After a couple of years (due to covid issues) it was a pleasure to return to Jersey and the Durrell Conservation Academy and teach in person on the Spring 2022 DESMAN course.
I am always inspired and enthused by the wonderful participants on this 12 week diploma course and it is an honour to work with them, and teach for a few days at the Academy that I saw opened by HRH Princess Royal with Gerry & Lee Durrell, as the International Training Centre in 1984. This year the group comprised participants from: Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Indonesia, Madagascar, Monserrat, Nigeria & Scotland and for some of the time joined by a couple of Jersey Zoo education staff too.
“Learning by doing” is largely the approach I take (although lecture is part of the delivery), and the students all engage well – for some they get pushed out of their comfort zone but building confidence in new areas.
The DESMAN graduates have significant impact in the field in their careers and are part of ‘Durrell’s Army’ enacting conservation and saving endangered species and places. My workshop is designed to help them develop their communication skills and recognise the value of education as a conservation tool with a variety of audiences. A lot of examples are packed into a few days, including looking at public engagement in Jersey Zoo and case studies from around the world. My aim is to inspire, excite and enthuse through active education, enabling them to apply ideas in their own practice in future.
Not long after being in Jersey I headed to Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park near Ipswich. The park is a working farm with rare breeds as well as having a growing wildlife park featuring a diversity of species. Rare Breeds of farm animals represent the ‘traditional’ stock and as the name suggests are ‘rare’ – largely because commercial farming has concentrated upon a few core varieties. Jimmy’s has a wonderful restaurant serving quality ‘home grown’ free range meat and promoting sustainable agriculture and good welfare.
Jim Doherty bought the derelict farm in 2002 and this featured in a BBC TV documentary and he has done various TV programmes since. The wildlife park aspects began in 2016 and now the site is attracting around 200,000 visitors a year!
The excellent staff team at Jimmy’s provide a great visitor experience and I’m pleased to be helping them redevelop their educational activities – talks for the public and a new school’s (formal education) programme.
Being a farm and wildlife park presents great opportunities for engaging a diverse audience – and of course there is a big appeal to young children. However, the expanding wildlife park (includes tapir, macaque, camel, lemur, & zebra) and wonderful woodland area, provide potential with the farm for a meaningful consideration of our relationship to nature both local and global.
I look forward to returning to Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park soon to support staff training and review the strategy and programme I have worked on for them.
After 35 years working in conservation education I still enjoy giving presentations and helping others with techniques to improve theirs. In the modern age of Tik-Tok, Instagram and YouTube many have greater skills and effectiveness than me in those media. However, the face to face and “real” presentation is still a very important aspect of sharing our work and especially engaging with visitors.
It was an honour to be the first speaker on day 2 of the 2022 ABWAK Symposium attended by over 200 people and held at West Midlands Safari Park in early March. My talk “Arabian Giraffes and Indonesian Ambassadors” was an opportunity to share the great work of Sharjah Safari and Orangutan Haven whilst discussing the importance of public engagement and education in zoos.
Keepers are increasingly involved in direct visitor engagement and ‘education’ activity. I was therefore delighted to be asked back to Longleat Safari Park to run ‘Presentation and Communication Training’ for small groups of keepers and safari tour guides. Many of the staff there interact with guests on site, give talks and tours and of course some are ‘famous’ through appearances on ‘Animal Park’ on TV.
I was pleased to work with some who had been at Longleat several years as well as those who joined in the past 12 months. Through a day of activities and information, participants are encouraged to understand what the desired outcomes are and ways that they can enhance their communication skills to be most effective. I particularly enjoy using a diversity of techniques from acting to tongue twisters and it usually gets a smile or two from participants. The philosophy of learning by doing is central to the approach, and it is known that ‘doing something’ is more memorable and likely to have impact.
Seeing animals for real is core to the zoo and aquarium experience. Our exposure to TV and media may bring wildlife stories to our living rooms but this is largely passive. However, the zoo visit can also be passive, and so needs to have focused opportunities and interaction. The role of all staff, from the entrance to the shop, is important in contributing to the message and story. Keepers are a critical part of the experience and our visitors look to them for information and engagement.
