Don’t Just Inform, Educate!

One of the most powerful missions for any organization that displays animals to the public is education. It is one of the main reasons why we justify keeping animals out of the wild. It is why most of the regulatory agencies allow us to exhibit them.

In spite of these educational efforts, ecosystems and animals living in the wild continue to be threatened with extinction. Something is not working. I say this because a recent poll showed that less than five percent of the American public spends more than half-an-hour a year thinking about the welfare of “wildlife, wilderness and open spaces.” It is no wonder that our politicians, from a county commissioner to the President of the United States, don’t include “how we treat the earth” as a priority in their campaign platforms.

In my opinion, there is a significant difference between information and education. It goes like this: “Information” is when you sit on a hot stove the first time. It comes up through your backside. “Education” is when you don’t sit on a hot stove the second time because you have learned that it is hot. You have been educated. The point is that education is knowledge that affects your life. That’s why I say that our messages to the public must do more than just inform.

Scientists are always full of information, but they are seldom taught to be communicators. Education departments in zoos do an admirable job of introducing the public, school groups and budding zoologists to all kinds of information, but where are the scientists who can appear on Sunday morning television as “Spokespeople for the Natural World?” We need those spokespeople. We need new, stronger messages. And we need them now. We need to make people see how necessary wildlife is—and that in reality, they pose almost no danger to us.

The media are busy positioning animals as being dangerous. Several TV networks such as Animal Planet and Discovery produce terrifying programs on animal attacks on humans. For example, “Shark Week,” and “Fang Week.” They must believe that the more dangerous they can make animals seem, the better the ratings and, therefore, the more money they can make. Despite the implication that man-eating sharks are everywhere, on average there are fewer than 40 accidents involving humans and sharks in the US annually and only one death. Compare that with the 17,000 children who require care in the emergency room each year because of lawn mower accidents, tragically resulting in about 2,000 child deaths.

If we are to successfully influence public attitudes, we must educate people about how wildlife, wilderness, and open spaces benefit human welfare. That’s what someone working for a living and trying to feed their family needs to know. We have to educate them so they realize that there is indeed, “something in it for me,” when they work to protect our natural world.

©2012 Jim Fowler