We all have an arsenal of exciting, interesting and engaging stories we can share with our visitors about nature, wildlife, and conservation…but we can only wheel out these ‘weapons’ once we get our visitors to connect.
I bet you’ve tried finger snapping, clapping and whistling to grab a school group’s attention. And what about the mums with toddlers & passers-by who will listen to as much as their walking speed allows? I’m sure we’ve all looked up during a presentation to a sea of camera phones, the audience so busy taking photos and videos that they haven’t looked at life beyond the lens. So how are we supposed to connect people to nature through all of these barriers?
It’s human nature to care about other living things – and animals are innately engaging. People are instinctively drawn to animals, wanting to feed, touch, and just be with them. That’s why contact animals make such amazing engagement tools. They reach out to every one of our senses: seeing, touching (and yes even smelling), these animals creates strong, tangible connections.
A shining example is a little sheltopusik (a type of legless lizard) named Carlos. Carlos lives with his siblings in an enclosure in the Hero HQ exhibit at Wellington Zoo. He has been conditioned to be held and touched and I’d like to think that Carlos and I are a pretty engaging team. He hooks them, and I reel them in.
On a sunny day, I’ll bring him outside Hero HQ and sometimes I’ll take a moment to just stand there. I won’t immediately beckon people over. Carlos is a pretty small animal – quite often the visitors won’t notice that he’s in my hands. They’ll get to the sheltopusik enclosure, slowing down their gait to peer through the glass. I’ll see them spot a sheltopusik, bob their head to acknowledge their find, and continue on. That’s when I like to jump in and say hi.
As soon as they see Carlos in my hands, it’s as if I’m speaking to different people. As if everything goes from sepia-tone to vibrant colour. Their faces illuminate. An animal they were once willing to give 10 seconds of energy to, suddenly has them conversing for over 10 minutes. It’s the same animal, yet suddenly they want to know his name, his age, his story and I’m there, ready to connect them to the stories and messages that Carlos represents for Wellington Zoo.
We’ve all had that feeling when we’ve awakened something in our visitors. It’s that metaphorical moment when the light bulb illuminates above their heads. But getting their attention is just the first step. The animal makes the impact – but where we take it is up to us. As interpreters, we’re there to build that initial connection. Some people may walk away thinking “that was cool”. Others may be completely transformed.
It amazes me how people remember the animals’ names, stories, and species’ information that we have shared with them. I once had an adorable little girl rave to me about how she met “Dad”: one of Wellington Zoo’s shingleback skinks. Her mum told me that every time they come to the Zoo they have to stop by and see Dad because “She knows him”. I found that quite profound. She’d seen him in his enclosure before but once he was brought out to “meet” her, it was personal. Her mum told me that in honour of Dad, they’d made a rock garden for the skinks in their own back yard.
I find it heart-melting to think that our contact animals and the interpreters who handle them inspire such change in people. We won’t know how much each visitor takes away from these experiences, but whether they have a cool memory of what a sheltopusik feels like, or have remodelled their backyard to help native species, those visitors felt a real nature connection.
Contact animals are a powerful tool in getting our visitors to stop, revel, wonder and connect – even if it’s only for a moment. When your goal is connecting people to nature and conservation, I can’t think of a better way to make that link than with the animals themselves.