The professionalisation of keepers in the UK and Ireland has been promoted by ABWAK throughout its 48 year history and it’s good to see that public engagement is now considered core to many keeper jobs. There are various routes into the profession, and a variety of courses and qualifications. For many years I have been involved in the Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) and its volunteer-keeper version CMZAAV, run by Sparsholt College for BIAZA. In the ‘modern’ (and covid) world we can effectively utilise online systems to support learning, so it was good to be guest speaker on a webinar for DMZAA / CMZAAV students, giving them background on zoos and education and pointers on successful assignments.
Giving a presentation is and should be something we enjoy and in so doing we can contribute to sharing our passion, enthusiasm and excitement for wildlife, nature, wild places and conservation.
A belated Happy New Year and Year of the Tiger. Here’s hoping that 2022 is a healthy and successful one.
After the impact of covid-mitigation measures and various factors affecting delivery of projects over the last two years, it’s great to see the year kick off with some good news. It is wonderful to report that on February 17thSharjah Safari opened. This amazing huge safari park (8km2) brings Africa to Arabia and has taken nearly 7 years to create. The park utilises the natural environment at Al Bridi Reserve, Al Dhaid, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, which has many acacia trees and gravel beds with natural aquafers. Further trees have been planted and suitable environments for the animals created.
Well done and congratulations to the team involved in creating this remarkable project – primarily the team from Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority, EPAA (includes many staff members from Europe, southern Africa and elsewhere with great wildlife experience) and design team Maguari-One Zoo Consultants. The park fulfills the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi.
I was fortunate to have a very small part in this massive project, helping the education team develop their strategy and plans, whilst also assisting the training of Emirati staff to guide visitors. I look forward to visiting again at some point in future now the Park is open. If you are planning to go to UAE and visit this unique attraction, be aware ticket numbers are limited and the Park will be closed in the hottest months of the year.
Meanwhile IN CHINA, Chimelong Group with whom I have worked since 2018 but covid has prevented further visits are opening their multi-million, world’s largest (370,000 m2), new Marine Science Centre and Leisure Complex at Zhuhai next to Ocean Kingdom. I saw the building in construction – it is truly immense, and the photo makes it look like something from Star Trek. It’s a very ambitious project aiming to link marine education and science with wow visitor experience and featuring many marine species.
However, SOME CLOSING NEWS
Sadly at the same time, Bristol Zoological Society have now announced the official closing date for Bristol Zoo, Clifton, as September 3rd. This historic site – the oldest zoo in the world not in a capital city, opened in 1836 – will partly be developed into a residential site, with some of the gardens remaining. Sadly many staff jobs have gone already and some animals will no longer be kept. The money raised will go to expansion of sister site ‘Wild Place’ to be the ‘new Bristol Zoo’ in South Gloucestershire. I spent a large part of my career at Bristol Zoo (1989-2003) helping develop the education department and involved in various exhibit design projects, so this is personally sad news too. As I write this further sad news comes from the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) in Gloucestershire that has now closed its doors. Jemima Parry-Jones’s work will continue with birds at a new site not open to the public.
LOOKING FORWARD – I am happy to be preparing for a variety of events in the next weeks, from ABWAK to Staff Training at Longleat and DESMAN22 at Durrell in Jersey, as well as further voluntary work in my Trustee roles with Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust and Dudley & West Midlands Zoological Society.
As the world met in Glasgow for COP26, and largely failed to make a big impact on the global climate crisis, I was in the heat of the United Arab Emirates. It was impressive, but likewise shocking from an environmental point of view, to see the modern city of Dubai from the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The city pretty much didn’t exist 40 years ago and is still rapidly growing.
However, it was great to also go out into the mountains by Wadi Shawka in Sharjah Emirate, and enjoy an early morning hike (before it got too hot). Some wonderful plants here adapted to the arid conditions.
