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 🙂
The world has a virus. Normal life is suspended… but nature continues.
These are very difficult times for many people. The efforts to control the spread of covid-19 ‘locking-down’ communities and countries has meant physical isolation and separation, not just from each other but also from nature. In some respects, nature is pleased with this – the levels of air pollution are down, spring breeding is less disturbed etc.
ZooStephen, like most self-employed service providers has almost shut down with huge loss of business and income – hopefully temporary; I have been able to continue some remote/online activity. One of my favourite training events, teaching on the Durrell Endangered Species Management Graduate Certificate (DESMAN) at the Durrell Academy in Jersey at the start of April was not possible. However, I was pleased to create a suite of online material, resources and video to enable the participants to undertake the ‘Education Theory & Practice’ module without my physical presence.
It was lovely to receive some feedback that even in this modified version, it was “amazing” “enjoyed” and a “favourite” part of the 12 week DESMAN course. The participants represent projects and activity from across the world including Madagascar, Indonesia, St Lucia and Brazil. Although I didn’t get to interact with them, I always feel more optimistic for the future of conservation when I work with these amazing people, who will make a real difference for nature, the environment and their communities in the years to come.
Back home, in Scotland, I am missing going out into the wider countryside and walking in the trees, mountains, coasts… at least I live in a semi-rural area and can enjoy the immediate surroundings of my village. It has in some ways been good to see local people also discovering the local environment for their occasional exercise – obviously maintaining social/physical distancing. Perhaps, once this crisis is abated there will be a new ‘normal’ and people will appreciate each other and the environment more.
At this time I am also really pleased to have just become a Trustee of the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust www.pkct.org . I hope to help encourage and promote engagement in the countryside across my home county, from Big Tree Country to the Cateran Trail and more. I am optimistic that in Scotland, we will value our environment more and improve our relationship to nature & recognise its importance for health and well being. I also hope we will be supportive of a more sustainable and ecological lifestyle – that may be a challenge, but this is a great opportunity to try.
At the Birnham Oak, at least 600 years old, the last remnant of the ancient forest featured by Shakespeare in ‘Macbeth’
Happy New Year, welcome 2020 (and soon to be Year of the Rat). ZooStephen is looking forward to more exciting, inspiring and educational activity in the year ahead – get in touch if I can help you with training workshops (eg presentation skills), lectures/talks, education programmes, interpretation, strategic review etc. Zoos (of all types and sizes), aquaria, museums, colleges, social/community groups etc
2019 concluded with another visit to Chimelong Safari Park & Birds Park, Guangzhou, China, and the great news that they have successfully achieved membership of WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the first in mainland China to do this. It has taken a lot of work by the team, developing new operational practices with animals, following international standards for education and overall continuous improvement and commitment to conservation and welfare.
Education at the parks is multi-dimensional and focused on diverse audiences, from pre-school to all school grades and of course general visitors across the generations. Work on setting desired outcomes and beginning to measure effectiveness has commenced and direct links to the school curriculum are in-built into the on site and outreach programmes.
I look forward to visiting Chimelong every few months in 2020 and helping them with the programme of continuous development and improvement and sharing this within and outwith China.
ZooStephen will also be involved in other activities through the year, continuing with DMZAA work at Sparsholt College and working (voluntarily) as a Trustee at Dudley Zoo & Castle. Meanwhile, I will still have some availability and flexibility for new work, as well as enjoying the great outdoors and especially my home country, Scotland.
To contact ZooStephen about training, advice, workshops etc email firstname.lastname@example.org
This summer has seen a lot of emphasis placed upon the environment in media and campaigns – whether this results in actual action (by politicians especially) is yet to be seen, but hopefully it indicates a wind of change.
ZooStephen has featured climate change in education activity for a number of years, however, this July, I completed the United Nations Climate Change Learning Partnership training course to equip me with even better understanding of the issues and potential to assist educational development in this field.
However, knowing about it is not enough – it’s important to encourage action that both mitigates and reduces climate emissions. The recent fires in Amazonia are but a small indication of how big a problem this is. It can be disheartening and overwhelming, so focus on what you can do and the more people who do that the more impact we have.
The impact of millions of people acting in particular ways can have a huge positive or negative effect. I’ve now worked with Chimelong Group in Guangzhou, China for over a year. Whilst their ‘zoos’ are very good, developing conservation and education is still relatively new – but I am excited by the prospect of being able to assist in delivering stories and messages to the tens of millions of people that visit the Chimelong sites. In time, there is opportunity to connect messages to actions, and promote more sustainable living and regaining harmony with nature. So climate change, plastic waste, resource use and wildlife conservation are all topics for behaviour change messages and activity.
It was exciting and fun to get the opportunity in August to give a presentation on chimpanzee behaviour (including acting like a chimp, and chimp vocalisation) to thousands of visitors at Chimelong Safari as part of the Africa Discovery Show and a new programme of science communication. Definitely a ‘practice what you preach’ moment as well, given that in the evening I had around 50 keepers for a training session on giving such talks! And I was delighted that the next day the keeper presentation reflected ‘zoostephen’ training very well.
Summer has arrived, and with it comes the end of term and graduation for students across the country. Over the years, I have been involved with a number of FE/HE colleges and universities, in teaching, advising, assessing, speaking and doing workshops for.
In June I was pleased to revisit Moreton Morrell College, Warwickshire College Group, to complete my term as their Industry Advisor and to provide further feedback and advice and sit in on a viva exam on a Foundation Degree course.
