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Education & Animal Welfare

Guest Blog - Stephen Woollard

Education & Animal Welfare

Stephen Woollard was inspired to work in education in zoos after meeting Gerald Durrell in the 1980s. He was involved in developing innovative education programmes, interpretation and exhibit design at Twycross, Bristol, Dudley, Edinburgh and Highland Wildlife Park in the UK. He has served on the Board of the International Zoo Educators association, the UK Zookeepers Association (ABWAK) and UK Government Zoos Advisory Committee. Since 2016 he has worked on projects in UK, China, the UAE and Indonesia as  

Why do we care about animals? Why is their welfare important to us? How do we assess good welfare and know that animals’ lives have improved? What is the best diet and husbandry for a particular species?

Asking questions and the search for answers is important to us. Increasingly through the generations, society has developed to recognise those who can demonstrate the traditionally “correct” answers. Our formal education systems have been constructed to prove learning through the passing of exams.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” (Anon, often incorrectly assigned to Einstein)

For animal care staff, knowledge of the diet and behaviour of a particular species is only part of the answer to achieving a good standard of welfare. There is still the application of experience, feeling and personal preference for that individual. Knowing how to apply that knowledge beyond being taught what to do is a valuable quality.

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein

So, if we accept that ‘formal education’ and achievement of ‘qualifications’ are one approach, which has dominance in most societies, how else could or should the educational activities of zoological facilities be delivered? The knowledge of one subject area is usually not enough, so as Einstein implied, we need to use education systems to train the mind to think, to apply knowledge using a holistic approach, to reflect and consider, to problem solve and learn from experience and to work together with experts across disciplines.

Many captive wild animal facilities, such as zoos, aquariums and sanctuaries have focused development of their education work on schools and the curriculum. However, this was influenced by a narrow view of what education is and what others deemed we should be educating about when it comes to wildlife and animal welfare.

Discovery & Learning

In more recent years, many of us have taken to using ‘Discovery & Learning’ or ‘Engagement’ to describe our educational function (as described by David Kolb). These terms are also more open to the wider audience however, there is still the risk of focusing too much on facts and knowledge, therefore, critical to “education” is promoting refection and thinking. A good educator may well ask more questions than give direct answers.

In animal welfare scenarios we are always looking for solutions, answers and best practice. There is merit in not assuming that the ‘textbook’ answer is the best, rather to ask and investigate. A key aspect of welfare is also addressing the needs of the individual animal rather than for the species alone. In educating and training people in animal welfare concepts, a key skill is the development of critical thinking and communication. A simple example is when a social animal has been kept in isolation for much of its life, there might be the potential for welfare compromise by suddenly putting it in a social situation. Therefore, welfare experts and organisations need to be able to consider that decision with care and critical analysis.

In an age of the internet and easy access to facts and information, Discovery & Learning is increasingly focused upon experiences, stories and issues, which is perfect for raising awareness of animal welfare using real examples. This builds upon the practice of environmental education which has evolved into Education for Sustainability (EfS and ESD). Even if we are not in pursuit of ‘academic achievement’, there should be desired outcomes for our activities and these should be SMART (specific, memorable, achievable, realistic and timely). The risk is to either be over ambitious or to focus on things that are easy to measure. Too many education programmes are forced to report on metrics such as number of people engaged and income generated which can lose sight of the real impact of their activity. In welfare terms we are aiming to improve the lived experience of animals, and education is one of the tools to use in many situations, e.g. pet care, zoos, farming, rehabilitation etc.

Behaviour Change

In animal welfare issues, we are often faced with situations that require behaviour change to address them. For some who are directly involved in this work, it can be challenging to realise that an ‘education’ approach based on knowledge and facts may be ineffective, i.e. knowledge does not equal change.

“When reason and emotion collide, emotion usually wins.” Drew Weston

Therefore, in developing our Discovery & Learning activities to support animal welfare action, we need to bring some SEAL into the equation. Whilst we may be interested in marine mammals, here we mean Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning. The emotions are actually the key to generating action and engagement. When we care, our emotions are part of our considerations and, combined with critical thinking can effect real change.

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking… we need an essentially new way of thinking if mankind is to survive.” Albert Einstein

In conclusion, we have achieved a lot in raising awareness, inspiring some individuals, educating with facts and knowledge but we knew the environmental challenges at least 40 years ago. Why haven’t we had more of an impact?  Similarly,  the animal welfare issues we face today are largely not the result of actions by the ignorant. They have been generated by educated and qualified people. However, those same people can act to make a difference and will often do so when they become emotionally engaged in the issue.

Therefore, the radical answer is, as Einstein says, we need a new way of thinking. Our animal welfare education work needs to refocus, not worry so much about achieving fact and knowledge transfer, but to connect people back to nature, to enjoy, to experience and to love, to be emotional, and to connect actions to their consequences, thereby gain real understanding and empathy that can be used to really go MAD – Make A Difference!

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