This was not a holiday trip. It was my second visit this year to Sharjah Emirate and work with the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) www.epaashj.ae on their very exciting new project, Sharjah Safari. This new innovative safari park has been 6 years in the creation and is nearing being ready to open. It will be the largest safari park out of Africa and in large part ‘mimic’ the African safari experience with guests guided in vehicles around on ‘game drives’.
Sharjah Safari will be a high quality experience with excellent animal welfare. Full details will be available once the Park is open, but for now it is largely ‘under wraps’. My role, which we first discussed back in 2019, was to advise and support the development of education at the Park and play a role in the training of staff. It was challenging to some extent with the heat, language and cultural differences, but exciting to work with an international team, and a large number of Sharjah Emirate ladies who will be the face of the visitor experience and education delivery.
I look forward to being able to see the Park once it is operational and see the staff at work after their detailed training programme, and I’m sure Sharjah Safari will be on many people’s ‘wish list’ for visiting once you hear about it in more detail and see images. However, due to the heat it will be closed in high summer, so best time to visit is likely to be October to March/April.
July saw my first face to face engagements for over a year!
ZooStephen Communication and Presentation Skills workshop was run at Woburn Safari Park in July for members of staff from different departments that had joined since April 2021. This full day workshop was designed to give a range of background to zoos, practical communication skills and consideration of customer care issues.
The group were great and we enjoyed activities from story-telling to tongue-twisters and most importantly the day helped build confidence in speaking to others. Covid restrictions had just been lifted in England, however, we maintained comfortable social distancing and optional mask wearing in the session. It was so much better than via online systems and great to properly interact and react to the group’s needs.
Being invited to be the keynote speaker, and run a workshop, at the first UK Animal Care Technician’s conference was the other highlight of July. This had been delayed for a year, so UKACT2020 became UKACT2021 and thanks to the hard work of Joe Cooke and team at Halesowen College, West Midlands, and the attendees from all over the UK, it was a great success.
It was wonderful to be able to speak on ‘education and collaboration’ to a room full of people, to react and receive reaction. My workshop on demonstration and presentation skills was to give a flavour of how technicians can better be prepared for and to support student learning and activities. With good weather we were also able to enjoy lunch outside and spend time looking at the animal collection at the college.
Animal Care Technicians in colleges are responsible for a diversity of animals, whose main role is to assist the training and development of those who wish to pursue a career in animal care. The animal collections in some colleges are licensed zoos, and species kept range from rabbits and goats to iguanas and lemurs. There are also good collections of invertebrates and some aquatics.
Zookeepers have had ABWAK (Association of British and Wild Animal Keepers) to help their networking, training and development, for nearly 50 years, UKACT is providing a great network, using a facebook group and now this first, day long, conference for the animal care technicians.
Fingers crossed with the roll out of vaccines and appropriate mitigation the worst of the Covid situation is over. However, I am mindful of the disparity in vaccine provision across the world. However, I am very pleased to have just taken on two international projects, more will be shared in due course – these are with the Environment & Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; and with Orangutan Haven (SOCP and YEL) in Medan, Indonesia.
Last year was challenging for all of us, however, it also marked the publication of the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Education Strategy [WZACES] – Social Change for Conservation, by IZE and WAZA.
Zoo and Aquarium educators across the world, including ZooStephen, were part of the discussion and sharing of practice for lead author Sarah Thomas (now at Auckland Zoo, NZ) to write this important and useful document – available free from www.izea.net (education tab)
To help everyone become familiar with, understand and implement the strategy – across the world and in many different contexts – IZE are running a series of webinars for each chapter.
I was delighted to be asked to be part of he webinar series and take part as a presenter on Chapter 4 – Applying Approaches & Methods in Conservation Education. Steffi John from Madras Crocodile Bank Trust presented on her great work in India, and we were joined by Mel, Akane and Brij with Sarah, in a panel session to conclude. Like the other webinars this available via YouTube https://youtu.be/eD1sdQr7MBE
As examples I focused upon my work on the interpretation and education plan for Budongo Trail, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and with Chimelong Safari Park, China to illustrate the importance of deciding upon learning outcomes and applying these in practice.
