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Chicago Zoological Society Spearheads Zoo Community’s Climate Awareness Initiative

Here in Alaska, the last frontier, the impact of climate change is particularly noticeable and clearly indisputable. Melting polar ice and the retreat of glaciers, among other changes, compromise polar and circumpolar fauna. As the Earth’s surface temperatures have warmed the impact on more temperate, subtropical and tropical regions is perhaps less obvious. Nonetheless, effects...

Here in Alaska, the last frontier, the impact of climate change is particularly noticeable and clearly indisputable. Melting polar ice and the retreat of glaciers, among other changes, compromise polar and circumpolar fauna.

As the Earth’s surface temperatures have warmed the impact on more temperate, subtropical and tropical regions is perhaps less obvious. Nonetheless, effects are significant with increasing storm intensity, wildfires, coastal flooding, droughts, crop failures, loss of habitat and threatened plant and animal species. Hence, there are potentially significant problems facing people living everywhere, not just near the poles.

Both the Sealife Center and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center are members of the Climate and Human Health Work Group (formerly the Alaska Interagency Ecosystem Health Work Group) which is comprised of federal and state agencies and the two zoological facilities. The work group, Co-chaired by the Alaska Dep’t of Health and  Social Service – Division of Public Health, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the  Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium – Center for Climate and Health, is a community of practice that recognizes the interconnections between the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and humans and meets to facilitate the exchange of ideas, data, and research opportunities.

Although it is important to facilitate such discourse among scientists, it is critical to engage the masses and educate young people about climate change. Since more people (primarily families) visit zoos and aquariums than all major sporting events combined, there is no place better than one of these captive wildlife facilities to learn about climate change and what we can do about it.

At the national level, the Chicago Zoological Society’s (CZS) Brookfield Zoo has spearheaded a first of its kind Climate Literacy Initiative through a network of 15 Association of Zoos and Aquariums– accredited institutions around the country. Together they will educate the masses about perhaps our most pressing environmental concern.

I interviewed Dr. Alejandro Grajal, Senior Vice President of Conservation and Education at CZS. Alejandro is leading a distinguished team of principal investigators developing the national initiative. According to Dr. Grajal “We need to increase climate awareness among the public, and we have an excellent opportunity to educate our visitors with the face-to-face realities of climate change through their connection and experiences with animals they see at zoos and aquariums. We want people of all ages to understand that we all can help address the threats of climate change to wildlife and to people,” said Dr. Grajal. With a $1 million planning grant awarded by the National Science Foundation Program on Climate Change and Education this innovative educational initiative has potential to reach more than 20 million visitors annually with information about climate change and the impact it has on wildlife and the environment.

Dr. Alejandro Grajal, Chicago Zoological Society

Jordan Schaul: This innovative program includes15 participating zoological facilities. All are prominent AZA institutions. How did you select them for the national initiative?

Alejandro Grajal:
All these organizations are heavily involved in climate change literacy and education, and as you say, they are among the best in the world. We are honored to be able to work with them. The selection was easy because we’ve worked with many of them for years, such as Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Almost all zoos came together through Polar Bears International (PBI), a conservation organization dedicated to polar bear conservation and climate change. PBI, in a way, has been the catalyst for many zoos working together in this field, and we are grateful for their nurturing role. Our aquarium partners, on the other hand, have developed over the last few years a mature network around climate education. Our partners include: Brookfield Zoo, IL who is joined by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, OH; Como Zoo and Conservatory, St. Paul, MN; Indianapolis Zoo, IN; Louisville Zoological Garden, KY; Oregon Zoo, Portland, OR; Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, PA; Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI; Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle WA, and Toledo Zoological Gardens, OH. We are also working with five leading aquariums: Shedd Aquarium, Chicago IL; Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey CA; Aquarium on the Bay, San Francisco, CA; National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD, and New England Aquarium, Boston MA.

Jordan Schaul: The PI’s (principal investigators) include both science educators and scientists, including zoo-based biologists. Was it a challenge bringing both contingents together to work on such a complex topic that is so broad in scope?

Alejandro Grajal:
Yes, it has been a delightful challenge to work with such diverse, passionate, and knowledgeable people. In many cases, it’s been humbling to see so much knowledge around the table. On the other hand, the project already had defined the scope of our interventions from the outset. Knowing that traditional communications about climate change have not yielded the expected results, we were ready to start anew, with a new approach to climate literacy. We had great help from conservation psychologists, biologists, earth scientists, learning experts, education specialists and computer scientists. They have explored the links between their fields and climate change education, and their insights have steered us toward interesting and innovative ways. We are planning to publish a compilation of these fascinating findings in the next few months.

Jordan Schaul: It is understood that much of science is learned outside of the traditional classroom. Zoos and aquariums certainly reach a lot of people, but how are they poised to teach climate literacy?

Alejandro Grajal:
Indeed, for most people, lifelong science learning happens mostly out of school. Zoos and aquariums have a huge potential to fill critical gaps in science education, because they offer unique experiences with live animals within a rich emotional context. We know that personal decisions and scientific learning have important affective and social components. It is not only important what you learn, but whether it was a fun, meaningful and personal experience; and whether you learn with friends or family. Zoos and aquariums provide extremely rich experiences in a fun ambiance, with a politically neutral environment, in the social context of friends or family, and with a knowledgeable voice. The challenge is how to capitalize on these attributes to turn meaningful experiences into personal behaviors that benefit the environment. Recent studies show that there are links between the zoo visit and environmental attitudes, but more needs to be done to establish these connections.

Jordan Schaul: Will you teach fundamentals in climatology as well as topics relevant to climate change?

Alejandro Grajal:
We have taken a relatively unorthodox definition of climate literacy. The prevalent approach has bee to communicate fundamental knowledge about climatology and earth systems sciences. But in many cases, the content gets bogged down in details that are meaningless to non-experts. For example, one approach has been to explain the extreme global consequences of increasing the CO2 levels from 350 ppm to 400ppm. Or that the Greenland Ice Sheet’s annual loss has risen from 20 to 30 cubic miles in the last decade. These numbers and events make no sense for most people. We know that there is a plurality of knowledge, attitudes and preconceptions about climate change, and the discourse on climate has to be tailored to that diversity. Our premise is that we should start with engaging the vast majority of Americans in a meaningful dialog about climate. And this is where zoos and aquariums can be incredibly powerful: These dialogs can happen in front of a live polar bear or a vibrant coral reef. These dialogs are the initial (and critical) stepping stone to building climate literacy: “what do you know?”; “do you think these creatures are affected by climate change?”; “is there anything I can do?” Without these dialogs, the rest becomes a mumbo-jumbo that gets even more distorted by conflicting news reports, polarized politics, and “expert” opinions. The opportunity to build personal knowledge at the zoo is our most valuable asset.

Jordan Schaul: One objective is to develop curricula based on surveys submitted to patrons of these institutions as well as interpretive signage aimed at teaching climate awareness to all ages. Will these curricula and interpretive tools be tailored for specific demographics at respective institutions? For example, will a participating aquarium focus on climate awareness for coastal regions and would Brookfield, for example, focus on animal collection-based topics (i.e., polar bear habitat)?

Alejandro Grajal:
Yes, our interpretive tools and teaching methods will be tailored to use our living collection as an engagement vehicle. Happily, all these zoos and aquariums have some of the richest and most cosmopolitan animal collections in the world. Evidently, those institutions with iconic animals affected by climate change, such as polar bears or corals, will use these narratives. But it would be easy to talk about climate change using snow leopards, seahorses, Andean frogs, or blue crabs.

Jordan Schaul: Will all AZA institutions benefit from this initiative?

Alejandro Grajal:
From the executive team to the board of directors, AZA has been very involved and has played a strong advisory role. The zoos and aquariums in this partnership are helping AZA to develop an approach to climate change that takes into consideration the diversity of approaches, strengths and sensibilities to this topic in such a diverse professional association. This effort also shows that AZA is ready to step up its role in defining climate change as one of the most serious environmental threats of our lifetime.

CZS logo ICL 350-100.jpg

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and a wildlife conservation oriented radio program. Jordan is also an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: