Conservation Psychology: A Conversation with Emily Routman, Zoo Educator and Owner and Principal at

Emily Routman first became introduced to zoos when visiting the Cincinnati Zoo as a child. “I grew up in Cincinnati and, for me, one of my real passions was drawing animals,” she remembered. “That was my thing. I would take summer animal drawing classes at the zoo. When I was about 15, a friend mentioned that the zoo used illustrations done by volunteers in their publications and they might have a use for some of my drawings. I met with the education director and he said if I could learn to use a technical drawing pen, they could use my illustrations in their publications.” Routman’s first paid assignment for the zoo was to paint plaques representing  eight endangered species for the Passenger Pigeon Memorial the summer after her first year of college. “I thought I was rich because they paid me $75,” she remarked. “It was so much fun.”

 @ Emily Routman

            After graduating from college, Routman came to the Cincinnati Zoo’s education department as an illustrator. She was quickly enamored by the work done in the department.  “The Cincinnati Zoo was one of the earliest zoos to embrace education,” she elaborated. It was remarkable, groundbreaking and a dream come true working there. The assistant director of education was Thane Maynard (future director of the zoo) and he was one of my earliest mentors. Thane was such an intensely caring mentor to everybody. He wanted people to be successful and realize their dreams. Thane taught me the meaning of the term interpretation and introduced me to the National Association of Interpretation.”

@ Emily Routman

            While working at the Cincinnati Zoo, Routman took a month off to do field research on the mountain spiny lizard in the mountains of Arizona. “On the way, I met with researchers including one who was writing a book,” she recalled. “He asked if I would come to work for him and illustrate his book.” As a result, Routman went to the University of Nebraska to illustrate a field guide to reptiles and amphibians, and after meeting her future husband there, stayed to complete a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. Afterwards, she moved to Saint Louis so her husband could study for his Ph.D., and began volunteering at the Saint Louis Science Center. “They were getting the discovery room started,” Routman stated. “Then, the discovery coordinator left and I got the job of discovery room coordinator, developing and managing exhibits and programs. I enjoyed it enormously as it had cool fun exhibits about natural history, native Americans, fossils and medicine. I learned about the visitor experiences that engage people and ways people learn in a complicated, rich environment. It was a fantastic learning experience and really fun job.”

 @ Saint Louis Science Center

            This knowledge of visitor experiences and learning would serve Routman well when she would later return to zoos. “Guests at a museum or zoo are in exploration mode, not book learning mode,” she articulated. “You have to develop ways to engage them that are holistic and naturalistic. You have to acknowledge the psychology of the circumstances.” While at the Saint Louis Science Center, Routman’s boss was Jeffrey Bonner, future President/CEO of the Saint Louis Zoo.

 @ Saint Louis Science Center 

            Soon, Routman would find herself at the Saint Louis Zoo. “Shortly after we moved to Saint Louis, I wanted to give an anniversary gift to Eric (Routman’s husband) but we had no money,” she recalled. “He’s a herpetologist, so I had my illustration of the spiny lizard printed on T-shirts. On my way home from dropping off the art at the T-shirt printer, I picked up a copy of the local entertainment tabloid and there was a cover feature with people answering the question if you could be any animal what would you be. One of the interviewees was Ron Gellner, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Saint Louis Zoo, who said he’d be a mountain spiny lizard. When I got home I called him and nervously introduced myself and asked if he’d like a t-shirt. Ron turned out to be a total sweetheart and we became very good friends. From then on, whenever I’d do herpetology-themed art projects for Eric, he’d share them with Charlie Hoessle (then director of the Saint Louis Zoo), a reptile and amphibian fanatic. I also wrote an article for the science center’s magazine about Eric’s field research on hellbenders, and regularly connected with Ron for resources and content expertise relevant to the discovery room exhibits. Through those informal connections Charlie became familiar with my work, and when the education department expanded he invited me to apply for an education job at the zoo.”

 @ Emily Routman

            At the time, the education department was located in the basement of the Primate House. “I got to know the primates and the primate keepers,” Routman noted. “Once I did a sculpture of a spider monkey as a gift for a friend in the department, and the monkeys became interested in what I was doing. As soon as I would show up they would gather and sit close to me and watch intently through the glass while I worked.” In 1989, the department moved to the Living World, a cutting-edge facility, and Bruce Carr became Director of Education.. “I had the amazing good fortune to work at two organizations with an extraordinary commitment to education before it was the norm in zoos,” Routman articulated. “We never felt we had enough resources but Charlie would say we had one of the biggest education departments in the zoo profession. Our programs expanded like wildfire.”

 @ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo 

            Routman’s title was Associate Director of Education. “There were three associate directors in the department - one in charge of programs, another in charge of exhibits and another in charge of the children’s zoo,” she explained. “I was in charge of exhibits. When the Living World opened, there were two big interpretive exhibit galleries with hands-on exhibits and living animals. It was very unusual and like a museum inside a zoo. The zoo needed someone to manage that and I had exhibit experience from the Saint Louis Science Center job, so they gave the responsibility to me.”

 @ Saint Louis Zoo

            One innovative aspect of the Living World was its use of technology. “There were 35 computer interactive exhibits before computer interactives were common in zoos,” Routman stated. She quickly saw the positives and problems associated with technology. “A lot of the technology was for technology’s sake, and I wanted to go back to creating an education setting that was responsive to the psychology of the visitor experience,” Routman elaborated. “I wanted to know what guests were learning or not learning in this complex, technology-rich environment.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo 

            “There were so many questions about is this worth doing or just a terrible idea” Routman continued. “For example, there was a lot of concern technology was detracting from visitor appreciation of the animals. Shortly after the Living World opened I did several rounds of professional review of the visitor experience. One of the key learnings was that the technology per se didn’t detract from animal appreciation. People’s favorite exhibits were animals, and that’s what they remembered best and where they spent the most time. In fact, there were a small number of technology-based experiences that people paid a lot of attention to and where they learned a lot that helped them appreciate and understand the animals.”

 @ Saint Louis Zoo

            Routman noted a specific example of an interactive that worked well. “We had an interactive called Be a Bass,” she stated. “A team went out to the Ozarks and took video documenting the natural history of a smallmouth bass and created a game where you had to make decisions for the bass. You saw if you did well or poorly by watching the bass-o-meter fluctuate between a fish skeleton and a fat and happy bass. We observed visitors using the interactive and they would get very animated and intensely engaged. When I asked them what was going through their heads, they said they were imagining they were a bass trying to survive. They could repeat the most important learning outcomes of that experience. That study demonstrated that you can use technology to your advantage if well crafted. In this case it triggered empathy for a fish, which isn’t an easy thing to achieve.”

 @ Emily Routman

            There was also a question of whether visitors would be comfortable using the technology. “This was 1989, and some were worried our visitors would find the computers intimidating and irrelevant and wouldn’t want to use them,” Routman explained. “We found that, with the exception of the oldest visitors, people gravitated to the interactives and enjoyed the ones that were of high quality.”

 @ Saint Louis Zoo

             All of these findings led Routman to the conclusion a “well-designed, technology-based experience that focuses visitors on animals and gives them the opportunity for perspective-taking can be a powerful asset in connecting people with animals.” However, she reflected on some of the deficiencies of the Living World. “A lot of the technologies were an absolute waste of space and money. The use of technology ran the gamut from useless to extremely valuable in enhancing visitor understanding and appreciation,” Routman reflected. “And the density of exhibits was not a good idea.” She pointed out science center-like interactive exhibits are very expensive to maintain.

 @ Saint Louis Zoo

 @ Saint Louis Zoo

            In 1994, Routman moved to California and accepted a job as exhibit developer at a technology museum being built in San Jose. “I thought it would be so valuable to learn how to build a science center from the ground up,” she stated. “It was like the best grad school ever- the most incredible, intense, mind-numbingly hard work. It was everything I had hoped it would be in how much I could learn about creating something big, ambitious and extraordinary.” By the time the center opened in 1998, Routman was Vice President of Exhibits.

