Monday, May 21, 2018

Reading is Power: the Call of Stories

by Sheila Campbell
Librarian - Columbus Zoo 

I have been a zoo librarian for 20 years and one of the things that I have learned is that zoo people are readers.  Why? Because reading is a powerful tool that can be transformative!  “Read enough and you will find yourself in someone else’s words. Read a little more and you might find yourself not in the story of another human, but in the story of another animal.”  [1]

Staff, volunteers, docents, divers, and interpreters at our zoo connect with colleagues, share ideas inspired by reading and talk about ways storytelling can be used to encourage our visitors to share conservation messages with others and to get involved with and support local and global conservation organizations, like the zoo. They feel encouraged by the stories and knowledge shared and learn from each other’s stories and use these stories to influence our visitors to care about wildlife.  Books are “the ultimate tool for personal empowerment.”

According to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, losing yourself in a work of fiction might actually increase your empathy.   Research has shown that it is stories, not facts, that change perspective and inspire behavior change, making stories a powerful method for interpreters.  As Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996), asserted, “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”  

Who can deny that conservation is about our relationships? And that storytelling plays a central role in empowering educators and learners to synthesize and verbalize personal experiences, communicate feelings, and construct meaning, all of which are processes vital to effective learning.  Stories in books and videos  create mental images and images help us learn, grab our attention, explain tough concepts, and can inspire us to take action. Stories are both unique to specific animals and also part of the shared international story about wildlife and wild places.

So pick up a book and read and inspire!  Here’s what I’ve read recently:

Lightman, Alan.  Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.  Pantheon, 2018.  Lightman worked for many years as a theoretical physicist—is the author of six novels, a memoir, 3 collections or essays, and several books on science.  I love his essays.  This collection “explores the tension between our yearning for permanence and certainty, and the modern scientific discoveries that demonstrate the impermanent and uncertain nature of the world.” (from the Penguin website at His writing is very lyrical and thought provoking and makes me want to be in a boat looking at stars on a lake in Maine.

Ackerman, Jennifer.  The Genius of Birds. Penguin, 2017.  I loved this book.  Not only did it read like a good novel, but it gave me a new perspective on the intelligence of birds.  Being called a “bird brain” is not an insult, but a compliment.

Mooallem, Jon.  Wild OnesA Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Penguin, 2014.  Realizing that his little daughter’s world overflowed with artificial animals, i.e. butterfly pajamas, appliqu├ęd owls, plush animals—while in the actual world she will inherit slides into “a great storm of extinction,” the author explores the world of modern conservation.  He highlights the “stories of three modern-day endangered species: the polar bear, victimized by climate change and ogled by tourists outside a remote northern town; the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly, foundering on a shred of industrialized land near San Francisco; and the whooping crane as it’s led on a months-long migration by costumed men in ultralight airplanes.”

Brain Pickings: a blog that features the writing of Maria Popova about culture, books, philosophy and eclectic subjects on and off the Internet. She reads voraciously and writes about what she reads.  This is my go-to place to find interesting books to read.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why Small Grants for Conservation?
by Beth Armstrong
ZACC – Chair
Former Field Conservation Coordinator for the Columbus & Brevard Zoos

Every zoo comes to its conservation commitment in its own way. In 1990 the Columbus Zoo began to build its support of in situ conservation through a series of small grants. Our philosophy was based on a commitment to action - of building relationships, on being proactive, of being a true partner by being responsive to the ever changing needs of any given field project.

Researching for a project I am currently working on I came across a paper I had written in 1998 or 1999 for presentation at an AZA conference - 20 years ago. When I took a moment to read it, I was struck that although much has changed over the last 28 years, i.e. many more zoos providing start-up and long-term grants; more diverse zoo conservation models and partnerships with field people; and field researchers on staff at zoos and aquariums - the philosophy and formula that built the Columbus Zoo’s conservation commitment was still relevant today – especially for those zoos that are just initiating their own conservation commitment. 

Our Formula - 1990:
  • be humble, recognize we are not field researchers
  • recognize that zoos have an infrastructure to offer
  • empower your staff and volunteers to be actively involved
  • approach the project from a holistic standpoint 
  • contact a researcher
  • offer some support, but don’t make promises you may not be able to keep
  • start with a small sum of money
  • take your lead from the person in the field, don’t presume to have the answers for what is best for that particular project
  • build the relationship over time, remember your institution is proving itself as much as the field researcher.
1. We never limited ourselves to only supporting species we housed at Columbus Zoo – the thinking was it was too narrow a scope. We recognized that by supporting a project even if the focus was on a species that we did not house we were also supporting all the species that fell within the umbrella of that particular ecosystem.
2. Eventually we added a dedicated “Emergency Funds” fund to our list of funding priorities. We also allocated a certain amount of our annual conservation budget to support membership fees for a variety of conservation organizations.

Our small grant philosophy served several purposes especially in the early 1990’s when few North American zoos were actively supporting fieldwork with the most notable exception being WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) who was way ahead of the curve.
  • many field projects had yet to become established - they were looking for financial support to get their projects up and running.
  • small grants allowed for Columbus to take the chance of what were then many unknown field researchers with little financial risk if the project failed due to any number of factors. (*see below)
  • most importantly small grants acted as the building blocks for developing long-term relationships  - resulting in larger grants over a multi-year funding cycles.
  • the solidifying of relationships over a period of time gave Columbus the knowledge and ability to act as a facilitator for our field partners. Our job was to connect our partners with other zoos and additional sources of funding – we could speak for the field folks because we had built trusting relationships with them.
*This formula is not perfect but what it allowed us to do is take chances – to go with unknowns and if a project folded because of personnel changes on the ground, political or civil unrest, natural disasters, change in government, security issues – we did not take a huge financial hit. 

The types of grants that we allocated were as follows:

  • small start-up grant opportunities for unknown projects & researchers
  • Emergency Fund - enabling us to respond to emergencies on the ground immediately without making those projects jump through endless hoops
  • a commitment to certain partners over the long-term

We also strove to make the process easy for field researchers:
  • we kept our application form simple – 3 pages.
  • we kept our reporting simple as well, i.e. just requested that they send us a copy of the report they provided to their other funders - a year to the date of receiving their CZ grant.
  • we requested that our logo appear in all presentations and in publications when thanking or listing funders. 
  • and because we believed in the power of anecdotal stories we requested a couple of short updates via email accompanied by a few photos throughout the year - which we would share with staff, board members, volunteers and our visiting public. This served two purposes, anecdotal stories can inspire and move us to action unlike pure data, and as the spokesperson for the field researcher this allowed me to continue to inform and get buy-in from our funding sources - the zoo's conservation committee, staff and  board members. 

Infrastructure and initiatives:
Something I think that was incredibly important was that we empowered our staff and volunteers to be proactive. We solicited the artistic talents of both docents and staff artists to create artwork for NGO logos, educational posters, project t-shirts and football (soccer) uniforms, and coloring books. We sent maintenance people into the field when requested. We brought veterinarians over from other countries for further training, and sent our vets to a variety of projects – again when requested by the field project. We supported staff initiatives such as Partners in Conservation (PIC), started by my fellow gorilla-keeper Charlene Jendry and three Columbus Zoo docents. PIC is now in its 26th year and is heralded as the zoo’s signature project. 

We gave staff and volunteers the creative room to come up with alternative and additional fundraisers. We had their buy-in because they were true partners, they had a stake in sharing their talents because we guaranteed that the money raised went directly to the field. I often hear from staff at other zoos a frustration that they cannot initiate fundraisers or that they have done fundraisers and their zoo once realizing this was money-maker take over and the money mysteriously disappears into the general fund. I would urge zoos to let your staff have creative license, let them be empowered, let them be inventive. And I would argue not only is it good for the field projects but it is good for staff morale. Because if your staff does not have a sense of ownership, or a belief that affirms that they can truly make a difference, then you will lose them. I have seen volunteers and staff drop all interest when all control has been taken from them. Their goodwill and commitment are some of your very best assets – let them be a partner in this.

