Conservation efforts like these are just but part of the mission the Palm Beach Zoo has taken upon itself to fulfill. Education is one of the most important torches the zoo carries. “The more work done with these animals, the more we learn, the broader the body of knowledge becomes,” Aiken says. “It falls to us to share what we know.”
Visiting the Palm Beach Zoo is essentially an experience—from the small ones, like animal encounters, signage accompanying exhibits and simple observation, to the more in-depth and targeted ones, including teacher workshops, summer camp, the Wild Zoo Adventure Children’s Workshop and outreach programs.
“We have grown more and more toward more formalized education programs,” Aiken says. The goal is to start early, from stroller and mommy and me programs that “encourages parents to bring in their children for hands-on, tactile learning in our educational complex” and follow the child through their school years, he says.
2012 and 2013 have marked big gains in the education front for the zoo. A summer program launched last year for juniors and seniors in high school brought students in for a weeklong zoological course alongside zoo staff. The science-based course gave students a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo, from operations to animal care, all while expounding the mission and purposes of zoos.
At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, the introduction of a new initiative, Zoo School, brings the classroom directly to the zoo for a truly unique experience. Open to Title I fifth-grade classes in the immediate vicinity (if all goes well, the program will expand next school year), the class will come to the zoo for an entire week, using the education complex as a classroom. Students will have their regular studies (math, English and history lessons) as well as science but with an animal conservation twist, replete with animals encounters and discussions with zoo keepers throughout the day. It's the ultimate field trip.
In the vein of continued education, the zoo has teamed with Florida Atlantic University for the first time to offer a college conservation course. The one-credit course, taught by zoo staff approved by FAU and deemed associate professors, gives students first-hand experience while garnering greater insight into the demands of zoological careers, from animal care, husbandry and training to conservation medicine and veterinary care. It also delves into field conservation and research, and technology and environmental education.
But education is not limited to the knowledge expounded through classrooms and public programs but through the research the zoo is constantly undertaking. In the last five years, 45 scientific publications have been published by zoo staff, from points on animal care in zoos to conservation in the wild.
“The real stars of the zoo, in my mind, are our keepers,” Aiken says. “We have 21 keepers and a number of zoological manager/curatorial positions, with more than 80 percent having a background in hard-science—biology, chemistry, zoological sciences.”
This stems back to the zoo’s first branch of the mission, conservation. This is the zoo’s sole purpose, from the animal ambassadors on exhibit, involvement in SSP programs, to research in animal care in captivity as well as work in the field, everything imparts to conservation efforts to save species from the brink. The zoo as a moneymaking proposition is a losing one, but the money raised through fundraising, admission and donations goes to the animals in their care and conservation efforts in the field. The zoo’s involvement is not limited to a check and some signage on the property but is an active participant in the field, be it through data collecting, hard-science and lab work or manual labor, like helping with the construction of wildlife corridors in Argentina for jaguars.
Each branch of the mission, conservation/research, animal care/exhibits and education all act as a leg of a tripod, each contributing to preserve and protect. But in the end, it all comes down to the people who walk through that gate to take a look at the tigers and monkeys.
“Our mission is animals," Aiken says. "We want to bring people in here to explain that mission of conservation, that there needs to be a sustainable balance with food and land development, a knowledge of watershed, where our water comes from and the affect of our daily lives ... We need to make that story compelling, because when it's compelling, it strikes a chord.”