Bringing Down the Walls

Gale H. Ford

Executive Director, Grizzly Discovery Center; West Yellowstone, MT; (406) 646-7001; (fax) (406) 646-4846;


Educational venues to view, interact, and learn about wildlife occur in many settings, including zoos, preserves,

refuges, rehabilitation centers, national parks, and other wild lands. Each human believes his or her venue

or political camp to be the best model for teaching ecology. The world is rapidly changing, both in the effects

created by increasing human populations, and the often-heroic attempts to halt and even reverse such trends.

In the 1960s, "ecology" was a new, mysterious word to most people. Thirty years later, the term "conservation"

has been expanded beyond a resource management definition and now includes concern with retaining

the planet's biodiversity and the actions that affect such change.

These concerns for sustainability, cessation of  extinction, and enhancement of the welfare of endangered

species ultimately will succeed only if they do not fall on deaf ears, but on the ears of those who know the

language and arena of concern. As the family structure as taken on a different face from that of the past,

the connection between young people and wildlife must be nurtured and not left to chance. Parents and

grandparents often were the inspiration for wildlife wonderment

through shared outings into the wild. Each person can probably recall those mentors who were the first to

introduce nature.

Today's living and working conditions do not foster such opportunities. Urban living situations, increased

job demands, widening ethnic perspectives, an aging population, and changes in nuclear family structure

are but a few of the major shifts drastically affecting the nature education of young people. Alternative

avenues for inspiring an interest in wildlife and wild lands must be recognized and enhanced for their ability

to establish a closer relationship between people and wildlife.

The need for effective conservation education is absolutely urgent today.The desire to understand or

merely view animals has been joined by the need to conserve their populations and ecosystems. Over the last

few decades, the explosive growth of human populations has been linked with changes in the abundance of

other species. The understanding of animals' needs and of human impacts on animal populations became critical;

the future of these animals depends on people's actions. This understanding is no longer optional. Everyone

in this discipline knows the message, but in spite of its size, this group is still in the minority.

Today, conservation education needs to be recognized as a specialty that benefits from diverse technologies,

varied educational efforts, and multi-disciplinary expertise. The conservation message needs to shift

from merely endangerment, captive breeding, or even reintroduction to include and emphasize the importance

of saving habitat. The expertise to facilitate the delivery of this message exists. It is present within conservation

groups and in areas that were previously ignored.

Zoos and aquariums draw 121 million visitors each year. Captive wildlife facilities have historically been

considered substandard or poor substitutes for wildlife experiences. While hearing wolves howl at the

Grizzly Discovery Center is not the same experience as hearing a pack of wolves in Lamar Valley, the zoo still

allows the visitor to have a close and personal moment with this species.

The next headline about a wolf is more likely to be read by someone who knows the sound of a howl than

one who does not. Even more importantly, the impact on wild habitats should be considered if human-animal

connections in a wild setting were the only experiences allowed.

Openness to learning about new exhibition techniques, husbandry programs and educational outreach

programs offered in today's zoological institutions needs to be embraced as a viable non-consumptive

augmentation to wildlife education. For the general visitor, zoos and aquariums serve the conservation community

by providing information in a relaxed, family-oriented setting. Zoos and aquariums are positioned

to play an ever-changing role in conservation through education.

Conservation requires an expanding perspective, but educators are divided and confounded by disagreements

about the message and the appropriate media of delivery. Conservationists must share united intentions in

order to be effective. Advocacy groups, wildlife protection groups, and zoological educators share a common

goal: to instill in others the passion to protect, conserve, restore, and ultimately live harmoniously with the

unique wildlife and wild lands in the environment. Therefore, the crucial partnerships that make the

conservation message reach the most ears, in the most effective manner humanly and humanely

possible, should be fostered.