Sunday, October 21, 2012

Zoo and Aquarium Search Engine

When doing research it can be useful to look at what other zoos and aquariums are doing. Previously I'd either go to each site individually or try to do a Google search while eliminating all the irrelevant results neither of which was very efficient. To make this a bit quicker I put together a Google Custom Search which searches all of the websites for AZA zoos and aquariums.

You can use the Zoo and Aquarium Search Engine here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Improv at the Zoo


Improv Everywhere -- Carousel Horse Race
There is a group in NYC called Improv Everywhere they describe themselves as “a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places”. The best way to understand what they do is to just watch them in action. Their "missions" range from the very simple “High Five Escalator”, to the massive “No Pants Subway Ride 2012” (note as you might guess the video features pantless people in their underwear) which had tens of thousands of people in 59 cities and 27 countries participating, to musicals like “Mall Santa Musical” and “I Love Lunch! The Musical” which was featured on the Today Show, to the participatory “Say Something Nice” done in conjunction with the Guggenheim, and hundreds of other missions.

The thing I love about all of these videos is watching the "audience" reactions; they aren’t sure what to make of them, some people just ignore it like it’s not happening, but most of the people are smiling and truly laughing by the end. The key is the unexpected nature of the scene, the reason the high five was fun was because of the setup and because it was out of place. If you were at a play and saw any of the musical numbers they did you probably wouldn’t of been that impressed, but take them out of context and put them in a mall or store and they become something special. Those things just don't happen in the middle of peoples' “real”, so when they do it's a special treat.

What does this have to do with Zoos, Aquariums and Museums (ZAMs)? I’m glad you asked! What if a ZAM staged some scenes like these? How would that change their visitors’ experience? How many people would the visitor tell about the experience? Watching the videos how many people have cameras and phones out to take pictures and videos? If you saw something like that how many people would you tell? Would the visitors be more likely to come back again? If done well not only would the ZAM improve the experience for those who actually see the scene, but would also create some buzz and word of mouth marketing.

The great thing is being unexpected un-advertised events things can start small. They don't even have to be "scenes" just fun and unexpected. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has two fun brightly painted chairs in it's elevator which are some of the most commented items in the museum as they are so unexpected. It could be a little parade of some of the education animals around the grounds. There could be people in character (naturalist, researchers, scientists, keepers, etc.) that are wandering around the Zoo or Aquarium interacting with the visitors in that character. Want to scale it up more, hire some theater majors from a local college to put on and stage different events? If there is an enclosure that is not used part of the day put on a quick musical piece with the “keepers” (in this case actors dressed as keepers) in cleaning the enclosure and then they break out in a musical about everyone’s favorite zoo topic “poop”. At an aquarium what if there are multiple divers in a tank cleaning and or feeding and they do a 30 second synchronized swimming routine in the middle? Recent studies have shown that most people visiting ZAMs are doing so to spend time with the people they are attending with, so get the visitors involved in the “scene” ask some families and groups if they'd like to participate in staging a scene and help create a memorable family experience.

There are of course down sides, besides the time and expense, if you do too many of the improv items or do the same ones too often they will lose their unexpected nature and thereby a lot of the appeal. Or, if somebody comes to the ZAM expecting a “scene” and they don’t see one they could be disappointed. Having a variety of scenes and activities to keep them fresh and unique could minify those drawbacks and as mentioned above not everything even needs to be a "scene".

I’ll leave you with one more Improv Everywhere for your viewing pleasure “Star Wars Subway Ride” for the geek in all of us (or at least in me).

Monday, March 26, 2012

AZA and Sustainability

Tomorrow is the start of the second annual Green Summit at the AZA mid-year meeting. The summit is put on by the AZA Green Scientific Advisory Group. The Green SAG has also created the Zoo and Aquarium Green Guide”. On the AZA website there is also the Green Practices Toolbox page for zoos and aquariums as well as the general public.

Obviously, sustainability is important to AZA and zoos and aquariums in general, but I keep thinking back to the saying "if it's not measured it doesn't matter". If something isn't measured then there is no way of knowing if it's improving or not, so nobody will get rewarded or reprimanded based on how it's doing. This leads to very little incentive to spend valuable time on the item.

Guess what the first action mentioned in the Zoo and Aquarium Green Guide is? To "Create an annual energy use report to establish a baseline" or in other words start measuring! This is a great opportunity for the AZA to help.