Our criteria for providing funding focused on a common-sense approach to conservation – less about data collection and more about action. We gave priority to and selected projects that engendered a holistic philosophy and approach to their field conservation project - that included the following:
  • a solid research component coupled with an on-the ground conservation programs
  • involvement and employment of indigenous /local people
  • partnerships with indigenous/local people
  • an education component
  • projects that included heath benefits to local communities - fresh water, community clinics, schools, libraries
Where did we get our conservation dollars?
  • A percentage of our annual operating budget – i.e. a portion of gate receipts, food vendors, gift shop sales, etc. In 1990 the Columbus Zoo’s in situ conservation budget was $25,000, by 1999 it was $280,000
  • Panda dollars - we had access to a large fund generated from the Giant Panda loan agreement (we housed 2 pandas for a number of months in 1992). The deal was as the host zoo we were required to set aside a percentage from gate receipts and place in a restricted fund to be used for Panda conservation and research with approval from USFWS. Although we found that the USFWS to be quite open, allowing us to fund other projects as well - such as the northern white rhino project in Garamba National Park in DRC in the mid to late1990’s.
  • Coin drop walls built in the 1990’s – for every new exhibit we installed a coin-drop wall.  All dollars raised from each of these walls were restricted to species within the ecosystem/region represented - i.e. African Forest wall/ field projects in Africa; Manatee wall/ manatees or species in manatee ecosystems.
  • In 1998 the Columbus Zoo was approached by a donor who when on a trip to Uganda was inspired by our support for several projects at the time. These included the Kibale Chimpanzee Project and the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), as well as training of Ugandan veterinarians. This donor committed to donating $50,000 per year for the next five years, a total of $250,000.  My only concern/stipulation was that this money would not in any way replace what the zoo was already committed to (annual percentage of operating budget, coin drop walls, etc.) but would instead always be in addition to our commitment.
The benefits to our organization were numerous, by committing our resources to in situ conservation we were recognized as a credible conservation organization, we developed lasting relationships with our colleagues in the field that allowed for the exchange of information concerning various species and habitats – i.e. we had compelling stories to share with our visitors on zoo signage, in our newsletters and on our website. And we honestly could say to ourselves and to the visiting public we were “walking the walk.” We had credibility both in the zoo world and the field conservation world.

The donor I mentioned earlier in this essay, stated upon their return from Uganda: “I was impressed, very much impressed with the presence of the Columbus Zoo wherever I went. With very few dollars the zoo was impacting the lives of local people and wildlife. I saw posters and t-shirts produced and distributed by the zoo, appreciation plagues and met guides, rangers and veterinarians who know and had worked with Zoo staff both in Africa and at home. I returned to Columbus believing I wanted to assist the Zoo in expanding its work in field conservation.”

National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols sent me an email on June 15, 2000 when he heard I was leaving Columbus to start a new job at Brevard Zoo,  “Columbus Zoo has always been a leader in giving support to conservation projects in Central Africa. I have seen hard working field people stay alive with funds that Columbus Zoo provides. Always carefully and thoughtfully directed, the Columbus Zoo grants make a difference. The researchers at Mbeli Bai and the chimpanzee pilot study at Ndoki National Park (Republic of Congo) just might not exist without the support of the Columbus Zoo. Both are very important to science and conservation. Columbus Zoo is doing what all zoological parks should be doing – making a difference before it is too late.”

These accolades came from modest beginnings - awarding small grants. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ever wonder if what you are doing here is making a difference? Read this attached story of one young woman who has been inspired by our Zoo.
Jessie Lowry
Conservation Manager
Blank Park Zoo - Des Moines, Iowa

The Zoo That Grew Me
By Averee Luhrs

My family came to Iowa in 1996, when I was 3 and half years old. I remember driving up to our new home: a large salmon pink and beige house with a huge front yard and land stretching behind it. It looked immense at the time, and slightly barren. We lived out in the country in a space of shared borders; our address was Norwalk, our water Des Moines, and our school Indianola. Living 15 minutes from nearly all of my school friends, my playground was outside and my companions were animals. I raised butterflies and tadpoles, I caught snakes and rescued baby birds (on some occasions, baby mice), and I had my own Audubon field guide with my 8 year-old field notes scrawled inside. I was fascinated with the natural world, and I began to learn without even realizing it. I found that my caterpillars would always eat the plant on which I first discovered them (which is how I learned that monarchs prefer milkweed to lay their eggs). I learned that snakes liked to bask on warm surfaces on cold mornings; I learned robins make a certain noise when you get too close to their nests; I learned to tell the difference between a monarch and a viceroy, and I learned that bats would catch your leftover fishing worms if you threw them in the air high enough.