 @ Tech Museum of Innovation

            In 1999, Emily Routman became Director of Education at the San Francisco Zoo. “A friend of mine who had been director of education at the zoo left and invited me to meet with then-director David Anderson,” she recalled. “I had read in the newspaper the San Francisco Zoo had passed a $75-million bond levy for new development and I felt that, with all I learned at the Tech Museum, it would be fantastic to apply those skills at the zoo. David told me about his vision of the zoo as a place where people would make emotional connections to animals by participating in care and enrichment, and how the zoo would serve as a role model for a caring ethic about wildlife and a commitment to conservation. I thought that was an amazing vision.”

 @ Marianne Hale

            Routman acknowledged the San Francisco Zoo had a number of challenges. “Of all the places, I’ve worked, it is the one that had the most operational challenges,” she reflected. “I did not envy David Anderson. It was very surprising to find myself in a community not as in love with the zoo as Cincinnati and Saint Louis were.”

@ San Francisco Zoo 

            At the time, the education department was in anticipation of a new education center. “The department was in trailers and in the busy summer season we were literally stepping over each other,” Routman remembered. “We had seasonal staff working on the floor and there was a limited capacity for programs.” In 2000, the new education center opened. “It was a beautiful new facility that allowed us to expand our programs dramatically,” Routman continued. “Our summer camps grew to 1600 students. We had overnights that were booming and we introduced new volunteer opportunities for teens. We correlated our programs to curriculum standards and made the kinds of progress you would expect to make with a new facility.” Routman recalled that her team at the San Francisco Zoo was “wonderful, talented, passionate and creative.”

 @ Marianne Hale

            While at San Francisco Zoo, Routman indulged in her interest in conservation psychology. “I was getting really excited about the psychology of conservation and how zoos could play a role in fostering an environmental ethic and move people to take action,” she articulated. “Back then, it was fresh and emerging as the term conservation psychology, about our relationship with the natural world, was just being introduced by Carol Saunders at Brookfield Zoo, along with academic researchers. For me it all came together. It’s not about learning facts but engaging the whole person physically, intellectually and emotionally through all the senses, as well as recognizing the complex factors that affect a person’s values and actions. That was the most exciting direction for learning in zoos- paying attention to the psychology of the visitor experience so we could create learning experiences that foster understanding and an environmental ethic.”

@ San Francisco Zoo 

            Routman soon became immersed in conservation psychology and championed its application in zoos. “We didn’t really know much yet,” she remembered. “We just knew it was an important area of learning and an exciting direction for the field as a whole. With David’s support, I hosted a symposium on conservation psychology. We brought together researchers and zoo and aquarium professionals and did a three-day workshop on conservation psychology in zoos and aquariums.”

 @ Marianne Hale

            Routman remains fascinated with conservation psychology to this day. “It captures the gist of why I’m so passionate about my career with zoos,” she articulated. “This may be the most important thing we do as an industry- foster a caring and understanding ethic about wildlife that will keep society committed to the future of wildlife. Field conservation is critical, but you cannot do it without a society that cares. We need adults who will donate to support the fieldwork and vote for conservation legislation, and for there to be any hope for the future we need kids to grow up wanting to be one of those people working on in situ conservation. None of it is possible without a society that cares about wildlife.”

@ San Francisco Zoo 

            Routman and her team worked to ensure the San Francisco Zoo facilitated conservation learning as effectively as possible. “We made sure every zoo exhibit integrated an opportunity for visitors to participate in caring for the animals,” she stated. “Wherever possible, we had demonstrations on ways the zoo cared for animals and the zoo’s conservation efforts to engage guests in that process. We made sure we were role models for a caring ethic about wildlife and gave visitors an opportunity to be part of that. That said, it was new territory, and it varied how successful it was.”

@ Marianne Hale 

            One example of how the San Francisco Zoo tried to engage guests in animal care was its meerkat and prairie dog habitats. “Keepers would feed the meerkats a variety of different foods for nutrition and enrichment and we wanted visitors to be able to participate in feeding them things,” Routman explained. “Keepers could just throw food over the barrier but we didn’t want kids thinking they could throw things over the wall so we created a chute to give them a treat. Kids would gather around to put a treat in the chute and that gave the keeper an opportunity to talk about the care for the animals. It wasn’t so much about people learning what was done as demonstrating this caring ethic about animals, giving visitors a close-up experience of endearing animals in action, and having them make the connection that results from helping care for them.”

 @ San Francisco Zoo

            “By saying things like this particular meerkat really likes crickets, you introduce empathy for the animals,” Routman reflected. “You have an opportunity to create personal experiences with animals that evoke really strong emotions, which is very valuable for learning. You’re modeling a caring ethic and introducing elements of recognizing animals themselves as individuals with preferences and interests. I felt something powerful was happening here and these kinds of experiences where visitors see animals as individuals and learn about animal care would be key to our success as agents of conservation learning.”

 @ Emily Routman

            A similar idea was used in Lemur Forest, a state-of-the-art habitat for the Madagascar prosimians opened in 2002. “In Lemur Forest, the technique we came up to engage visitors in animal care was to build two dispensers in the habitat that dropped food treats on the climbing structure,” Routman explained. “Visitors got to choose which button to push to activate the food to drop. The climbing structure was carefully designed with input from animal care staff so that it would enable the lemurs to demonstrate some of their really wonderful behaviors that make them so appealing. When food treats were dropped, the lemurs became very active. They leaped,  climbed, balanced and hung on the structure, showing off physical adaptations for forest life, and as they negotiated who got access to the treats first, they demonstrated their hierarchy-based social behavior. Because food was dropped periodically, the lemurs would use the climbing structures all the time, even when there wasn’t a program. When we did visitor studies of learning outcomes, we saw people’s affective descriptions of lemurs were dramatically impacted by this experience at the exhibit. Their free narrative of lemurs was full of positive terms that weren’t expressed by people who hadn’t seen the exhibit. The exhibit experience also sparked an interest in protecting lemurs in the wild, which was evidenced by the thousands of dollars visitors put into a donation box to support the conservation work of the Madagascar Fauna Group."

 @ San Francisco Zoo

            Unfortunately, the feature was not maintained.” Routman recalled. “That program depended on maintaining a mechanical device and, since the zoo always had more maintenance needs than it could manage, the device wasn’t repaired. As a result, the lemurs stopped using the climbing structures and spent most of their time lying on the ground or in the cypress trees. You no longer had that impact.”

 @ Emily Routman

            In 2003, Anderson left the zoo and Manuel Mollinedo took over as director of the San Francisco Zoo. “Manuel didn’t believe that education had any relevance to conservation,” Routman reflected “It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t going to be able to change that perception, and I had to move on.” Emily Routman left the San Francisco Zoo in 2005 to start an independent practice in zoo and aquarium consulting.

@ Marianne Hale 

            As a consultant, Routman works with a number of different zoos, aquariums, and museums on interpretation and behavior change. Her work can be seen in Oakland Zoo’s California Trail and two AZA award-winning exhibits, Elephant Trails at the Oregon Zoo and Sequoia Park Zoo’ Watershed Heroes. Recently, Routman has been working with the San Diego Zoo on an ambitious undertaking. “I’ve been hired by San Diego Zoo Global to develop an audience conservation engagement master plan to set priorities for the future in engaging audiences with conservation,” she explained. This plan will help the zoo integrate conservation learning and behavior change into conservation strategies throughout the organization.

 @ San Diego Zoo Global

            “Conservation psychology keeps getting more exciting,” Routman articulated. “There are two dimensions, a long-term approach aimed at building a conservation ethic and a short-term focus on changing behavior and spurring people to take immediate action. Many people believe the most vital role we play is to create and nurture a society that is connected with nature and cares about the future of wildlife. It’s something zoos are better suited to do than any other type of conservation organization. That said, we are in the midst of a crisis. If all you do is cultivate environmental citizenship and hope that people make the right decisions in the future, it could be too late and wildlife will be gone. We also need to move people to take action, which requires employing a different set of techniques. The good news is the two perspectives are coming together in a way that defines the future of conservation learning.”

 @ San Diego Zoo 

            “It is critically important that we do both- foster a caring ethic and understanding about wildlife in children and help people – especially adults -- to take action,” Routman elaborated. “Some are concerned if we push people to action that we’ll annoy them. There has been enough visitor research that we now know that when we give our audience opportunities to help protect wildlife, meaning not pushing them but facilitating action, it enhances their enjoyment of their visit and their appreciation of  us as conservation organizations that play a positive part in their lives.”

@ San Diego Zoo 

            Vital to Routman’s approach to conservation engagement is accommodating the intentions and interests of zoo visitors. “You have to acknowledge your audiences are there for personal reasons - a wonderful day with family or friends, a recreational or educational experience,” she stated. “You have to provide the types of experiences that meet their needs- make it exciting, fun, cool and social. If you make it depressing and sad, you haven’t accomplished anything for anybody and they will not be appreciative of the kinds of learning experiences you offer them. That mistake has been made with the gloom and doom approach zoos have used in the past.”

@ San Diego Zoo 

            “You have to look at the psychology of our relationship with visitors,” Routman continued. “Fortunately for conservation action there are well known principles of how to change behavior that are applicable in zoos. A lot of that is encompassed in community-based social marketing.” Routman cited Zoos Victoria in Australia and the Monterey Bay Aquarium as excellent examples of zoos and aquariums using conservation psychology to foster caring environmental ethics and mobilize guests to change their behavior.

 @ San Diego Zoo

            Emily Routman views education, conservation psychology and learning experiences as critical to the relevance of zoos and aquariums in the future. “Zoos are incredibly rich environments for learning of all sorts,” she reflected. “Not only [are they great for] recreational learning but also for opportunities for deeper levels of engagement. You have the kinds of learning that happen on grounds where adults and teens are in a position to take action in the moment. Some zoos and aquariums have teens creating conservation advocacy teams and discovering their capabilities as real forces for positive change. The most fundamental thing about education in zoos, the ultimate win-win, is the combination of advancing conservation action and ethics in a way that matches the motivation and needs of the individual. With that in mind, you can do fantastic things for your audience and also advance conservation.”

 @ San Diego Zoo

            Routman knows that evolution in education is vital as zoos progress. “We’re learning about every aspect of our value as learning institutions,” she remarked. “On one hand, we’re learning about our potential as agents of conservation learning and action. We’re also learning how to really make a difference in people’s understanding of the world around them, especially in terms of science. As we’re becoming more sophisticated in addressing the needs of our audiences, we’re not only helping them understand the world around them but also have a scientifically literate society. I think we’re going to continue to evolve and grow at what we’re already doing- conservation and science learning that makes a difference in people’s lives.”

 @ San Diego Zoo

            “I’m enormously grateful for this career I’ve enjoyed all these years,” Routman concluded. “I’m blown away by how much I’ve learned, and continue to learn, from colleagues and researchers who are doing amazing work, and proud of how I’ve contributed to the field as we improve our ability to create environments where meaningful learning takes place. I’ve taught the Creating Successful Exhibits course with AZA for 13 years and I look at all the zoo professionals who came through the course and say it was extraordinarily valuable to them. I’m also pleased to have been able to study outcomes of zoo and aquarium experiences and report that to the professional community. Now, with the San Diego Zoo Global work, I’m helping to disseminate the core principles and practices of conservation psychology in a way that I believe will help our profession become more effective as a force for conservation. And from the beginning, I’ve watched countless young people develop who grew up participating in our programs develop their understanding and become capable citizens who really care about the natural world. Honestly, it’s been a dream come true.”

@ Emily Routman 

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