Connect, Understand, Act: A Conversation with Rachel Lowry, Director of Wildlife Conservation and Sc

With a background as a zoo conservation educator, Rachel Lowry has used her drive to connect people with wildlife and change their behavior to create impactful conservation campaigns at Zoos Victoria. Her award-winning programs and campaigns have helped fight environmental issues both locally and globally. Some of the behaviors these campaigns have promoted include recycling mobile phones, using sustainable palm oil, using recycled toilet paper and using bubbles instead of balloons at outdoor events. Lowry served on the boards of the International Zoo Educators Association and the Center for Sustainability Leadership. Her is her story.

@ Rachel Lowry

Rachel Lowry’s background before coming to Zoos Victoria was a bachelor’s degree in Science, with majors in zoology and environmental science. She was quickly drawn to the zoo. “I loved the zoo’s mission of helping the community connect with wildlife,” Lowry recalled. “I really wanted to work in Zoos Victoria as they had a clear mission around helping our community live in balance with nature. I thought if we could get that happening, we would have a lot to look forward in the future.” Wanting to do more, she got a second degree in education. “I was aware that the majority of threats to wildlife are driven by humans and I wanted to develop skills working in the community,” she added. Lowry started at Melbourne Zoo in 2001 in a live encounters office teaching children the life cycle of butterflies.

@ Zoos Victoria

At that point, Zoos Victoria had yet to mature as a conservation organization. “The zoo recognized they had a conservation mission and some work was happening but our educational work wasn’t as sophisticated,” Lowry explained. “We were focused on raising awareness and not as much on behavior change. We shared figures about what was wrong with the world but weren’t giving people solutions. Also, our investment in conservation was smaller because our visitation was smaller. Our visitation has doubled and that’s been an exciting journey.”

@ Monika Fiby

Lowry moved on to be an elephant and seal keeper at the Melbourne Zoo. However, she soon found she’d rather work in education. “I loved working as a keeper because of the contact with the animals but I missed the contact with the community to inspire them to do something for wildlife,” Lowry recalled. “I found myself feeling as though I had more to give to the conservation movement. I decided to take a leap out of zookeeping and became an education officer at the zoo, which involved me running classes with students.”

@ Zoos Victoria

Lowry began to do research related to the impact Zoos Victoria’s education programs had on students. “My science background kept my inquiring mind asking are we really making a difference and changing attitudes and behaviors,” she articulated. “If we’re not changing behaviors, we’re not alleviating threats to wildlife. I conducted a research program in 2005 where I, along with the team, contacted all the schools who came to us to see if they did anything differently for wildlife as a result of their visit to the zoo. It was a sobering moment as many of the schools loved the visit but the absolute vast majority went back to their usual routine and did nothing differently.”

@ Monika Fiby

The results did not sit well with Lowry. “That was not okay with me as our mission requires us to motivate people to save wildlife,” she said. “They can’t just go back to their everyday routine. Over the next few years, I engaged the social science and social marketing disciplines to build my team’s capacity to influence behavior change. We developed trials to influence community action for wildlife and got some success.”

@ Zoos Victoria

The idea of using social science and social marketing to empower conservation behaviors expanded to the entire zoo. “That allowed me to step in as General Manager of Community Conservation,” Lowry remarked. “We asked if it was enough to just get school kids to take action for wildlife. Shouldn’t everyone?” Zoos Victoria began to become more ambitious in its movements for social change. “I designed conservation campaigns that moved us into the conservation advocacy space,” Lowry elaborated. “We encouraged social movements, some went as far as asking for legislation change.”

@ Zoos Victoria

Each year, Zoos Victoria does a different campaign centered around a specific conservation action. “Our most popular campaign was the ‘Don’t Palm Us Off’ campaign, which asked the Australian government to label palm oil on all food products to help orangutans,” Lowry noted. “Within twelve months, five of the six major food manufacturers within Australia committed to sourcing 100% certified sustainable palm oil. Now they all do and legislation to mandate the labelling of palm oil on all food products within our region continues to be discussed in parliament. We hope to have that milestone secured soon.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

Most importantly, the campaigns were found to bring meaningful change. “I evaluated every campaign, either using internal resources or external university partnerships,” Lowry stated. “One of the things we were really pleased to see is that we had social scientists acknowledge attitude, knowledge and behavioral shifts as a consequence of our community conservation programs. We showed we could make progress when we applied the right tools and models. It was a real awakening for Zoos Victoria to see how powerful we could be in creating social movements. We realized we had a powerful voice in conservation.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

Lowry portrayed the role zoos have in conservation advocacy as unique. “I think we’re meant to be a fun, engaging and meaningful place,” she articulated. “We can do advocacy in a fun, engaging and meaningful way. That’s what our community needs from us, not depressing facts. Our community would never expect us to hold animals in our care and silently watch them slip towards extinction. The challenge of good zoos is to find a way to harness our voice so we’re complimenting rather than replicating groups such as Green Peace or Sea Sheppard. We need to find our own voice and tone- one that’s meaningful and motivates people to visit and join us. We need to find a way to empower people and engage them in a fun and meaningful way.”

