About 20 years ago, the zoological society that oversaw the system of zoological facilities in and around the New York metropolitan area underwent a brand facelift. They became the Wildlife Conservation Society—a deep integration of the five metro facilities with the conservation organization that had existed since the late 19th century. And, as I’m sure they would argue, it was much deeper than simply brand: it was a laser sharp focus on mission. Specifically, the mission of conservation.
The discussion of zoos as conservation organizations is admittedly a quagmire: zoos and aquariums are no doubt contributing to the conservation of species. The degree to which they are contributing depends on the individual institution, and the public perception of them as conservation institutions is probably as convoluted. But this post is not about zoos as conservation organizations. This is about conveying that message to your public. This post really is essentially about brand.
Last year, I had the pleasure of spending a late summer weekend with a colleague exploring three of the WCS facilities: Central Park Zoo, Bronx Zoo, and New York Aquarium. Each are as unique from each other as snowflakes: Central Park Zoo is a delightful historic gem tucked into a city park where wealthy urbanites can escape their apartments for an hour with their children. The Bronx Zoo is a massive, day-long excursion winding through mature forest—as much a nature experience as a zoo. The New York Aquarium, still recovering from storm Sandy, is a small to medium sized aquarium on par with any found in a medium-sized city—think Landry’s, SEA LIFE, Ripley’s.
However, each clearly conveyed the WCS message: We are conservation.
The sea lion show at the Aquarium. The Madagascar (and of course the Congo) exhibit at Bronx. The Rainforest exhibit at Central Park. Each clearly stated and restated the conservation issue, the solution, and how WCS is involved. This is done through graphics, video, docents, and message-driven immersive storyline. The exhibits are beautiful. Each thoughtful, innovative, and clearly immersive. Each exhibit created with upmost care by a talented team of designers who obviously has the formula down to a science. These places are conservation. You cannot miss it.
This prototype of zoo as conservation organization is a clear success story and model for other zoos as we continue to showcase the amazing work zoos and aquariums do every day—and too often behind the scenes. As we continue to evolve this model, a particular emphasis should be focused on further blending conservation education and fun. While WCS is successfully integrating conservation into the experience, it does, at times, feel a bit heavy-handed—overwhelming guests with bad news and bleak outlooks for the future. People come to our institutions for wholesome family fun, and the integral blend of pure joy, amazement, and conservation education will be the foundation of successful zoos and aquariums of the future.