The Zoo and Aquarium education community is great at sharing and learning from one another, so it was good to be involved in this activity. I am still learning after more than 3 decades working in this field.
What is normal? The pandemic and associated restrictions and mitigation over the past 14 months have changed ‘normal life’ such that some things will not return to the way they once were. This is no bad thing for some aspects, but operations in the education and tourism sector, including zoos and aquariums, has been especially challenged. Reopening has begun across many areas.
ZooStephen operations have been significantly affected and limited during this time. However, it has been opportunity to enjoy nature at home and on the doorstep. Also a chance to reflect upon what is important, to support others in their training and awareness, in encouraging access to the countryside (eg. as a Trustee of the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust), and consider ideas for new developments.
The conservation work of zoos, which includes education, is directly funded from the operation of the zoo. In areas such as the UK where no state funding is provided, this conservation work has been funded by zoo generated income – largely from visitors. Limited resources have to be focused to ensure animal welfare, and so the education and conservation role has seen reduced support. Innovation such as online delivery and resources have helped – but do raise the question of how these are paid for and is it sustainable?
The USP of the zoo and aquarium is real, live animals. Seeing these through a screen and with an online ‘podcast’ or presentation enables access for many, but is missing the ‘real’ experience. So it is great that zoos and aquariums are now open again, and staff are beginning to get used to visitors sharing the sights, sounds and smells of the collection once more. Engaging people with conservation through education and activity on site is still challenging and social distancing, indoor mask wearing etc have to be accounted for in delivery and effectiveness.
The new normal is yet to be established. On site education programmes will adapt, which is great. However, we need to see how effective different methods are through evaluation exercises and thereby inform the establishment of the ‘new normal’ for education and conservation.
Delivering online lessons/training does work and ZooStephen has done some of this in 2020-21, however, I’m looking forward to real in person engagement again. The online approach is something to continue but to use appropriately and ensure its effective for the desired outcomes.
Connecting people to nature begins at home and in their local environment, whilst encouraging an understanding and awareness of the national, regional and global impact we have. Zoos and aquariums can be great conduits for this ‘big picture’ so it is hoped that reopening provides new opportunities to engage and inform, to inspire and excite and get people to continue to enjoy and respect nature, and ultimately to make a difference.
ZooStephen activity has been very restricted in these past
months. A time to reflect and consider what is important and think about what
future activities may be pursued. Everyone moved to ‘teaching online’ as the
new way of delivering education and I created a series of videos supporting a
programme of learning for remote delivery and variations of this resource will
be available to others.
A buzzword of the times is ‘zoom’, alongside Microsoft Teams
and Skype and my workshops and talks are available by online delivery. Whilst
effective, there is however, no replacing real experience and learning in the
It’s good that zoos, aquariums, wildlife sites, historic places
etc are now open /re-opening, but of course it’s a changed world for now, with
some of the important educational activities such as talks not being offered to
avoid crowd formation.
In 2021 ZooStephen will continue to offer training
workshops, advice and support and mentoring for educational activity both
online and in person, and continue supporting keeper training through DMZAA at
Sparsholt College, as well as other activity. I look forward to the opportunity
to help others in developing and delivering conservation education and visitor
Politics, People and Pessimism. Outdoor Opportunity &
Optimism – Covid reflections
The world stopped. Earth asked for a reset, for a new way, a
new normal. The deadly messenger was named Covid-19. It belonged to nowhere but
went everywhere. In places it met with coordinated, planned resistance but many countries ignored the
warnings until it was too late. Knowledge was shared but didn’t result in
immediate action and change. However, once the emotions were challenged with
death and fear, self interest, science and opinion pushed and government responded…
The global pandemic saw different levels of action and
commitment across the world. Some leaders acted swiftly and strong, others
delayed and dithered, some even rejected the facts and believed they wouldn’t
Stay Home – Save Lives. A slogan that was clear and
easy to understand. Support for ‘work at home’ and furlough schemes made it
easy for some. Others struggled. The self employed found themselves unable to
access help, then it came but not for all and not as fairly… whilst welcome, it
was constrained and caveats limited its ‘generosity’ based on a calculation from
earnings up to April 2019. And then…
many still had to work. The health and emergency services, food sales, transport,
zookeepers, farmers and more had to work on… a long list of people still
travelling about and having interactions, and the virus spread.
Meanwhile others locked themselves away, isolated, cut off.
Some families, especially those with younger children found new connections and
relationship, but it came with a cost… exclusion of the extended family.
Grandparents and the vulnerable especially were ‘shielded’ but by aiming to keep
safe, the cost to normal life and sharing with those who care was high. And the
death toll increased.
Strong, timely, focused and clear action resulted in
success… in New Zealand and some other countries such as Germany and Japan,
and China seemed to get it under control too. Noticeable in their failure
however, were Johnson (UK), Trump (USA) and Boslonaro (Brazil) – two of whom
are known to have caught the virus. Their own agendas’ influenced policy and
action to the detriment of many – and the death toll continued to rise.
In the UK, the devolved governments disagreed to some extent
with the Johnson approach, not least after the breaking of lockdown
restrictions by their ‘mastermind’ Cummings and his bluffing it through to the dismay
Time goes by… (the story, truth, half truths, and lies, will
be told and analysed in times to come).
Be Optimistic? However, one positive from the
situation for me and many others – take regular, local, outdoor,
socially-distanced, exercise. Being out in nature, and in my local area wasn’t
new for me, however I discovered a few more paths, saw a few different people
out and had some wonderful wildlife encounters – most notably with hares, deer
and red squirrels.
Nature thrived. My garden became a feeding station for at
least 2 pairs and 2 broods of blackbirds. One became quite tame, and demanding,
waiting at my door for food to be put out and the fledglings were emboldened to
come close. Allowing the weeds to grow, and having my wildflower pots, meant a
small space became a jungle and insect haven.
Once a little more travel was allowed it was great to
revisit Perthshire big tree country and the hills surrounding Perth too.
Revisiting the Birnham oak which most likely dates from the 15th
century and was certainly there when Shakespeare visited (and features in
Macbeth – Birnham wood). It’s amazing to think that it has seen the world
population rise from 450 million to near 8 billion, has lived through many
regional and global pandemics and has been home to thousands of other
Whatever happens with Covid-19, we know nature will survive
and if allowed to, will thrive. We have a great opportunity to re-connect
and value what is important, for that I am optimistic. However, the action of
politicians in power, and desire for return of ‘economic growth’, together with
the selfish behaviour of some – abusing the environment, littering and being
uncaring, are causes for pessimism and worry.
The post-covid19 world will be what we make it – the
challenge is we need social and behaviour change from government, business and
‘ordinary’ people. Self-interest and nationalism are however, emerging as
strong forces that are really difficult to challenge. Trump seeks re-election and
US First policy… Johnson sees Brexit and the rise of an independent ‘Britain’
as the future… China sees opportunity and remains controlling, but is also easy
to target in western society, and as for Putin and Russia, its hard to say…
An oak tree, a Douglas fir… a hungry blackbird, a ‘March
hare’ and grazing deer… that I understand and will continue to enjoy and
encourage others to do likewise 🙂
Whilst the UK is in the midst of a general election, its a good opportunity to reflect on what is genuine commitment and well-meaning promises or words and messages designed to deflect, garner support, or even deceive. In conservation behaviour change messaging we need to be wary of over-promising or misleading, however, we too are in the ‘business’ of generating interest and support and “evangelising” for the environment and conservation.
Combining our ‘education’ role with behaviour change outcomes is a cause to be optimistic. It is clear knowledge does not equate to change, however, if we utilise the emotions and personal connections, success is possible. Brilliant TV documentaries like Blue Planet II and the plastics issue, is a good example. It seems the environment IS now an issue within the UK election, with plastics and climate change in many people’s minds.
