What It REALLY Takes To Be a Wildlife Educator
It’s like standing there naked, when the entire audience is fully clothed. That’s the best way to describe how it feels to be standing there holding an animal in front of an audience of anywhere of 20 to 300 sets of eyes. People don’t want to be judgmental, but let’s be honest, it’s human nature to make an instant decision as to whether you like someone standing up there. Are they credible? Do they know what they’re talking about? Do you just plain "like them?"
At Zooniversity, we get at least one e-mail each week from a college student who idyllically aspires to be a wildlife educator. They spent years admiring those larger-than-life TV guys working with animals and have hopeful visions of becoming the next wildlife conservation idol. Besides asking for a job, they almost always ask, "What do I need to do to become a wildlife educator?"
The answer is not a simple one. The necessary skill sets are an odd mix of cognitive scientific knowledge, acute audience management skills, and that mysterious "Q factor" that it takes to make an audience like you. Here’s the cold, hard fact that most of these college kids don’t want to hear…ANYONE can display these animals (as long as they religiously follow the federal, state, county and city wildlife laws), but not ANYONE can be good at this.
The delivery of animal information is actually the easy part. Learning the textbook facts about each species, learning their adaptive and wild behaviors, reciting the Latin Genus species names…all that is the really easy part of the job. The tough part cannot be taught, cannot be memorized. Three additional skills need to be mastered: (1) the ability to control the behavior of a collection of program animals, with unique personalities, under incredibly stressful conditions, with little to no risk of a problem, (2) the ability to politely, yet diplomatically manage an audience’s behavior (including the ever-challenging, young audiences) with little to no risk of a problem, and (3) the intangible, indescribable skill of getting an audience to "like you."
So, what is our sage advise for those eager college students? What do we suggest they do to prep them for their dream job?
"What do I need to do to become a wildlife educator?"
Work With Real Animals: Get as much hands-on experience with animals as possible. Volunteer at the shelter, the veterinary clinic, the horse ranch, the zoo, the exotic sanctuary, the local wildlife rehabilitator, your local chapter of the Audubon Society, Master Naturalists, or herpetological society. Take a no-pay internship at a sanctuary or respected wildlife company. Do anything to get some real hands-on skills. Rake the cages, scoop the poop, haul the garbage, design enrichment, build trust, learn their signals, bond, train, love, share the moment. Each animal you work with, each scratch, each bite, each lick or cuddle, will teach you with lessons that can only be learned from the real teachers — the animals.
Work With Real People (Especially Kids): A critical skill is NOT taught in school — how to manage a crowd’s behavior to limit the risk of a problem. Whew, this is tough. Crowds of kids are especially tough. Crowds of kids with their parents are even tougher. It’s a VERY fine line between diplomatically directing a crowd for their safety and enjoyment — and ordering them around like the Gestapo. The only way to learn how to tight-rope walk that fine line is through experience. Work as a camp counselor or a day care teacher. Work customer relations at a theme park, fair or festival, or zoo. You’ll quickly learn what works and what offends. We still learn every day how fine his line can become if you get overly demanding. The sting of each lesson learned lasts a long time — learn how to walk the line before you try wildlife education.
Stand Up There Naked: Okay, it’s a just a metaphor, but you need to experience the vulnerability of being a presenter and you need to feel both the admiration or the distain of a human audience…again, and again, and again. Find every opportunity to do public speaking. The subject matter doesn’t matter. Join the debate team, the Toastmasters or Salesmanship Club, speak on behalf of your club, fraternal organization or political party. Sing a solo in the choir, get cast as a lead in your theater, preach at your church or temple. Do whatever it takes to stand in front of an audience, and another audience, and another audience. You’ll have to conquer the stage fright, exude total confidence, work the crowd, and develop a tough skin. You need to learn to sense the energy of the audience — both positive and negative — and find those intangible ways to turn it around. Then, there is the toughest part of the job — that indefinable "Q Factor." Audiences quickly decide if they "like you." This is magical, indefinable, nearly impossible to teach, and totally unpredictable. It varies with the time of day, waning of the moon, your attitude and mood – and it only takes a nano-second or an ill chosen word to turn audience admiration into distain. Only years of stand-up experience will teach you how to do your best. If they don’t "like you," anything you try to teach about the animals will fall on deaf ears.
Now, don’t assume that this blog entry is intended to dissuade our young, eager wanna-be wildlife educators from entering the field. On the contrary, we welcome the next generation with their fresh energy to continue our lifetime of effort. We just want them to be fully prepared for what it REALLY takes to be a wildlife educator — a GOOD wildlife educator.