by Matthew Valiga
For as long as I can remember, I have always been an animal lover, from the very bottom of my heart. I think my heart has always beaten for the wild, the outdoors, and the thrill I get in interacting with wildlife. It should only make sense, then, that my goals for the future are to work in conservation. As a child, I always thought that the only way to make a difference in the world of conservation was to go out into the field and do research. Obviously, this is an integral part of the war against extinction; however, I very quickly learned that it is nowhere even close to being the only role in conservation.
In the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I was fortunate enough to land an internship with the AZA accredited Chicago Zoological Society or CZS for short, which is more commonly known as the Brookfield Zoo. The CZS is renowned for not only being very advanced in their treatment of the animals that reside there, but also their education of the public. The amount of time and care they put into their educational programs is astonishing. Ranging from kids’ camps to a high school volunteer corps to internships and a docent program, the zoo has a way for anybody to get involved in conservation education. It is through this very internship that it became very apparent to me how integral a part education plays in conservation.
As an intern, my watered-down job description was simple: to teach the public. There was a huge amount of ways to do this, including interpreting exhibits, taking live animals into the park, and even doing scheduled chats around the zoo. I learned very quickly the amount of work that goes into the educational programs that they put on; all the animals had to be clean as a whistle whenever they were in the public, and doing giraffe chats in front of the hundreds of people who frequent the exhibit is no easy task. However, there was never a more rewarding feeling than seeing a child’s face light up as their fingers gently graced a snake’s back, or the look of astonishment on an adult’s face as they learned that giraffe babies are born while their mothers are standing. These seemingly simple experiences ended up going incredibly far in the long run.
It is only here that I learned how huge of a role education has in conservation, and it was through one simple interaction with a child, around four or five, of all people. I had been speaking in front of the polar bear exhibit for the past half hour as the resident bear, Hudson, was doing laps around his pool. Every so often he would come up right to the glass and all the children, except for one, would shriek with delight. The lone child who wasn’t delighted was in tears. Naturally I decided to ask him what was wrong, due to the fear that he may have lost his parents. Instead, when asked, he responded through choked sobs with, “it says they’re endangered, and I love them so much. I don’t want them to die.” It hit me like a truck; never would I have assumed in a million years that someone so young could have such a strong grasp already on the threats animals all over the world are facing. Fortunately for me, I had been trained on how to defuse this situation, and quickly told him how it’s not necessarily the end for polar bears. Immediately he went from tears to smiles as he asked, “you mean they can be saved?” Of course, I replied with a hearty “you bet”, and he looked up to me with the most earnest of smiles and said, “I’m going to save them,” and ran off.
Since that day, the role of education in conservation has never left my mind. With all the controversy surrounding zoos in our present day it is quite a shame that we lose focus of the current intents of zoos: to educate the public. Most of the problems we face in conservation today revolve around a simple lack of knowledge on the topic; sharks encounter huge problems garnering support for their conservation because they are generalized as man-eaters, and the repopulation of wolves in Northern states is being pushed back upon with the fear that they will kill all the big hunting game. Predators all over the world are currently under persecution by people who feel the animals are in direct conflict with us. This child at the polar bear exhibit showed me the true role of education in conservation: if you can learn about something, you can learn to love something. It is not only the duty of zoos, but of all of us, to teach our fellow humans about the problems the Earth faces today; only then can people begin to appreciate what we have, and do something to save it. Simply put, anybody, including a four to five-year-old at the polar bear exhibit, can learn to be a conservation warrior.
To learn more about the Brookfield Zoo and their programs, visit https://www.czs.org/