As readers have probably picked up from the tapir photo, I spent most of yesterday at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Overall it’s a facility I think well of - I think my earliest memory of an aquarium is their central tank, and I’ve visited multiple times over recent years and spent a lot of time chatting with staff and volunteers. However, there was one aspect of the visit that left a sour taste in my mouth that I want to talk about more at length. The way educators in the Wild Wonders presentation handle the concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle” left my companion and I incredibly uncomfortable, due to the presentation’s heavy association of the topic with law enforcement and the utter absence of alternate solutions for audience members not able to spend the money on fancy reusable items. It came across as authoritarian and out of touch with the potential socio-economic demographics of visitors - so much so that those issues overshadowed my ability to enjoy the inclusion of unusual educational animals like aardvarks and bald eagles in the program.
The premise of the show was this: a visitor arrives in a desert town where single-use items are illegal looking for interesting animals to see, but finds herself in trouble with the sheriff’s deputy showing her around because she uses disposable items such as water bottles and plastic bags. In between random animal appearances, the visitor is pursued and repeatedly arrested by the deputy for her single-use items, and then given something better to use instead. At the end of the show, after the visitor appears to have learned the error of her ways, the two sit down to eat their packed lunches together - the visitor is horrified to find she has packed her food in disposable containers, while the sheriff smugly pulls out an identical lunch that has been packed entirely in reusable items. There were a number of reasons that I found this messaging discomfiting.
For one, the main message conveyed regarding reusable items was very authoritarian. During the pre-show, the audience was educated about how much damage since use items can do, and then told to say a pledge along with the presenter in which they swore off all single-use items forever and affirmed a commitment to reusable items. That itself felt a little weird, but then the show took it even further by having the consequences of the use of disposable items be punative actions by authority figures. The visitor was not really educated about the ban on single-use items before going off on her adventures, and was arrested by the deputy for her crime without any dialogue that addressed her potential knowledge (or lack there or) regarding why disposable items were so bad. The deputy would then harangue her and give her an appropriate reusable item instead. This happened three times during the course of the show, in the same pattern: visitor would happily run off in an adventure with an inappropriate item, the dog playing the sheriff would “report” the illegal use to the deputy, the deputy would chase and arrest the visitor. This particular scripting effectively communicated to the kids in the audience that a) using disposable items is always bad, without exception b) it is totally acceptable and normal for authority figures to take punative action towards people using disposable items c) being chased and arrested is within the scope of punishment for repeated use of disposable items and d) ignorance of why single-use items are bad is not acceptable and will not be taken into account. That’s not how you convince kids to want to save the earth - that’s how you scare them into complying. (It also came off as insensitive and unaware of current events, as chase scenes, lassoing of “the culprit”, and arrests were played off for laughs by an entirely white cast).
For two, there was no awareness in the entire script of how income differences might effect the audience’s ability to comply with their conservation solutions. All the item offers as better solutions to single-use items were expensive: the pre-show involved replacing plastic straws with reusable metal ones, and items the deputy showed off were a reusable fabric tote, heavy plastic water bottles, recharable batteries, and a decorative fabric lunch bag and matching sandwich pouch. There was exactly zero mention of alternatives that did not involve spending money on eco-friendly items. I really expected some mention of how plastic grocery sacks or disposable water bottles could be saved and re-used instead of being thrown out, but there was nothing like that in the messaging - framing indicated that purchasing eco-friendly items was really the only acceptable action. I’m sorry, but not everyone can afford that, which means there are now potentially kids in the audience who may think their family is bad (and maybe potentially at risk for being arrested) for not owning reusable items because they can’t afford the up-front cost of purchasing them.
For three, I really don’t think public shaming of people for single-use items is an appropriate message to pass on to kids. The whole show kind of yucked it up, encouraging the audience to sympathize with the beleaguered deputy, placing them in opposition against the visitor who just didn’t get how awful and harmful her choices were. At the end, though, you saw the visitor sit down and pull out her lunch from a sack - just like many kids do every day. It’s been made clear the visitor has learned the value of reusable items from her multiple arrests. Then she pulls out her food, and sees how the packaging has failed yet again… and is not met with sympathy for a choice she didn’t realize was inappropriate when she made it. She’s shamed, yet again, and this time for a past choice she can’t rectify. How many kids do you think will sit down for lunch soon - maybe a packed lunch at a day camp that they have no control over - and see that it’s packed with disposable items and feel bad about that? I know the goal is that kids go home and talk to their parents, but there’s a couple problems - not only was that discussion never explicitly encouraged, not everyone can afford Tupperware or cloth sandwich baggies for their kids to take to school. The presentation set kids up to feel bad about how they engage in a common routine they may have no power to influence, and taught by example that it’s okay to shame and punish other people who use the wrong items.
None of the things listed above are good takeaways from an educational program. Compliance through fear of authority, compulsory spending to achieve moral status, and negative treatment of those who can’t or don’t act similarly are not acceptable messaging for door yo be teaching the kids who are in their audiences. This is especially true when the script of a supposedly animal-based program focuses more heavily on teaching these lessons than on the animals in the presentation.
What I was taught when being trained as as an educator is that motivating an audience to engage in behavioral change that is uncomfortable or inconvenient requires utilizing the power of positive emotion. You don’t go to the hassle of remembering reusable bags on every grocery trip because you’ll get in trouble if you don’t - you do it because you love leatherback sea turtles and want to reduce the number of bags that might be mistaken for delicious jellyfish when they end up in the ocean. While kids might change their behavior temporarily because the rest of their life has conditioned them to automatically obey authority figures, at some point they’re going to realize nobody is going to arrest them for not carrying a reusable water bottle, and they’ll stop caring - at best. At worst, they realize that they’ve been manipulated by the cool educators at the zoo with the animals they liked so much, and they’ll write off any future messaging as a result.
I was truly blown away by how much this program differed from my other experiences at Point Defiance. I’ve seen Wild Wonders shows in previous years and adored them both for their quality animal training and their strong conservation message. I got neither from this current script - overall impression was that the animals made quick appearances to keep the attention of the audience during transitions between scenes. I’m not sure why this year was so different - I don’t know the facility from anything but the public side, nor know staff there to ask, so I won’t hazard a guess. Overall, it felt like the whole production really missed an opportunity to use incredibly cool animals - hello, aardvarks?? - to inspire kids to get involved and to spread awareness of the ways people of all ages and income can modify their usage of disposable items to become more sustainable.