All of this knowledge, at the time, seemed to be part of my daily adventure and play. But in reality, it formed the basis for an understanding of ecology, zoology, and conservation. I do think that regardless of where I had grown up, I would have developed a love for nature, but I think I was particularly lucky to have not only had a huge back yard, but also a zoo.  When my brother and I were very young, my mother would pile us into the car and drive us 8 minutes to the zoo for the entire day, often two times a week. The zoo was the ultimate adventure for my small self. While my backyard had deer, robins, and garter snakes; the zoo had zebras, “bad hair day cranes” (Grey-crowned cranes, of course), and pythons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the zoo offered a valuable bridge to my backyard learning: birds at the zoo still had nests and made different calls, the zebras (although certainly not deer) still lived in herds and grazed on grass, the massive pythons still preferred the warm sun, just like our tiny garters. One of the first things I remember learning from the zoo is that no matter where an animal is from or how exotic it may seem, the rules of nature still apply.  Categories like “mammals” and “reptiles” began to make sense to me on a functional level, and ecosystems and behavioral characteristics became reachable concepts.

The time I spent at the zoo also offered a bridge, however imaginary, to faraway places. The zoo helped me learn that the world was so much bigger than I often felt it could be. When you grow up in the country, especially in Iowa,  and even in the huge United States, you often feel you are living in a bubble. “The world” can seem to exist only within state or national borders. But as a child, seeing a tiger, a giraffe, an emu, or a snow monkey was revolutionary. These animals were part of a much bigger place than Des Moines or Indianola.  I could see that my backyard was only one of a billion other backyards. Somewhere a child was watching a monkey play in the trees behind her house, and another may be spotting wallabies on his way home from school. It is often incredibly difficult to achieve a sense of “worldliness” when you cannot afford to travel, but the zoo did the travelling for me, and the zoo allowed a small girl’s mind imagine the far spaces of the globe that she could someday visit.

I was 7 when the zoo opened the indoor jungle exhibit. At the time, I was particularly interested in butterflies, so the indoor butterfly garden (now home to a type of Australian sparrow, I believe) felt like pure magic. I remember being thrilled to know that butterflies from real jungles had caterpillars and chrysalises too. My excitement was only amplified when I met the new marmosets. I realized, quickly, that if you mimicked their high pitched squeaking noise you could get them to come to your side of the cage. I saw how intelligent they were (smarter than my cat at home at least) and how different they seemed from any other animal. I do think on some level I had always been interested in monkeys, but I know the marmosets were certainly a catalyst in what would turn out to be a long-lived adoration for all things primate. Before leaving one day, my brother and I were given a rare opportunity to pick out something from the gift shop. I chose Antuco, a hanging stuffed squirrel monkey. These hanging monkeys were a well-known “Wild Futures” brand series, and I would eventually start getting one with almost every visit to the zoo. I learned each one’s species (sifaka, gibbon, tamarin) and kept them all hanging in my room, swearing that I’d work in a zoo with the monkeys one day. Antuco is currently hanging next to me as I write in my room in Oxford, UK
       In the 8th grade, I job-shadowed a zookeeper at the Blank Park Zoo for a school assignment.  I don’t remember much past cleaning the huge giraffe house and asking lots of questions, but I know I was more excited for that day than I’d ever been for a day in the classroom. I was thrilled to learn about the “ZooCrew” volunteer program, which I saw (at the time) as a chance to work my way up the system. A year later, I was finally 14 and I became a certified volunteer. To say I was obsessed might be an understatement; my AIM username was (embarrassingly) “zoogrl28.” During the summer of 2006 I spent eight hours a day, three days a week volunteering for the zoo. I prepared food for the birds and the prairie dogs, I cleaned the petting zoo, and I helped the older interns with their summer camp courses. I was so incredibly excited to finally be a part of the place that I had visited so often. I got to groom Dolly, the llama that I had loved from the early days, I got to feed Barnaby the tortoise, whose long neck I had touched once when I was 8, I learned the names of the giraffes that I had known for years, and I formed a bond with nearly every goat the petting zoo had to offer.  My favorite job involved working the information stands across the zoo.  At these stands, I had little items for visitors to touch(an ostrich egg, hair from a giraffe tail, a peacock feather) and I shared facts about the exhibit animals. It was working those stands that taught me that not only could my personal knowledge be useful and interesting to others, but that many of my fellow Iowans hadn’t yet come to appreciate the astounding world of animals the same way that I had.

