Happy World Nature Conservation Day! The education department wanted to give some updates on what they have been doing to include more conservation into the education programs offered at the zoo.
The mission statement for the Lehigh Valley Zoo’s education department is to provide the community with educational opportunities to learn about wildlife and to develop positive attitudes and curiosity about nature and conservation. In the first weeks of the Covid-19 lockdowns, March of 2020, the education department utilized that time to evaluate the programs offered and compare them to the department’s mission. After careful consideration, the department began the process to cut and redesign programs to ensure that each one fit into the mission. Over the past two years, the changes implemented in the education department have expanded the department’s conservation impact and brought us closer to our mission.
The first program to change was the onsite rental events. These programs include parties, weddings, and catered events run by the events team, both during and after zoo hours. The timeline for the education portion of these events is a one-hour mingle with three to four ambassador animals. Education staff stand behind a table and guests can walk up and meet the animal as they move around the event. The animals are changed out every fifteen minutes or as needed. These programs are not meant to be formal presentations but mingles with the guests for short periods. Since the amount of time spent with guests in these programs is shortened compared to our formal presentations, it was important to expand the conservation impact beyond the conservation messages presented during the program.
The education department decided that 20% of the profits from these mingles would be donated to a conservation organization related to the theme of the animal package. This would increase the conservation impact beyond the educational information given during these programs. There are three different animal packages that guests can choose from. The Rainforest Friends package includes the Linnaeus Two-Toed Sloth and three ambassador animals. This package donates to Smithsonian’s Bird-Friendly Project to help conserve rainforest habitats in South America. The Penguin and Feathered Friends package includes an African Black-Footed Penguin and three ambassador animals, usually birds if they are available for programs. This package donates to the African Penguin SAFE, impacting African Penguin conservation in South Africa. The last package is the Amazing Animal Ambassadors, which includes four of the ambassador animals, generally from the smaller ambassador birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrate populations. This package donates to Wildlife Alliance. This organization focuses on wildlife rescue and rainforest protection. The addition of these donations to rental events has helped promote reliable conservation organizations to the public and increased guest and zoo participation in conservation programs around the world.
Bean, the zoo’s Linnaeus Two-Toed Sloth, typically books up three months in advance for his weekend private encounters. As the most popular private encounter, this was the first encounter to get a revamp in its conservation messaging. Previously, the staff gave out rainforest alliance-certified coffee bean samples with every encounter. This helped spread the message of shade-grown, rainforest-friendly coffee. To continue with this conservation message to help protect rainforest habitats, the program was adapted to offer freshly brewed Bird Friendly Coffee samples and opportunities to purchase bags of Bird Friendly coffee beans with the encounter. This coffee comes from a new partnership with a local coffee roaster, Calm Waters Coffee Roasters in Bristol, PA. Calm Waters Coffee Roasters recently underwent the certification process to roast Bird Friendly Coffee. The Smithsonian Bird Friendly Project certifies that coffee and cocoa bean farmers in South America are growing organic, shade-grown crops and that the roasters follow a specific process. This addition to sloth programs has engaged the guests with conservation that directly affects the animal they are learning about. Taking the extra steps of brewing coffee, supplying the coffee with encounters, and selling it in our nature store has helped make conservation for rainforest animals an accessible goal for many zoo guests.
In addition to education programs, the department prepares pop-up tables to educate about Bird-Friendly Coffee at the zoo’s daytime events. Education staff set up Bird Friendly Coffee sample stations and education tables to teach guests about the coffee and provide samples. These tables educate guests about how easy it is to aid in the conservation of the rainforest. The option to sample the coffee before purchasing has reassured guests of good quality and taste before making the purchase. The department has presented tables out in the zoo during World Migratory Bird Day, Endangered Species Day, and multiple Bean Days. The Bean Days are special meet and greet days for a limited amount of guests to have a short meet and greet with the Linneaus Two-Toed Sloth Bean. There has been a great turnout to these events, increasing the impact of the tables and broadening participation outside of paid education programs.
The Lehigh Valley Zoo’s Know Plastic campaign teaches the community about single-use plastics and has an online pledge for guests to sign and commit to limiting the amount of plastic they use each year. To help inspire that change, the education staff decided to work on a new behavior with the ambassador raccoon, Meeko. Meeko has been learning how to recycle by placing an old crumpled plastic bottle into a small recycle can. This behavior is a great way to get the community involved in learning about plastics and help Meeko express her natural behavior of using her front paws. Once the behavior is fully established, staff can begin to demonstrate the behavior during the training portion of Meeko’s private encounters. While the training process has been slow, guests have been able to periodically follow Meeko’s training with updates posted on social media as she has learned this behavior. She has inspired school students in the local community and even had a book jacket created about her to demonstrate the new and innovative ways to talk about climate change. While Meeko hasn’t finished learning the behavior yet, she is getting very close. The attention she has received from the community throughout her learning process has been inspiring to the education department and a great indicator that the direction the department is heading in will better engage the community.
The changes made to education programming at the Lehigh Valley Zoo have impacted the department’s involvement in conservation. It has elevated the staff beyond educating about conservation as they are active participants in it and lead guests to do the same. These changes have had a positive impact on both staff and guest experience during educational programming. Its provided staff with simple solutions for guests regarding complex conservation problems. By clarifying the messages, guests can feel less overwhelmed with the many different opportunities to try and participate in conservation. The education department is excited to look toward the future of programming as we continue to make changes to include more conservation in programs. With each successful conservation change made, the department continues to learn and develop new ideas to progress our work to lead the community in conservation actions.
Written by Dani DiMarco
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA
Featured in Summer 2022 Ambassador Animal Scientific Advisory Group Newsletter