AZA has started this process already, in their accreditation questionnaire there is a question asking about the "institutions programs for energy and natural resource conservation". While it's a start it is only one question out of 20 plus pages of questions, and it's an open ended question. The open ended nature of the question means every institution will answer it differently, maybe or maybe not including specific measurements, making cross institution comparisons difficult. What if AZA also asked questions along the lines of:
  • How much water does your institution use each year?
  • How much waste (trash) does your institution generate each year?
  • What percentage of the the total waster is recycled each year?

With those you can come back the following year or the following accreditation and compare the answers to see if they have improved or not. This would force the institutions that aren't already to start measuring, as well as giving a starting point for comparing across institutions.

Another factor in the measurement is making the results more public, further encouragement to perform better as well as letting institutions get a better feel for their performance levels. Each year AZA publishes it's member directory which has a ton of information on every AZA institution including things like:
  • Hours of Operation
  • Car and Bus Parking Spaces (broken out separately)
  • Number of Visitors
  • Capital Expenditures for Infrastructure and for Construction
  • Number of Employees (part time, full time, temp, volunteers)
  • Acreage (developed and undeveloped)
  • Public Internet Access 

What it doesn't have though is any info on the sustainability or conservation practices. What if the guide included:
  • Money donated to external conservation organizations
  • Tons of Trash per year
  • % of trash that is reused or recycled
  • Water and Energy Usage per year
  • Distance to closest Public Transportation Location
  • Number of bike "parking" spaces

With zoos' and aquariums' missions focused on conservation it seems like those would be good stats to track and show. Many zoos and aquariums are already doing a lot to become more "Green" this would just let them show how they are doing and provide some incentive to do even more.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Creating Conservation Action

Ocean Bluffs by Jim Epler

I recently attended a presentation and discussion led by The Ocean Project on how to get visitors to take action to conserve the environment. View this AZA 2011 presentation for a similar presentation, though just the slides make for a much weaker presentation. The slides do show some of the interesting market research they've done. Here are a few of the key items I took away from the session.

Give them the Solution
Tell the visitor what actions they can take to help the environment. Most people want to be "green" but they don't know what they should do and it can be difficult to figure out. Give them specific actions or steps they can do to help the environment. Don't chastise them about what they haven't done correctly, don't lead with all the issues and problems and how we are hurting the earth. The best way to get somebody to take action is to tell them specific things they can do to help, and then give them the background information if they are interested in hearing more.

Focus on the Micro not the Macro
According to The Ocean Project's research most people believe the oceans are in pretty good shape. They think the oceans are so big and powerful they can handle everything we throw at it. It is also hard to understand or see how as an individual they can affect this massive issue. When talking about conservation don't talk about saving the oceans, they are too big and distant so it's hard for people to feel a connection and urgency to take action. Focus on a specific instance of the issue and if it's local all the better. Talk about steps they can take to reduce the pollution in their local bay or river. Steps they can take to help save a specific species. It's easier to understand the specific issues and local connections and understand how specific actions or inactions affect them.

Be Specific on the Action Steps
When giving people a solution, make it as specific as possible. Don't tell them "use less plastic" tell them "when checking out at the grocery store ask for paper bags instead of plastic" or "buy and use a reusable water bottle instead of disposable plastic bottles". When a person is told "use less plastic" or "don't pollute" that person has to take the time and effort to come up with ways not to do those things. When the direction is to "ask for paper bags instead of plastic" they don't have to figure anything out they can just do it. Also, by specifying the "checking out at the grocery store" it acts as a subtle mental trigger or reminder so that when they are at the checkout of the grocery store they are more likely to remember the advice.

It's Not Urgent
Conservation isn't seen as an urgent problem, unless there is a catastrophe of some type, an oil spill. When that catastrophe, does happen the urgency and worry about the environment jumps dramatically. These are the best times to reach out to people and have them take action, but it's a small time window as people quickly move on to other concerns and issues. Be prepared to take advantage of that extra focus during times of catastrophe. While catastrophes by their very nature are horrible, they are going to happen and having the ability to make at least some small positives come out of the catastrophes is beneficial.

A book I read, it may of been "Built to Last" by Jim Collins, researched companies and found ones that did long term planning (10+ years into the future) didn't do any better and often did worse than ones that didn't do any long term planning. It's impossible to predict with any accuracy very far into the future, so the long term planners would build their plans on what would turn out to be inaccurate assumptions but as they had "a plan" they would stick to it. The companies that did the best were the ones that played out various scenarios as part of their planning instead of planning for one specific outcome. Scenarios asking question like "If X happened what would that do, how would we handle it?", "If X did happen would there of been any early warning signs?", "If Y happened what would we do?". By asking these questions it gave the leaders of the organizations a framework to recognize and handle future changes, even if they weren't the exact scenarios that had been played out. That long tangent to say could that same thinking be applied for helping zoos and aquariums be better prepared to take advantage of the heightened awareness and urgency caused by environmental disasters? If an oil spill happens what can we do? Is it different if it happens in the Caribbean, Alaska, or SE Asia? What about a drought?

