Tag Archives: zoos

Normal Life ? Reopening

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.

Bluebells at Kinclaven Woods, Perthshire, Scotland, end of May 2021

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.

One of the workshops developed this year and delivered for FdSc students at Plumpton College

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.

2021 – NATURE LIVES ON

Happy New Year – Chinese Year of the Ox. One year ago the Covid19 virus had begun to become a worry but little did we realise how serious and widespread the pandemic would become. Life goes on…

2021 will continue to be challenging and a ‘new normal’ likely still to be dominated by Covid-19 mitigation. However, on a more optimistic note we have seen the inauguration of the Biden-Harris administration in the USA and the roll out of vaccines has begun.

By our very nature, we live for today and think about tomorrow and the next year or two, but rarely have a real long term perspective on life the universe and everything . Nature is long term, not years but decades and centuries. Looking back in time we can see many periods of natural change until human activity became an accelerator and the sixth era of global extinction is now in progress. In Year of the Ox it is appropriate to note that the ancestor of domestic cattle, the aurochs, survived until the 17th century. (Attempts to “breed it back” were made, notably Heck Cattle, but the aurochs is lost to us).

Aurochs skeleton (AdstockRF)

There are many high profile recently extinct species, the aurochs being one. There has been recent speculation that the thylacine in Tasmania, declared extinct in the 1930s may have survived with just a few individuals to this century. However, sadly it is clear many species are on the brink due to human activity.

There are some reasons to be optimistic – eg reintroduction of beavers in the UK, and bison in Europe, and a growth of interest and enthusiasm for ‘rewilding’.

Given a chance, time and positive action, nature can recover. The ‘lockdown’ year has enabled many people to appreciate their local environment more (although for others it has highlighted their lack of nature). The challenge is to move forward with a positive relationship with the natural world and not pursue damaging economic growth and exploitation of the environment. Now is the time to plant trees, to reduce resource use, to value nature and ‘ecosystem services’ such that it is not reasonable or economic to rebuild after covid19 with the same old system.

One lesson from the Covid19 era is to examine the effectiveness of messages in behaviour change and psychology. Simple, short messages, slogans and direct appeals to people’s own needs and motivations have proved effective. However, trust in the ‘messenger’ and the actions and behaviour of others have proved to be significant factors affecting effectiveness.

Whilst nature and the environment are carrying on ‘as normal’, access to the countryside has been restricted, so those in cities especially, have missed the country. Regrettably the evidence from 2020 is once access is permitted again, there will be a significant rise in littering and ‘bad’ behaviour from some people, and given international travel is far less likely, there is a real worry for managing and maintaining natural places at home with increased footfall.

In the UK, the closure of zoos, and lack of meaningful Government support, is a major issue – not just in terms of the operation of the zoos but in the delivery of their conservation, research and education work now and in future. Staff in charitable areas as well as visitor engagement have been made redundant, whilst high animal welfare standards are maintained. The public love zoos – visitor numbers are huge, 30 million visitors to BIAZA zoos in a normal year! And that is how zoos have successfully funded themselves and conservation for years – whilst museums for example, are core funded largely by local and national government. Zoos have helped the government achieve requirements under the Convention of Biological Diversity and supported curriculum learning without any government core funding. Hopefully, as we move through 2021 things will improve …

Graduation Time & Thanks

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.

Moreton Morrell College

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.

Andy Beer with Lynn Whitnall, Paradise Wildlife Park, at the DMZAA Assessor’s meeting in March

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 🙂

Skills Development – ZooStephen Workshop

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.

Inspiring and Educating Millions Every Year

It has been well known for years that zoos across the world attract hundreds of millions of visitors a year. Indeed, the estimate is at least 10% of the world’s population a year visit zoos and aquariums. The opportunity this provides for education, conservation and environmentalism is therefore unparalleled.

Most people think of the zoos of Europe (EAZA) and North America (AZA) and indeed some of them are leading the way and also provide access to large audiences. There is also innovation and great work coming out of Australasia and South America. Africa remains dominated by the ‘wild’ experience, but now also has some good examples of zoo/aquarium activity.

However, where are most of the world’s people? Asia. There have long been zoos and aquariums across this continent and the majority of them have been perceived and labelled as ‘mediocre’ or poor. There are however, some good examples from Hong Kong to Japan.  Meanwhile, mainland China – population 1.4 billion! – is not generally thought of in the ‘west’ as having leading zoos and aquariums.

I was delighted to visit and experience for myself a leading light, and rapidly changing and improving zoo in Guangzhou, China – Chimelong Safari & Chimelong Birds Park.  The potential and opportunity here is immense with millions of visitors a year and many of them coming from across China, not just local. The standards of animal husbandry and enclosures here, exceed those of many western zoos, and a programme of continuous improvement is active and noticeable. The visitor experience is also of a high standard and education activity is now also underway, alongside engagement in conservation. I have always believed that zoos should be encouraged and supported to improve – and when they demonstrate positive movement, congratulated.

Meeting the staff at Chimelong, despite my lack of Chinese, was a pleasure. Thanks to having a brilliant translator and educator to help me, I was well looked after and able to deliver a ‘training’ talk and discover and discuss the activities underway. The positive direction the organisation is heading to and the action already taken, demonstrate that the potential to educate, influence and encourage behaviour change in millions of people, is real and achievable.

 

Chimelong is a beautiful place, tropical, and has some great species too – including the only giant panda triplets, but also golden monkey, elephant, koala, snakes, giraffe, waterfowl… etc.  The birds park, nearby, has an amazing show/demonstration with flying birds. Well worth a visit.

 

Graduation time – give them a chance

So its that time again when students graduate and move on to the next step in their lives. It is a challenging time in many ways, and somewhat different from when I graduated from various parts of my academic career. Although I too have experienced unemployment and change of direction. However, in the 1980s there was perhaps more support (including the good old UB40 card and benefit) … but we didn’t have the internet and social media.

I have been lucky in recent months to meet many students on animal-care related courses at several colleges, and last week was pleased to return to Sparsholt College to run a couple of workshops on careers and communication skills for the 2nd year students who graduate this summer. Some will move on to colleges and universities to undertake degree studies, some will start their first jobs and others are looking.

There are many students now available for work… and of course not enough jobs directly in their field/career path. So employers are in a lucky position of being able to select what they consider the best candidates for the jobs they have on offer.

Having met lots of students, and been through hundreds of CVs, interviewed many, and employed a number of people through my career, I am aware that application processes can sometimes miss good candidates. Sometimes, the best person for the job doesn’t actually match the job requirements and specification. The challenge is, how can HR and employment practices account for this and give those people a chance – whilst also giving the employer the opportunity to develop and train someone suited to the role on offer. And of course this is especially so with the ‘trainee/junior’ positions.

I have been fortunate to have been given a chance when I chose to switch career and go into conservation education (mid 1980s) even though I had no qualification or experience, just passion, knowledge and enthusiasm. So, as much as possible, I have remembered that and always looked at recruitment to see if its appropriate to give others a chance and created / supported learning opportunities to help students find the right pathway for them.

So, I really do hope for this new generation of graduates, that they can get passed HR gatekeepers and systems and shine through as good candidates for the actual jobs on offer and training opportunities, and that thereby, employers get dedicated, enthusiastic and competent staff who can do the work required, assisted by their academic achievements where possible.

Good luck to all students graduating this summer – and that you get onto the path that you want to and are capable of.