When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit in March 2020, members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—like institutions everywhere—were faced with a big question: Without the use of the institution itself, could they sustain visibility and keep local audiences engaged? Working with community partners and ultimate end-users, AZA-accredited facilities kept the lights on even if they couldn’t keep the doors open.
Building on a longstanding practice, AZA-accredited facilities brought their community partners and volunteers into the conversation from the beginning.
“We don’t want to parachute in and provide a game plan,” said Dana Murphy, vice-president for learning and community engagement at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill. “Our role is to be a partner and convener.”
That’s just what the Zoo did on Douglass 18, a conservation-themed miniature golf course in Douglass Park on Chicago’s West Side. Teens and young adults took the lead on the project, inspired by the 200 migratory birds that pass through the park each year. They worked with Zoo personnel and community partners to research the birds, their habitats, food sources, nesting habits, and threats. Then they designed obstacles for each hole reflecting some aspect of a particular bird’s life.
“The fact that we were able to make this happen, makes me very proud,” said Lisa Hyatt, director of community engagement at the Zoo.
Jared McGovern, curator of conservation programs at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, is also working with teens. The Museum recently introduced Take CAARE: Conservation Action through Advocacy Research and Engagement.
The name derives from a Midwest salutation. “People here say ‘Take care’ and they mean it,” said McGovern. “So we added that extra “A” for advocacy, and now we say Take CAARE, and mean it!”
Programs include freshwater mussel conservation and monarch butterfly habitat maintenance. “The museum may be the activator, but it’s our community of conservation organizations that are the most important aspects of this program.” said McGovern.
Thanks to a strong relationship with local schools, teens have long been involved in some of the Museum’s programs. But there was a need in the community to develop a stewardship program created and led by teens, for teens. Teens Take CAARE is a brand new offshoot of the parent program for grades 9-12.
“Our young leaders have these passions around conservation and sustainability, but the platforms for them to act on their passions in the community are few and far between,” said McGovern. Conversations are ongoing with the teens, parents, and partners to help the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium find ways to indulge those passions. It’s a result McGovern hoped for when his department was established two years ago. “One benefit of the pandemic is that it put into fast forward plans that were already in place,” he said.
Going virtual wasn’t all bad.
“In some ways, the technology made meetings more flexible, easier to attend, and more inclusive,” said Kayleigh Mullen, Utah conservation program supervisor at Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah. For seven years, Utah’s Hogle Zoo has had an ongoing boreal toad monitoring program with groups of volunteers helping conduct the surveys. When in-person training for these surveys flipped to virtual training, the response was surprising: It was their most well-attended training night ever, said Tori Bird, conservation action coordinator at Utah’s Hogle Zoo. “We’re going to continue having virtual training along with in-person events—a hybridized program.”
Zoom technology wasn’t the Zoo’s only high-tech helper over the past year. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets were instrumental in getting the conservation message out to local communities. At the beginning of the lock down, the social media team at Utah’s Hogle Zoo posted videos of Zoo activities and happenings on Facebook and Instagram daily.
“So there was already an audience for our events when we publicized our boreal toad surveys and Jordan River clean ups,” said Bird.
Social media came to the rescue for the young people working on the Douglass 18 mini golf course in Chicago. Just as the designs were about to be fabricated, everything stopped due to the pandemic. Unable to meet in person and begin construction, the team hired a community marketing professional and pivoted to a social media campaign to tell the story of the design process and to build enthusiasm for the opening which is planned for summer 2021.
While members of the Zoo community continued to work behind the scenes on permits and permissions, social media “provided a way for young people to remain engaged with the project during the pandemic,” said Hyatt.
Technology brought a new outreach opportunity for Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., in the form of a digital scavenger hunt. Working with the Adventure Labs platform, community volunteers and the Zoo developed two geocaching games: Crossing Paths with Carnivores in the Issaquah Highlands and the Great Carnivore Discovery in downtown Issaquah.
“People love it,” said Rebecca Lavier, a volunteer in Sammamish, Wash., who worked to develop the content, which provides information about local carnivores and tips for coexistence. “We reach people who we might not normally engage,” she said.
“It’s very clear that we can’t conserve wildlife by just having protected areas,” said Katie Remine, Living Northwest conservation coordinator at the Zoo. “Unless we can figure out how wildlife can thrive integrated with people, there’s not really a positive future for either wildlife or people.”
When Lavier first volunteered with Woodland Park Zoo’s Coexisting with Carnivores program, her assignment was to research information for door hangers containing tidbits of information about coexisting with local carnivores. But with the pandemic, members of the community could no longer visit their neighbors to distribute thousands of door hangers. So the volunteers and the Zoo went to plan B: yard signs with roughly the same information as the door hangers, but that could be safely placed in open, public areas, and observed at a distance by people already out and about in the neighborhoods. They were a hit.
“As soon as I put one in the ground, I noticed people pausing to read the information,” said Lavier.
“Seeing something actually moving forward and making progress felt really good at a time when so much else was cancelled,” said Remine.
Modifications had to be made to some tried and true methods of community engagement, sometimes producing surprising results. To protect the habitat of monarch butterflies, citizens in Salt Lake City would join Utah’s Hogle Zoo in planting pollinator friendly plants, including milkweed in the spring. When that group activity became impossible, seed availability was announced on the Zoo website, available for pick-up from the front gate.
“So many people signed up within the first 30 minutes that the link broke,” said Bird. Instead of having ten people show up in person to collect the seeds, over 100 signed up online to receive the seeds by mail.
If inside events were forbidden, the outdoors still beckoned. In fact, people were hungry to go outside, and zoos and aquariums provided opportunities. While it was challenging to coordinate the layers of COVID-19 restrictions mandated by county, state, and federal governments, the results made the effort worth it.
“We saw a big uptick in our Jordan River Conservation and Restoration programs,” said Bird.
Conservation engagement opportunities, including those overseen by the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, saw huge spikes in interest and participation, according to McGovern.
One lesson Tori Bird at Utah’s Hogle Zoo learned was the importance of reiterating instructions to the “quaranteams.”
“You need to communicate with your volunteers early and often,” said Bird. That meant having verbiage about mask wearing and participation limits on the sign up forms, repeating the information on a follow-up communication and finally on the day of the event. “That went really far in not having someone show up at the event saying ‘Oh I didn’t know I couldn’t bring my closest friends,’” she said.
Many of these programs will ultimately radiate out to larger and larger audiences. Over the coming months, the Coexisting with Carnivores program is being folded in under the umbrella of the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project of Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University. It will encompass a broader region rather than being focused just in Issaquah. In Chicago, Dana Murphy is hoping for what she calls a “multiplier effect” from the Douglass 18 mini golf course. “When the mini golf course opens up, people will come and learn about birds while they’re enjoying a fun, recreational activity,” she said.
The overall lesson from the past year when it comes to community engagement? “Don’t be afraid of rapid change,” said Mullen. “This experience has taught us to adapt to and embrace new things.”
Hero photo credit: ©Lincoln Park Zoo
Cathie Gandel is a writer based in Studio City, Calif.