Teens are a very Receptive Audiences
Additional market research identified that teens were very receptive to actually taking conservation action. Teens also felt that they could make a difference in the world, the teen sense of invincibility can be great for moving mountains. Teens are often looked to by their parents to advise them on how to be more green, so they can be a key figure for kick starting conservation actions in the family.


Originally this post was entitled "Inspiring Conservation Action", as many zoo and aquarium mission statements have in them. Then I started thinking about the presentation and research which basically said don't try to inspire the audience give them specific direction and guidance to help them with conservation. Inspiring our visitors is a great goal, but is it needed? Is it the best way to get visitors to engage in conservation activities?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Game Shows!

On a recent trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium I attended their auditorium program "You Otter Know". My assumption was that it would be a movie or maybe a presentation by the education staff, as you can probably guess from the title of this post I was wrong.

When I got into the auditorium a few minutes before the program started they had a large photo of an ocean sunfish projected on the screen with a question about how many eggs a female sunfish can lay (as many as 300 million, if you're curious). Then there were 4 possible answers in the bottom right corner that people could choose from. Slowly they hid the incorrect answers until there was only the correct answer left. It turns out the Aquarium has a loop of various questions about different animals that they just keep running in between the actual presentations.

When "You Otter Know" started there was one host from the Aquarium with a wireless microphone who welcomed everyone and then asked for 3 volunteers from the audience that were experts on sea otters. With the three volunteers picked, all kids roughly around 10 to 12yrs old, the host then explained that they would be quizzed about sea otters. Each kid had their own podium that held four signs, each with a letter on it A, B, C, or D. When a question was asked they were to hold up the sign corresponding to which answer they thought was correct. With the instructions done the host started with the questions, first he would read the question which was also displayed in large print on the auditorium screen and asked the volunteer contestants what they thought the correct answer was. Once all the kids had their signs held up he'd then ask the audience as a whole what the correct answer was. People in the audience would just say out loud what they thought it was, from the sound of it a large part of the audience was participating. He would then say what the correct answer was and go into more detail using prepared videos and photos displayed on the auditorium screen to for additional information and visuals. When the program time was up, around 4 or 5 questions were asked, everyone gave the contestants a round of applause and I believe each contestant got a little prize.

Overall, it was very well done program with a few items that stood out to me:
  • In the pre-show quiz, they would slowly hide the wrong answers until only the correct answer was left. This let people change their answer if their initial guess was wrong, so they could continue to participate in the question. It also made it easy to keep the question and the answer on the screen at the same time instead of going to a new slide showing the answer and the people who just walked it wondering what it was the answer to.
  • During the actual program even though they had the "official" contestants they would also ask the audience as well this kept everyone involved and participating. Instead of it just being a show the audience watched.
  • They didn't keep score, no points were ever referenced or given. This probably helped keep it fun and more light hearted.
  • Using the auditorium screen for showing more than just the text answer, showing videos that illustrated the answer, etc kept things interesting and allowed for better examples and illustrations.
Game shows have been around for many decades, so people must find them interesting, so I started thinking about other possibilities for using game shows within zoos and aquariums. 
  • A popular activity within bars and pubs is the "pub trivia night" what if a zoo or aquarium hosted an occasional trivia night? Where possible instead of static text questions bring out the actual item, animals, artifacts, etc. There could be ones geared towards adults that included where drinks could be purchased or brought, or ones that were geared more towards families and kids.
  • At fundraising events what if you did a "Price is Right" style game show where the contestants would try to guess how much different items cost? A months food for the tigers, the water bill for one exhibit, the cost for building one fake tree, how much it costs to employ a park ranger at a reserve in Africa. You could have actual contestants, but just like the "Price is Right" the audience could be saying what they think. 
  • Maybe one that is combination game show and scavenger hunt, where they answer the questions and then have to go around the zoo or aquarium to find out if they were correct or not.
  • How about something like "Press Your Luck" where you are trying to avoid the "Whammy", but in this case it's an endangered animal and the "Whammys" are it's threats to survival, poaching, habitat loss, pollution. The more endangered the animal the more "Whammys" there are.
What are other ways game shows could be used within Zoos and Aquariums?