A Trip to a Cultural Institution Provides More Than Just Fun

A trip to a zoo, nature center or other cultural institution is often planned as a recreational or primarily social event. The reality is these visits are critical learning experiences for youth and adults alike. School-age children spend considerably more time out of school than they do at school. Between evenings, weekends and breaks, in the United States, school accounts for about 6.7 hours a day for 180 days, or roughly 25% of a child’s time spent awake each year. The opportunities youth have in their out-of-school time can make a significant difference in their future school, career and life trajectories.

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Cultural institutions are favorite places to visit for a variety of reasons: many people feel safe visiting their local and regional institutions, and they find the exhibits and experiences relevant and meaningful. The institutions are rich in learning opportunities and removed from that typical school-day feeling. They are fun, engaging and memorable. Many institutions are free to visit or offer memberships that make frequent visits affordable.

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The Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are top informal learning institutions in the community, combining opportunities to observe animals in naturalistic habitats with stories of individual animals. Many animals are part of critical, global conservation initiatives; others have been rescued from unfortunate circumstances and have inspiring stories about second chances and new beginnings. These stories are shared through signage, in-person by staff and volunteers, and by digital media available to guests. In addition, guests often have the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities that focus on science concepts while engaging with experts in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers during their visit. Perhaps most importantly, visitors build their understanding of animals’ adaptations, physical appearances, behaviors and individual personalities through their observations. This information creates an awareness about the natural world and how human and non-human animals share the same spaces and interact.

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Young children, from birth to kindergarten age, are creating their understanding of the world, they’re building their vocabulary and figuring out how things work with an insatiable, natural curiosity. Exposure to places like the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center are critical to developing their future skills and interests. The Belle Isle Nature Center has indoor and outdoor play areas designed specifically for young children. Both areas have natural items like tree cross sections, natural building blocks, rocks and seasonal items like acorns and pinecones for visitors to discover. Adults are essential mentors as they encourage youth to manipulate objects, provide correct vocabulary to identify items, and prompt early learners with questions so they can investigate together. These actions explore cause and effect, help draw parallels between what children know and are learning, and aid in the development of scientific thinking skills.

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As a whole, these experiences build visitors’ understanding of the natural world and systems within it. During a visit, guests have opportunities to explore their impact, both direct and indirect, on those systems and how they can make informed decisions that ultimately benefit themselves, wildlife and wild places. Guests who regularly visit informal learning institutions with children are predisposing them to be interested in STEM-related fields and equipping them with the essential skills needed to pursue those careers, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and planning and conducting investigations. So the next time you think: “we should do something fun today, like visit the Detroit Zoo,” know that you’re not only going to enjoy your visit, but, if you bring children, you just may be helping to shape their future.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Build Empathy for Local Wildlife with Remote Cameras

An important aspect of humane education is building students’ empathy for other animals, including wildlife. One method of building empathy for wildlife is providing experiences that allow people to observe the animals firsthand. At the Detroit Zoo, guests have many opportunities to watch exotic wildlife in expansive, naturalistic habitats. However, people’s opportunities to observe local wildlife can be more limited. Deer, raccoons and other animals may share our local environment, but some of them are nocturnal and tend to be inactive when most people are active. Other animals are fearful of humans and try to avoid contact.

To address this challenge, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) educators are adopting a technology commonly used by conservation researchers: remote cameras. Remote cameras allow researchers to record images and videos of wildlife without the need to be physically present to press a button. While researchers use these images to monitor wildlife populations, humane educators can also use them to give students a look at the local wildlife who may be hard to spot. These experiences can help students empathize with their animal neighbors.

City Critters is just one of the programs where DZS educators are using remote cameras. In this program, DZS educators train preservice teachers to lead humane education lessons to elementary school students. The 45-minute lessons include an activity in which the students analyze images from a network of remote cameras in Detroit parks, operated by the University of Michigan’s Applied Wildlife Ecology (AWE) Lab. By analyzing these images, the students learn about the raccoons, opossums, squirrels, geese and other wildlife who share their local environment. Remote cameras are also incorporated into The Humane Education Horticulture Program. In this program, DZS educators have helped students at Oakland County Children’s Village install remote cameras in a nearby forest and wetland so they can identify the wildlife in the area. Over the past month, the cameras have recorded images of many animals, including rabbits and deer.

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERAAn image of a white-tailed deer recorded near Oakland County Children’s Village

By observing images and videos of local wildlife, students learn more about these animals’ experiences. For example, they may learn that rabbits are most active in the early morning, or that deer often raise their heads when they are feeding. Over time, students may also come to see themselves as members of a more-than-human community. For instance, the students at Children’s Village are now noting other signs of wildlife on their campus, including tracks, scat and vocalizations.

You can use remote cameras to build empathy for local wildlife, too! One option is to participate in Michigan ZoomIN, a public science project in which people can help researchers at the AWE Lab analyze images from their remote camera network. For more information about the project, click here: zooniverse.org/projects/michiganzoomin/michigan-zoomin. Another option is to purchase a remote camera and install it in your backyard. You can find a wide range of cameras for sale online or at your local sporting goods store. If you install a remote camera in your backyard, be sure not to bait it with food or other attractants. Baiting cameras is not necessary, and it can harm the animals.

– Stephen Vrla and Claire Lannoye-Hall are curators of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: The Evolution of Zoo Vet Resources

I’ve been a practicing zoo veterinarian for 25 years; the last 20 of which have been spent here at the Detroit Zoo. Things have changed so much over the years, especially as it relates to the resources that are available to zoo and wildlife veterinarians as well as the technology we use to share information.

My first “real” job as a zoo veterinarian was at the Potawatomi Zoo in Indiana. I was the zoo’s first full-time veterinarian, and had to build the veterinary programs from scratch. I was a brand-new vet, full of ideas, and the only one at the zoo. It was a fun challenge and I had a lot to learn.

It was a very different time. When I first started I didn’t have a computer that was my own – I shared a very old model with our animal staff that did not have an internet connection. There was no email available back then; in order to reach out to someone for feedback or advice, you had to talk to them on a phone (that was connected to the wall!) The internet was not yet flush with information about zoo medicine, and most publications had to be rooted out of university libraries or actually found on your bookshelf.

So I made a lot of phone calls, talked to people at meetings, eventually sent a lot of emails, and connected with people on “listserves”. Some of my most valuable connections were within a group called the Midwest Regional Zoo Vets. This group started gathering soon after I started working in Indiana, and I very happily joined their ranks. It was a small group at first; five to seven people meeting to talk about anesthesia challenges and vaccine programs and sharing a spaghetti dinner made together in the hospital kitchen. I was the newest, youngest veterinarian in the group and found it invaluable to have this group as a resource.

Things have changed over the years. Electronic resources and connections make it much easier to keep the latest research at our fingertips and obtain feedback from other experts in our field. Despite all these resources, it’s still incredibly valuable to gather together and talk about the challenges we face. I’m happy to report that the Midwest Regional Zoo Vet group is still going strong after more than 23 years, and for most of these I’ve been the organizer and chairperson. We meet twice each year, rotating our locations between a dozen zoos in Ohio and the surrounding states. We have been able to maintain the intimacy of those first, small, cozy meetings, even though our last meeting was 30 members strong.

We talk about all kinds of things, from parasites to grief management, nutrition to radiology. We also often share clinical cases and invite outside experts to join in on the discussion. We talk about the cases that stump us, share our amazing success stories, and discuss our failures. There is no question that can’t be asked, no problem too trivial. I always learn so much more than I expect at our meetings – it’s fantastic! Zoo veterinarians are some of the most generous, dedicated people I know, and bringing my colleagues together to help provide the best possible medical care to animals is extremely rewarding. I’m proud to be part of a profession that feels like family!

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.