Chris Smith was one of the first people I met in Raleigh. He showed up at the hotel in a big van, carrying a clipboard with a list of 20 names.
Chris and I had been talking before. We had discussed Sci-Ed projects via email. We chatted over a Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy. I even made pushy requests (e.g., can I follow you around with a camera and microphone?), to which he consented with shy enthusiasm.
That clipboard list of 20 names included mine. Chris took the group of 19 and I to a tour of the Duke Lemur Center. But it was on the tour that I witnessed a transformation in our host. Something about his tone of voice, posture, and eye contact had changed. Chris had morphed into a confident, lemur-authority science interpreter.
Atop the tallest pine tree, Kizzy sat poised and tense. Then, like a skydiver jumping from a plane, she leapt from the branches. Arms and legs outstretched, she crashed through the tangle and landed with a big bear hug onto a small limb below. Black and white ruffed lemurs are not the most graceful of lemurs.
If you read Sci-Ed regularly, then we’ve met. I was the guide and narrator of Cristina’s Lemur Week videos (Part I and Part II). I work at the Duke Lemur Center, the world’s largest collection of lemurs outside of their native Madagascar. The Center houses over 250 animals on 70 acres in Durham, NC. I serve as the education specialist, and it’s my job to introduce people to the world of lemurs. I take small groups of visitors on guided tours of the facilities. Our goal is to get them close to the lemurs so they can see why lemurs are so special.
That morning, the tour group and I had been in the forested free-range enclosures for only a few minutes before the lemurs descended. As we watched Kizzy and her four sons come crashing down, I talked to the group about the lemurs who roam free in the forest. Lemurs are primates – the most ancient primates on Earth, in fact. Evolved more than 60 million years ago, lemurs found themselves in isolated Madagascar and over time adapted into more than 80 unique species, with characteristics and behaviors all their own. Today, lemurs are considered the most endangered group of mammals on the planet. More than 90% of all species are threatened with extinction. Some could disappear in as few a ten years. Now surrounding us, the lemurs furiously clamored for their treats as the keeper tossed crunchy chow around. I took the opportunity to talk about the diet, foraging behavior and social interactions between lemurs. The visitors smiled, laughed and gasped while these ruffed lemurs ate, jumped, and squabbled over food.
A science interpreter facilitates learning
The role of an interpreter (that’s me) is to reveal the “awesome.” Interpretation in museums or zoos goes beyond reciting facts. It’s about building an emotional connection with the audience. Interpretation done well meets the audience intellectually and provokes their own curiosity. It’s a way of communicating that involves connecting the visitor to the resource through the experience. The goal is to promote action on the part of the participant: to learn more, share what they’ve learned with others or take action directly on the issue.
At the Lemur Center, I try to get visitors as close to the animals as possible while highlighting the different aspects of lemurs’ lives, research and conservation. When the blue-eyed black lemur stares at visitors, guests often comment on the beauty of the lemur’s blazing blue eyes. I can use that as a perfect opportunity. Only 4 primate species have individuals with blue eyes (one of them is humans), but only in blue-eyed black lemurs do each individual possess this trait. They’re also critically endangered, and their unique genetic distinction could disappear forever due to habitat loss. The Duke Lemur Center houses the only two breeding females in captivity.
The combination of fluffy, bright-eyed animals and a knowledgeable guide is magic for guest experience and education. Ballantyne et al. (2007) studied the impacts of different animal exhibits and interpretation schemes at zoos and found that when guests can see an active animal and they have someone to easily explain what they’re seeing, guests learn more. Interpretive programs have been shown to positively influence environmental awareness and conservation action in visitors to natural heritage sites (Zeppell 2008). These effects were discussed in Sci-Ed previously, here, here and here.
I conducted my own little research project at the Lemur Center and asked a few people about their experiences on the forest tour. Why did they visit? What did they like? What do they remember most? In the course of my conversations, no one would really own up to having learned anything. Still, they were able to tell me many lemur stories, including ring-tailed lemur stink fights, aye-ayes with rodent-like incisors, or a ruffed lemur’s loud, barking call. Guests were receiving information, but the emotional response to seeing the animals up close made them receptive to the information.
Kizzy and her family withdrew to the treetops to sunbathe. As I lead the guests out of the forest, they continue to ask me questions and talk about the experience. We still have more lemurs to meet, and I have more information to share. I’ll see their pictures on Instagram later in the afternoon – a sure sign: they’ll be lemur lovers for life.
Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. R. Ballantyne, J. Packer, K. Hughes, L. Dierking. Environmental Education Research, Vol. 13, Iss. 3, 2007
Education and Conservation Benefits of Marine Wildlife Tours: Developing Free-Choice Learning Experiences. Heather Zeppel, The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol. 39, Iss. 3, 2008