonstrates. SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction has been a part of AZA since 2015, but leadership wondered if there were ways to strengthen public awareness and community engagement around conservation.
“Thanks to the participation of Kayla Cranston, director of conservation psychology strategy and integration at Antioch University in New England, one of the things we realized was that a best practice for community engagement is the ‘with-not-for’ approach,” said Knowlton. “Rather than presenting our ideas as a fait accompli, we needed to ask our partners in the SAFE programs: ‘What are your realities? What are your priorities? And what does success look like to you?’” she said. The result was a co-design approach resulting in People Advancing Conservation Together (PACT), an intentional commitment to integrate communities into SAFE in order to achieve stronger conversation outcomes.
Radical listening is not easy. For beginners, experts offer some magic phrases, like "help me understand," "tell me more," and "what is important about that?" Flexibility is important too, as is trust.
“Move at the speed of trust,” said Curtis Bennett. “It takes a long time to build trust.”
One way of doing this is to show up for—and participate in—the community on a regular basis. Festivals and community meetings are good opportunities to connect and learn what’s important to people.
What can zoos and aquariums bring to these kinds of partnerships? Expertise. For example, the Denver Zoo has experts in animal transfer said Ekernas. “They knew how to transfer the bison from Denver to the tribal lands in Oklahoma.” Resources. “The biggest resource we bring specifically in our work with the polar bears is an audience,” said Lidgus. “Visitors learning from Indigenous voices is a huge step in promoting understanding and action regarding climate change.” Education. The National Aquarium has had a long-term relationship with Ben Franklin High School at Masonville Cove. Curtis Bennett and his colleagues have worked closely with the students and teachers to support the installation and maintenance of a pollinator garden and a rain garden.
“Communities have the ideas,” said Ogden. “And very often their solutions are opaque to outsiders.” So you have to listen. That’s something to remember when searching for responses to environmental challenges around the world.
Hero photo credit: ©Alexandria Mooney, Saint Louis Zoo
Cathie Gandel is a writer in Studio City, Calif.