Zoos have contributed to conservation in many ways, some breeding for reintroduction (although far less than many people may think), development of science and skills for both zoo and in situ work etc., but our education role is the clear hope for the future – but likewise needs to move beyond the short school visit lesson to a real development of environmental and nature understanding and direct action, and lifelong learning.
UK zoo & aquarium educators (and those around the world) are passionate, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and skilled, however, they are under-resourced and under-supported in the scheme of things relative to the importance of ‘education’. It has, thankfully, always been the case that zoo & aquarium educators share and learn from one another.
Some 30+ years after I attended my first UK zoo educator conference, it was great to meet up with some of the attendees to the 2019 BIAZA Education & Presenter Conference on their extra day visit to Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms, Scotland. Whilst many of the day-to-day challenges are the same as they have always been, it is good that there is more and more focus on engaging people – of all ages, experiences and abilities – in nature and what they can do to address environmental issues, whilst loving the world we live in.
At City of Bristol College earlier this month, it was great to spend a day with students raising their awareness and understanding, as well as helping them with developing skills in communication and preparing for careers in the ‘animal sector’. We need more good, passionate communicators to promote the ways in which the future of life on Earth can be contributed to and developed by individuals and not just dictated by political, commercial and ideological elites.
ZooStephen workshops and training activities are tailored to each college/course or zoo and available across the UK (and abroad) throughout the year. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
We should never forget the reality of life and the way our society works (or doesn’t) and that, as campaigners such as Greta Thunberg have shown us, there is a need to challenge the ‘establishment’ as it currently exists with its reliance on ‘economic growth’ and consumerism. There is some cause for optimism, but as election campaigning shows us, people can have very fixed ideas, beliefs and opinions and don’t like them questioned or challenged.
Being a conservation educator can be challenging, sometimes it can seem a lonely path, especially in today’s highly developed and consumerist society trying to raise awareness, raise questions, challenge behaviour etc. And then being a conservation educator in a zoo or aquarium comes with further challenges, including some in other conservation groups that dislike the whole concept of zoos. Thankfully, educators are happy to share, to work together for common goals, and to support each other. In the zoo and aquarium community we are lucky to have the International Zoo Educators Association (www.izea.net)
The IZE family is global and every two years meets for a conference to share, exchange ideas, and learn from one another. The 2018 IZE conference was held in October, in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. It was wonderful to see participants from all the continents (except Antarctica of course) and to hear speakers who were from Guatemala to Vietnam. I was especially pleased to be at this conference, having been the editor of five issues of the IZE’s journal (2013-17), but also because 4 of my new colleagues from Chimelong Group, China, were also able to attend.
For me, this was also a return to the UAE after just over 20 years, having stayed in the ‘old’ Al Ain Zoo whilst volunteering at the National Avian Research Center and visiting friends. The new zoo features the amazing Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, and a great new safari drive through. The SZDLC is noted as being the/or one of the first ‘sustainable’ building developments in UAE. Visiting the Emirates again, and in this era of environmental consciousness, it was striking to see so much development in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and wonder how sustainable this ‘progress’ is, not least with the lack of much evidence of use of renewable energy.
Apart from visiting the Zoo (and an extra day visiting the wonderful Arabia’s Wildlife Centre and Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah), we also got to climb a sand dune, eat some wonderful food, try real Arabian coffee and of course eat dates and ‘experience’ the heat (around 37 degrees outdoors).
The IZE meeting is always a meeting of cultures and ideas, and this year was no different, and so it was great to experience Arabian hospitality whilst having opportunity to talk to people from China, USA, Brazil, Korea etc… Whilst some of the conference was sharing “this is what we have done”, it also enabled consideration of such case studies for application in different situations, and there were presentations ‘asking questions’ and reporting on positive outcomes from campaigns and activities. This year, as in previous meetings, thanks to IZE Institutional Members and the host’s support, a number of “sponsored” delegates attended and brought some great practice and ideas from the field to our attention.
The next IZE conference is in San Diego, USA, in 2020.