Who Answers the Questions?

Guest engagement leaders at Lincoln Park Zoo

Guest engagement leaders help broaden the conversation beyond fun facts through daily programs like Meet an Animal at Regenstein Small-Mammal Reptile House (left) and Free Flight Feeding at the McCormick Bird House (right). 

Informal Education on the Zoo’s Front Lines 

“Is that a hyena?”

Visitors to the zoo’s African wild dog exhibit invariably ask the question. It’s easy to see why. Wild dogs and spotted hyenas have similar coats and saucer-shaped ears. Both are carnivores. Hyenas are larger but not by much.

Zoo educator Mark Johnson, who’s delivering a chat at the exhibit, has anticipated the question.

He shows a visitor side-by-side photos of the two species that clearly distinguish their physical differences. But Johnson is just getting warmed up. The question is an opening, a “teachable moment” in the lingo of the zoo’s guest engagement leaders (like Mark) and volunteer guest engagement ambassadors—or GELs and GEAs—the zoo’s frontline question wranglers.

“I can talk about the dogs’ habitat in Africa and then segue to the zoo’s Serengeti Health Initiative,” says Johnson, referring to the zoo’s ambitious conservation project in east Africa. The initiative includes vaccinating domestic dogs in rural villages to thwart the spread of canine distemper and rabies to wild dog packs and hyenas in adjacent wildlife reserves.

“People are like, ‘Wait—the zoo does that?’” says Johnson. “They’re surprised to hear the zoo puts so much effort into projects abroad.”

Context Matters

Such moments crystallize the broader intent of the zoo’s on-grounds informal education program.

“Our GELs and GEAs focus on our three core categories: animal adaptations, animal care and conservation and science,” says Amanda Berlinski, the zoo’s manager of guest engagement. “Ultimately, it’s about driving connections that highlight the amazing work going on behind the scenes at the zoo.”

African wild dog and spotted hyena at Lincoln Park Zoo

Clarifying the difference between an African wild dog (left) and a spotted hyena (right) can lead to a wider discussion of the zoo’s conservation efforts in Africa on behalf of these species.

Director of Education Allison Price breaks that philosophy down further.

“Everyone loves fun facts about animals—how long is a giraffe’s tongue, how high can a serval jump—but that only scratches the surface of all there is to learn here,” says Price.

“We contextualize those facts within deeper stories the zoo has to tell,” she says. “Like the science behind the rhino breeding program that led to a successful birth this year. If your visit to a training demonstration or mobile learning station doesn’t show you the work we do or our passion for nature, then we haven’t succeeded.”

Follow the Leader

The program’s six GELs—two year-round and four seasonal from May–September—are staff members that lead an ever-evolving variety of daily animal talks, encounters and demonstrations.

They introduce kids to La Plata three-banded armadillos at Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House, describe cow milking in-depth at the Farm-in-the-Zoo and explain the foraging habits of avian species in the Free Flight Area at the McCormick Bird House.

GELs receive ongoing weekly training on conservation and care at the zoo. Many past and present GELs are recent college graduates pursuing careers in wildlife and environmental sciences.

That knowledge helps them explain how apes putting symbols in order on a touch-screen computer contributes to better exhibit design. Or the meticulous science behind rhino breeding and pregnancy monitoring. They build bridges from simple questions.

“Visitors sometimes ask if we go in with the animals,” says GEL Danika Baer. “That lets us talk about how the zoo strives for indirect contact that encourages animals to behave as naturally as possible. We can share how operant conditioning prompts gorillas, harbor seals and other species to participate in their self-care.”

GEAs at mobile learning stations at Lincoln Park Zoo

Guest engagement ambassadors use interactive mobile learning stations to highlight different aspects of wildlife biology and animal care.

Cart Smarts

Seven themed mobile learning stations located throughout the zoo also function as Q&A hubs. Volunteer GEAs (60 at last count) preside over the imaginatively built carts, rotating from one to the next in hour-long shifts.

The themes—comparative anatomy, diets and enrichment, endocrinology, habitats, behavioral research, olfactory adaptations—may sound like hard sells. But age-appropriate banter and fun props easily engage little ones and families. Play a plinko game to learn about animals’ habitat niches! Spin the wheel of enrichment to find out how zookeepers elicit natural play behaviors from animals!

“Our ‘Feces Saves Species’ cart is a huge hit,” says Berlinski, referring to an interactive station that graphically represents the samples used by zoo endocinologists to monitor stress and reproductive hormones. “Poop is popular.”

Beyond the Grounds

Learning doesn’t necessarily end at the conclusion of a zoo visit. GELs and GEAs also point visitors to other zoo resources. Examples include scientist blogs on the zoo’s website and the after-hours Wine & Wildlife lecture series, which recently focused on black rhino conservation—a natural transition for guests curious about King, the zoo’s infant male rhino.

“The first step is getting people, especially when they’re young, to fall in love with our animals,” says Johnson. “Then we can talk about extinction, habitat loss, conservation efforts and ways you can help. Fortunately, that first part is easy.”


By Craig Keller • Published January 27, 2014 • Originally published in Winter 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo magazine