From a Conservation Educator…

I don’t think I can remember my first trip to a zoo. My family visited the Columbus Zoo often when I was little, and the numerous visits have blurred together over the years and decades. What never blurred, though, was my love for the animals I saw on each visit. I remember parking myself at the gorilla exhibit over and over, and the awe never diminished. I had read all about these animals in the library books I regularly hoarded, but to see them live, in front me…to realize how powerful and how intelligent they were…to see how the silverback Mumba interacted with his family, sometimes playing with the young ones or chastising them when they got a little too goofy for his breakfast time preference…to see how curious they could even be about us humans…what a beautiful thing. Even as a child, I wanted to show the whole world how precious these creatures were. As I grew older, that passion to inspire love increased especially as I learned more about their decline in the wild and its implications.

As an adult, the dreamy-eyed wonder and passion for conservation remains, but visits to the zoo are clouded with the backlash of projects like Blackfish the vocal protests of those who adamantly do not approve of animals in human care. Scholarly publications, debates, and arguments go back and forth on that scary forum known as the internet, but what of the other folks like me? Or what of the individuals who care so much about animals that they dedicate their lives to wildlife education? What if instead of seeing zoos as a faceless entity, we could actually talk to the folks who work at them? Learn about what a day for them is like?

This week, I spoke with Grace Fields, Coordinator of Outreach and Family Programs at a zoo in South Carolina. Like me, her passion for animals began young. Even as a three year old, she would insist on a zookeeper as her future career! Now, she feels the responsibility to pass on a love for nature and wildlife to kids like her young self: “Providing programming to foster the next generation of scientists, zoologists, behavioral researchers – providing a place where they fit and belong, following their passions…that’s what I love about this job.”

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Grace Fields with a scaly friend

Fields’ career path has included a number of opportunities for her to both grow as an educator and give back to her students. In addition to earning a Master’s in Education, Fields has taken advantage of professional development opportunities such as certifications and seminars whenever they have been available. In turn, her crafted teaching abilities played a large role in the success of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s KidScience—a program lauded with both local and national recognition. At her current zoo, she is now responsible for coordinating and developing all family programming on zoo grounds in addition to sharing the responsibility of outreach and school programs. Her days are kept busy visiting schools, teaching classes on zoo grounds, writing new programs (which involves tremendous amounts of research in wildlife literature to maintain high educational standards!), and, of course, budgeting and report-writing. The adventure of every day is that there is no typical day!

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Instructing a class

However, alongside all of her work, Fields is certainly aware of the concerns of animals in human care, but also understands the need for conservation education to ensure our generation learn the values of protecting habitats.

“Concerns about captive animals are legit and needed,” she says. “That’s how our animal care standards within the industry have gotten to be so high. We always need critical eyes on us so we can constantly improve. Much of the controversy revolves around larger species. While many people might wish to see zoos release all animals back into the wild, it would be the worst thing we could do for them, as they know no different than life in a Zoo. What we can do is continue to use our captive animals as ambassadors to continue to grow the public’s love and interest in the species. This can then cause the public to make better choices to support the species and its habitat in the wild. If we don’t have a ‘wild’ left, then the idea of taking animals back to the wild would be irrelevant.”

“If we don’t have a ‘wild’ left, then the idea of taking animals back to the wild would be irrelevant.” – Grace Fields

Interestingly, as a woman of strong faith, Fields also sees teaching others about wildlife and conservation as a responsibility.

“I think as a Christian we are given certain gifts and talents that God calls us to use. He also gives us a passion for something. I adore making kids smile by letting them see and touch animals, something they connect with so much. I feel we are called to not just take care of each other, but also the planet He made for us. By teaching good stewardship and care, I’m teaching Biblical principles, even though others may not realize it.”

Beyond that, Fields also sees her position as a unique way to bring joy to those who are often marginalized. “I greatly enjoy going to nursing homes or special needs camps where I can bring a smile to someone’s day…love on them, which we are called to do.”

Overall, Fields strives for excellence across the board. Though her lessons are clear and thorough, it’s in the little details where you can see her efforts to give a warm experience to every nursing home or school she visits and every family or student that walks into her classrooms. Whether it’s something as small as making sure every individual gets to see the biofacts she brought along to a community program, or something as big as caring for a special needs child at a sleepaway zoo camp, Fields rises up to the challenge and leaves new wildlife stewards in her wake.

In the end, though, I don’t know that the men and women like Fields can change the mind of someone who does not approve of animals in human care. Many gross examples of poorly managed roadside animal parks can overshadow the efforts zoos and their conservation research and education efforts.

What is highly important, though, is that zoo educators like Fields can make a difference in the mindset of those who had never realized just how much their actions can shape the planet. Zoo educators can make a difference for those who have never heard of various animals rescued from the brink of extinction (see here). And zoo educators can indeed make a difference for those children—like my younger self—who need a place to feed an insatiable appetite for knowledge.

So here’s to the many folks I know with a passion for wildlife and who do their best to share that passion. You’re doing what you love while getting paid in high-fives and “ooh, cool!” from kids. Whether you’re at a zoo, wildlife rehab facility, science center, school, research institution, or museum, keep working!

And as always, keep exploring!

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