CINCINNATI (AP) — They have a job to do: Spread empathy and understanding.
They do not always do their job gracefully. They can be clumsy (if their species is). Some are loud, others silent, seemingly sullen. They may decide to stay home, shunning official business from time to time. Call it a well-being day off.
Yet the ambassadors of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden are chosen carefully. They must be adept at being nice to strangers. Even little strangers who might shriek at the sight of them.
They are on duty in front of scores of eyes at a time — and often, sticky little hands or wrinkly, wise ones — representing their species and the zoo. They are living conservation. That is their message.
The zoo’s Wild Encounters interpreters show off these small and large, long and lean and sometimes scaly ambassadors to zoo patrons or outside groups, including school children and seniors. Like special envoys to foreign countries, the ambassador animals are on official duty when they come out. “They’re our co-workers here,” said Shae Miller, supervisor.
In a year’s time, those selected for educational outreach trips appear in as many as 80 school and after-school programs and reach 13,000 students, zoo records show. So 26,000 eyes and the same number of hands, potentially.
No wonder that Brazilian porcupine Rico, who had a pimple on his nose one recent day, was reluctant to come out and face cameras and lights and humans. He relented in trade for bits of apricot, banana chips and finally, his favorite treat: corn on the cob, which he grasped with two eager front feet. Wait. Hands?
Even animals who only do special encounters inside the zoo (rather than leaving in a cage, box or cooler) endure a lot of fuss.
So please, forgive willowy greater flamingos Hula, Tango and Calypso if they are not in the mood for synchronized strutting.
“Caregivers notice when they’re stressing,” Miller said, “since we have a close relationship with them.
“They always have a choice to participate or not.”
Periwinkle, a skink, was graciously cooperative during a recent visit. The lizard’s main task is to show off her bright blue tongue, and she did. Her olfactory cells are in her mouth, and she stuck out that tongue again and again.
Children seem to enjoy the sight. Maybe because they are admonished for tongue-sticking-out, while Periwinkle is praised.
Katie Campbell, Zoo on the Move program manager, recalls a School for the Creative and Performing Arts student’s response to a skink visit. The kids were asked to do a presentation about an animal and, after about a 10-minute discussion, “a student popped out from under a box and started sticking out a blue tongue,” Campbell said.
There was inspiration in that tongue. The skink did A-plus work.
“Hopefully, they will inspire the next generation to action that promotes conservation,” said Wild Encounters co-supervisor Keri Ann Bolerjack.
A recent visit to St. Francis de Sales school in East Walnut Hills had a little armadillo shaking. Lil, a female, was cold when she came out of her warm carrying container to greet small children. Her caregiver cupped her carefully and only had Lil make a quick appearance. It was an “awww” moment, for sure, because who can’t relate to being shaky when cold?
“It’s that connection that does it,” said Sam Kornau, a coordinator with Wild Encounters. “When you can get up close and personal to get that impact.”
Kornau accompanied a 5-and-a-half-foot long ball python that looked a little hair-raising. But even the squeamish can learn to appreciate these creatures. They do a job that no one else likes to do: eat rats, mice and other pests. “Cleanup,” one of Eightball’s caregivers called it.
“We try to focus on their story and their importance in the wild,” explained Ariel Boggs, a Wild Encounters supervisor.
Sometimes that importance doesn’t seem as urgent to the animal ambassador as exploring her immediate environment.
African pygmy falcon Tanzi, for one, was far too busy to pose long for photos in a bright room with a large picture window at the zoo recently.
The tiny bird with wispy, light-weight feathers that lift off her body to keep her cool was chatty and, well, “physically exuberant,” we learned. What is that sound she makes? It’s a “peep,” her caregiver said.
Tanzi peeped and flew and peeped some more as she gazed out that big window.
Campbell, who also has a teaching degree, said most of her audiences are fine with a little turbulence from the animal ambassadors. Some are even thrilled.
She remembers a stunning reaction from a first-grade boy a few years ago at St. John the Baptist school in Dry Ridge: “A marine toad, exhibiting a common defense mechanism, peed on the floor, and a small amount got on a student.
“He was so excited,” Campbell said.
One person’s eeew might be another’s excitement, but without the contact with these ambassadors, there’d barely be reaction at all, Campbell reminded.
“Anybody can look up any picture of an animal. But when you meet them, you learn their name, touch them, you begin to care. And that is the start of conservation action.