As a lover of the outdoors and wildlife, I’ve come to find that the best connections I’ve built with nature often occur through repetition. While working in the marketing department for an aquarium one year, I would frequently arrive early so that I could visit the belugas before visitors arrived and before my meetings started. What initially started as a strategy to keep me grounded in the meaning of my work resulted in a what felt like a very real relationship with non-humans. The belugas were incredibly social in the mornings. Whether I visited them at water level or down below, they would swim over and vocalize, interacting with just me. Those moments made me feel like they were saying hello and connected me with them because it felt like they too were creatures of the morning.
Similarly, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Maui during whale season many years, and each year, I feel more connected to the whales because I now understand the meaning of their behaviors, and what it looks like when a female is giving birth. I protect them by making sure tourists witnessing the majestic animals for the first time keep their distance out of both respect and safety.
Therefore, I believe one of the most impactful ways that zoos and aquariums can foster a community of people who care about protecting their animals and connect with them in a meaningful way is by building memberships or engagement activities that involve habitual observation of animals. By visiting at the same time each day or day of the week and witnessing the behaviors and patterns of animals, people will start to see their similarities and grow to form a connection with them. I completely support Clayton’s point about creating opportunities for sensory experiences over reading about animals. It isn’t until we truly observe animals and understand their behaviors that we can come to appreciate them and take that extra step to support conservation initiatives that can impact the life of the species in the wild.