It’s great when a student is able to talk through their dissertation project and answer questions about it – especially since a lot of work in the Animal Care industry does involve speaking to others and answering ‘random’ questions.
For many years I have also, and continue to be, involved with the DMZAA course operated for BIAZA by Sparsholt College. The Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals, continues to be the leading ‘zookeeper qualification’ in the UK (and a few overseas sites), with over 1000 graduates with DMZAA (and its previous incarnation, ANCMZA). A good background and detail in the role and work of zoos and specialist areas with some taxa specific options provides a great “grounding” for zoo staff (and recently also volunteer keepers), combined with their in-work experience, that supports day to day work and career progression and development.
The success of DMZAA is in part the diversity of staff in zoos that are and have been involved in both writing and assessing the course, and to the students that engage with it each year. However, a very large part of the credit for DMZAA (ANCMZA) should go to Andy Beer, Sparsholt College, who has led the development and implementation of it from the start, and who officially retires this July.
Andy is known across the UK & Irish zoo community and abroad, and his drive, dedication and enthusiasm as well as commitment of time and effort, has supported the professionalism of zookeeping in the UK & Ireland and enabled some transfer of this to the Middle East, Latvia and France. Thank you Andy for all that you have done for zookeepers and zoos. It’s appreciated.
He will of course not ‘fully retire’ and will no doubt continue to support zoos and staff training and development. Thankfully DMZAA continues, and passes to his colleague Penny, and this national standard recognised keeper qualification will continue to be awarded and achieved by keepers to come. I look forward to marking more assignments each month 🙂
Conservation depends on people to succeed in the long term. Some of the people that can make a real difference are the attendees of the Durrell Endangered Species Management course [DESMAN] at the Durrell Academy, Jersey.
It was an honour and privilege to be invited to Jersey again this year to run my workshop on Conservation Education Principles and Practice for the 2019 DESMAN students.
The participants came from across the globe: Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Indonesia (Sumatra), Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, Rodrigues, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, St.Lucia, & Tanzania; and were a great group to work with. Full of energy, enthusiasm and willingness to learn and engage.
Conservation education is FUN and is also fundamental to our understanding of nature and for enabling real connection and action for conservation. There are global, regional, national and local issues and contexts to consider, and so its great when participants can reflect upon what works/will be appropriate for their own setting and context. Whilst it is also great to be able to conduct my workshop in English for all these nationalities – although some aspects don’t require verbal language to understand 🙂
The ‘acting’ skills of the group were used to good effect in non-verbal communication exercises. It was also good to look at how Durrell currently communicate to their visitors at Jersey Zoo and for the students to examine and evaluate this. For example, the public talks and education service.
Communicating conservation, engaging with all audiences, and instilling a wonder and enjoyment of nature all contribute to successful conservation activity the world over, and I was delighted with the feedback from the group, and hope they will make a difference in their future work.
“The teaching method was very good, I appreciate it and it inspired me a lot.” “… your way of teaching involving small activities is really good and I can use some of those activities with school children visiting my place of work back home” “This is the most enjoyable and memorable workshop ever”
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.
Chimelong Group are the leading zoological organisation in China, currently operating 3 zoos: Chimelong Safari and Chimelong Birds Park in Guangzhou City and Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai (a couple of hours drive south, near Macau). The Group also manages theme parks/resorts and hotels with the animal attractions.
I’m excited and pleased to be working for them, helping develop education strategy and programmes. They already do some wonderful work and have some great people. The potential for conservation education and having an influence on people’s understanding of science and action for sustainability, is immense; not least with the millions of visitors to the zoos coming as tourists from other parts of China, as well as locally.
There are challenges of course, but to a large extent these can be seen as opportunities. The fact the organisation has a desire to strive for excellence and both improvement and development, are great platforms to work with. A bonus is that they are very successful and committing resources to enable activity and a quality visitor experience.
Many “in the west” are quick to criticise or jump to conclusions as soon as you say China or Asia, whereas the reality here is that, yes there is room for change and improvement, but it is gradually being addressed and high standards achieved and aimed for. Indeed, many “western” zoos need to, and can do the same.
The worldwide appeal of zoos in all their forms (over 10% of world population visiting a zoo each year) is something, if utilised and developed, can be a huge force for conservation, and education engagement. It’s great to be working in this field of activity. making a small contribution to a big effort.
Communication and Presentation Skills training sessions are fun, and its great meeting new people.
Thanks to Dudley Zoo for hosting the event, I was able to run a day long workshop for educators/presenters from a diversity of collections: DZG, West Midlands Safari Park, Green Dragon Eco Farm, WWT Slimbridge, Cotswold Falconry, Knowsley Safari, WILD and BTO (ex welsh mtn).
The existing knowledge, skills and experience of the group was mixed, and the workshop covered some of the background theory, conservation messaging ideas and discussion, and a diversity of activities, designed to support greater confidence and understanding in doing presentations and providing ‘education’. We used non-verbal communciation alongside ‘acting’ techniques and finished the day with light-hearted group talks on flamingos and pandas.
The feedback from participants was great – with some good thoughts regarding both the amount of content and development of individual skills. Thanks to all involved for engaging and having FUN whilst developing and enhancing skills and experience.
This workshop was provided at very low cost to the organisations involved as part of my commitment to supporting staff development in educational activity. I will be running future sessions for more educators/presenters and for keepers in future.