When I was a sophomore at Drake University (majoring in, of course, Zoology) I was able to return to the zoo as a Summer Safari Intern. I was suddenly in charge of the younger Zoo Crew volunteers and a large horde of 5 and 6 year olds each week. Again, I found a great joy in not only teaching children and parents about the natural world, but I found it particularly exciting to introduce strangers to “my” zoo. In the years that I had grown up there, I felt the zoo had grown up with me. As I had added inches to my height, the zoo had added an indoor jungle, a marvelous playground, a cool clock tower, a travelling exhibit, a lecture series on conservation, and even a newly renovated Australia sector. I was (and still am) a believer of the Blank Park Zoo, and I wanted others to understand its value to the state of Iowa.

Someone else must have believed in us too, because in the summer of 2012 the zoo was lucky enough to host the annual Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference. I could not attend, because that summer I was in Rwanda for my undergraduate research, but I obsessively read the updates on Twitter and Facebook. It was through this obsession that I saw a zoo tweet about the upcoming talk of Dr. Anna Nekaris, a renowned expert on the endangered Slow Loris. Interested, I clicked the link and found that she was a tutor on the Oxford Brookes University Master’s course on Primate Conservation. It is now almost 2016, about four years later. I graduated from Drake University in 2014 with a BS in Zoology (concentrating in Primatology) and Environmental Science. I began the Brookes  Primate Conservation course in Oxford, UK in September of 2014, and finished almost exactly one year later. Now, in late January 2016, I am starting my PhD at Oxford Brookes under the tutelage of Dr. Anna Nekaris, with my work focusing on nocturnal African primates. In the last few years I have been lucky enough to see many of my favorite zoo animals in the wild. I have been able to meet many leaders in conservation and I have been to many, many different countries and cities. And I know for a fact that much of my current success stemmed from an early love for the zoo.

Every year that I can come home, I spend some time at my zoo. In many ways, the Blank Park Zoo is “home” for me. The zoo and I both continue to grow, something that I hope can continue for many years.  So here is the moral of the story:  zoos are important. Zoos can teach about nature and conservation, promote respect for wildlife, and inspire travel and adventure. A good zoo can inspire and grow a veterinarian, a scientist, a zookeeper, a teacher, a farmer, or a primatologist. A zoo can grow you. So here’s my advice. Go find your nearest accredited zoo.  Don’t just stroll through with your cell phone camera at the ready. Really make an effort to learn.  If you bring your child, help them learn as well. Learn about the animals, read the signs, watch how the animals move, and listen to how they sound. Imagine the places these animals live, and what it might be like to see one in the wild. Consider that currently, in some zoo, a little girl or boy is seeing a raccoon or a Virginia opossum for the first time, and imagining the far-off world of North America. Learn why some of the animals you see in zoos are disappearing, and imagine they are the animals you grew up with. Take action and donate to conservation projects (local or international), schedule a trip to a far-off place, or simply appreciate the natural world. The motto of the Blank Park Zoo is deceptively simple: “Do the Zoo.” So that’s my challenge. Do the zoo, but do it right. Let it teach and inspire you and your children, your friends and your family, just as it taught and inspired me. 

Averee Luhrs is living in Oxford, UK and is gearing up for three years of researching two little-known species of nocturnal primate in West Africa. She comes home to Iowa at least once a year and always visits the zoo. She asks that if you love the zoo as much as she does, that you donate, become a member, and spread the word. She can be reached at