@ Zoos Victoria

One of Zoos Victoria’s campaigns has been focused on getting people to begin using recycled toilet paper. “Wipe for Wildlife tackled deforestation but we didn’t show landscapes decimated or sad eyes,” Lowry noted. “We use humor and a superhero named Crapman. We had birds show how easy it is to choose sustainable toilet paper. That program influenced people and got them to be better consumers and to buy better products for wildlife. The challenge of zoos is finding our own way to have a powerful, meaningful conservation voice. We have to speak for animals we care for without polarizing our community. We need to unite, inspire and motivate people.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

Recently, Zoos Victoria has turned its efforts towards eliminating the outdoor use of balloons. “We are running a campaign asking Australians to stop using balloons at outdoor events,” Lowry stated. “Ceremonial balloons are impacting shore birds across Australian waters. We’ve had an incredible response- hundreds of corporations and schools have committed to blowing bubbles instead of balloons alongside more than one hundred thousand community members. We’re seeing our biggest sporting event encourage tens of thousands of people to blow bubbles. We’ve also established citizen science project where students see if there’s less balloons as a consequence.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

Lowry confidently hopes this campaign will start a new social norm for bubbles instead of balloons and change public opinion. “It’s an exciting program and we’re starting to normalize the use of bubbles,” she elaborated. “In three or four years, if someone’s using or releasing a balloon outdoors, it will be seen as inappropriate. Our leading scientific body has labeled balloons as one of the top three pollutants.”

@ Becca Hanson

Zoos Victoria has also concentrated on protecting local threatened species in its Fighting Extinction program. “We’re trying all sorts of innovative ways to save wildlife because we know the same old thing won’t win the day,” Lowry said. “We’re just about to trial the use of guardian dogs to chase foxes away when we release Eastern Barred Bandicoots. We have worked with our conservation partners to return this bandicoot species to the wild after being extinct in Victoria. We’re also encouraging people to keep their cats indoors as cat predation is the single largest threat to Australian wildlife. We’re doing it in a meaningful way with a message that says keep your cat safe inside [where it will be] less likely to be hit by a car while our wildlife will be saved from domestic cat predation as a result.”

@ Zoos Victoria

The cat campaign also has a broader purpose. “We need to promote the importance of animal welfare and keeping our animals enriched so pet owners can learn from zoos and keep them enriched,” Lowry added.

@ Zoos Victoria

The Fighting Extinction campaign has drawn awareness to the sometimes-overlooked local wildlife of Victoria. “I’m really excited about our fighting extinction program and commitment to saving wildlife at our doorsteps,” Lowry remarked. “A lot of Australians know nothing about our local species so we’re trying to raise the profile of small, brown cryptic animals that are highly endangered. We’re finding school groups are giving our time to look for these animals. We’re not just focused on charismatic beautiful species.”

“Zoos need to make sure they don’t just pick easy to sell animals,” Lowry continued. “We need to ensure we leave no species behind. We do an assessment every year where an ecologist determines which local species are likely to go extinct in ten years time and each one makes our fighting extinction list. We’re going to be investing more than $10 million this year in fighting the extinction of local species. It’s a beautiful thing.”

@ Zoos Victoria

The conservation campaigns done by Zoos Victoria have inspired similar ones at zoos and aquariums around the world. “Zoos Victoria has been very active in sharing its campaign messages with other zoos that want to take them up,” Lowry stated. “Fourteen zoos around the world have run our “They’re Calling on You” recycling campaign. Several zoos have run the palm oil campaigns. In the last few years, we’ve received a lot of requests for training from other zoos, especially around the Connect, Understand, Act model which underpins all of our behavior change programs.”

@ Monika Fiby

Zoos Victoria used the Connect, Understand, Act model to design its community conservation program. “The model makes sure whenever you design a conservation program, you have a target audience with a facilitated conservation action,” Lowry explained. “You try to remove the barriers to taking that action, or incentivize conservation action. I’ve run training for zoos in America, the UK, Africa, Korea and so on and my colleagues are increasingly assisting these efforts. I am aware there is a growing need to do more skill share. At the moment, I’m working on establishing Zoos Victoria’s Training and Consultancy program, which will help build further capacity throughout our community and provide training to more zoos in upcoming years. We learn and gather a lot of inspiration from others so it is nice to be able to give back.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

Vital to Zoos Victoria’s conservation efforts is partnerships. “We know we can’t do it on our own and need many, many partners,” Lowry stated. “We’ve started to diversify partners and have had people come to us. We’re working with local prisoners across Victoria who are helping us fight extinction. We have a women’s prison who was so engaged in looking for camera trapping data they went and purchased more computers to participate in the program. We have to make sure every sector of society is engaged with wildlife. We go outside into the community and welcome anyone who wants to join us.”

@ Zoos Victoria

@ Zoos Victoria

“I believe zoos will become more critical,” reflected Rachel Lowry on the future of zoos. “We’re well on our way to being critical conservation powerhouses. We’ll become recognized as being able to integrate biological and social sciences in addressing processes that threatened wildlife. The voice of the zoo community will become incredibly powerful and influential. We’ll also become stronger advocates for animal welfare.”

@ Jon Coe

@ Zoos Victoria

“I’ve worked at Zoos Victoria for almost two decades because of the incredible people who inspire me every day,” Lowry concluded. “The type of people who work in zoos love animals. We need to promote that and make sure no one enters a good zoo and feels guilty about captive care. We have to make sure our standards inspire others who bring animals into their care to lift their game. I think we are well on our way to becoming very powerful animal welfare, conservation and education centers.”

@ Zoos Victoria

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti