Engaging the Next Generation in Conservation: A Conversation with Bill Street, Senior Vice President

Bill Street started his zoo and aquarium career as an intern at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and soon started as an educator at SeaWorld Orlando in 1992. Recently bought by Anheuser-Busch, SeaWorld was in a rapid period of growth. “I was fortunate in that I was so naïve that I thought it was normal to open a major attraction every year, produce and distribute publications on animals each week, to monthly broadcast via satellite into schools all across the country or to have 3,000 campers show up each summer for Camp SeaWorld,” Street recalled. “Because I started in this environment, it has kept me with high expectations and a fast speed of execution. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was also surrounded by some of the very best zoological educators in the world (people like Joy Wolf, Debra Erickson, Donna Parham, and Sheila Voss) and all of us were competitive and trying to best each other which brought about a lot of innovation. It was an incredibly dynamic time in the company’s history, and I was extremely lucky to have fallen into it.”

@ Bill Street

At the time Street started at SeaWorld, the company had a very different perspective on the type of interpretation educators should use. “Interpreting in the zoological environment was just getting organized and it was more focused on giving out as much natural history information as possible,” he explained. “As an educator at SeaWorld, you were evaluated on the frequency you narrated on microphone and your ability to follow the script and make it seem interesting. There wasn’t much focus on letting the guests participate or even lead in the exchange of information.”

@ SeaWorld

“However, over the next several years, educators started to get trained through NAI, and we started taking the successful techniques we learned in teaching school programs out into the park,” Street continued. “Our collective efforts have changed from dissemination of facts to environmental storytelling to both engage the head and the heart. We measure success on our ability to connect with our guests and to influence their behavior, both short and long term, to benefit wildlife and wild places. It’s a pretty amazing evolution from the days of memorizing scripts and it is exciting to think about how we continue to evolve the way we communicate and share with our visitors.”

@ SeaWorld

@ SeaWorld

Street credited his first gig at SeaWorld with setting him up well for the rest of his career. “The most important things I learned during these first few years was to surround yourself with people way more talented than you and try to keep pace with them, to start with ‘yes we can do that’ even when you have no idea how to do it and work backwards to figure it out, and that the difference between really good and awesome is attention to detail,” he remarked. “Oh, and I learned to never write the way that I talk because Midwestern sentence structure is not proper English.”

@ SeaWorld

@ SeaWorld

In 1995, Street returned to the Shedd Aquarium to head up the aquarium’s outreach program. He admitted that he “borrowed” some programs from Shedd that he took down to SeaWorld and took some programs at SeaWorld with him to Shedd. While Street felt Shedd and SeaWorld were more similar than many might think, he did note some differences. “I would say that the three biggest difference between the organizations at that time were the pace by which new programs were developed and implemented, the integration of the education efforts within the organizations, and the volume of programs and program participants each organization reached,” he reflected.

@ Shedd Aquarium

“At SeaWorld we were constantly developing new programs and resources,” he elaborated. “Each year we would produce several ShamuTV episodes, publish over a dozen information books and teacher guides, write over 400 hours of summer camp programs and create at least one new instructional field trip presentation for our local school program. Shedd was much more deliberate with the development of programs, and they did much more evaluation. They focused on doing a reasonable number of programs very, very well and kept repeating them year over year. At SeaWorld, the Education Department was for the most part left alone to do what they wanted as long as it didn’t interrupt the regular park operations, enhanced the guest experience or improved the pass member benefits.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

“At Shedd, I remember that nearly every department was engaged in what you were doing and needed to ‘approve’ before you could move forward, which was a bit of a shock to the way I did things (for them and for me),” he continued. “Finally, back then, SeaWorld was perhaps the largest zoological education department in the world. We had well over a million students in our formal education programs and were reaching millions more through satellite television and publications worldwide. Shedd had the great ability to reach tens of thousands with their programs each year, but their relationship with several schools in the Chicago area was deeper and more impactful that what we were able to do at SeaWorld.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

One of the highlights of Street’s career was being part of the opening team of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which opened in 1998. “The Aquarium’s CEO was the late Warren Iliff, who himself was somewhat of a crazy genius,” he stated. “We didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the best things we did was to hire a young, super engaged and mostly naïve team that had informal education experience but not as much experience in the zoological field.”

@ Aquarium of the Pacific

Since Aquarium of the Pacific was a brand new facility, the team had the freedom to experiment with a variety of different ideas. “As the Aquarium was being built, we were able to put together programs but bring a level of innovation that I am not sure we could have done with a team that already had predisposed perspectives,” Street recalled. “For example, we decided we wanted to do a squid dissection class for high schoolers, but we had to make it unique. Hollywood was right up the coast, so we found a relatively well know prop maker and he built us a couple of latex, 6 foot tall giant squids that we could show the students how to dissect before doing it on their own. We used to come into the classroom dancing with it.”

@ Aquarium of the Pacific

“We had a culture that it was OK to try something a bit crazy and fail,” Street reflected. “Perhaps it’s not the greatest idea to make a floating shark cage out of PVC, take some young adults out the kelp beds and put them in snorkels and masks in the cage, and see if you can attract some sharks. Lesson learned. I have always felt I was creative and innovative as a zoological educator, but the experience at Aquarium of the Pacific was perhaps the most unique and innovative years of my career, and from what I have followed, the team there continues that legacy.”

@ Aquarium of the Pacific

For almost five years, Street left the zoo and aquarium field to be Senior Director of Education for the National Wildlife Federation. There he worked with the Ranger Rick magazine, National Wildlife Productions and the Backyard Wildlife Habitat and Schoolyard Habitat programs. “I think I was a bit unique at NWF and probably drove a few of the staff a bit crazy, but it was an incredible opportunity for me to improve my fundraising skills, to work with affiliates and satellite offices, and to better learn how to navigate the politics of a complex organization,” Street remarked. In 2004, he got a call from Sheila Voss and Ginny Busch (two of the founders of the SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund) asking him to be Director of Education at Busch Gardens.

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

At the time, Busch Garden’s Vice President of Zoological Operations was Glenn Young, a long-time SeaWorld veteran. “He had been making changes to the leadership team for a few years as many of the curators were entering retirement,” Street noted. “The zoological team [had been] very siloed and the teams didn’t always work well together and often competed over limited resources.” In addition, before Young arrived, the park was not very well integrated with the other SeaWorld parks.

@ Busch Gardens

Fortunately, the culture soon changed. “Over the course of a few years, we were able to get everyone on the same page and change a ‘me first' attitude to a ‘we first’ mantra,” Street reflected. “When I think of the most successful culture I have been a part of, it was at Busch Gardens from 2005-2010. I truly felt that everyone in the zoological area had a clear focus and shared vision of what we were trying to accomplish, and that everyone was committed to making sure that each area was successful. It was the epitome of teamwork.”

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

While at Busch Gardens, Street’s team developed a number of innovative programs. “We expanded the Serengeti Safari program, including the addition of an adult night safari,” he stated. “We probably developed one of the best animal ambassador programs in any zoo. Busch Gardens’ resident camp program is probably one of the best in the country, and there were a few genius ideas we tried that failed miserably but I still think they were awesome programs.” Additionally, Street came up with the idea of creating a veterinary hospital park guests could see and played a crucial role in creating the Animal Care Center, which showed guests how Busch Gardens cared for its animals.

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

Street felt it was a common misconception people come to Busch Gardens and SeaWorld to ride rides rather than to see animals and noted research showed the majority of visitors to the parks had the same reasons for visiting as traditional zoos. “What was interesting and impactful is that the parks were reaching audiences that traditional zoos and aquariums were not and that the change in attitudes and perceptions of these groups regarding conservation issues after a visit was significant,” he elaborated. “That knowledge helped us to rethink the guest experience at the parks. One of the great things from an education standpoint about rides is that popular ones have a queue line that keeps guests organized for up to an hour and in need of some kind of engagement. We were able to design and redesign these queue lines to have interactive conservation experiences so that guests were engaged during a time when they would have just been standing in line. You will see now that every major attraction that opens at the parks now has a conservation message and way to engage the public.”

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

“We also knew that our guests wanted to believe they were making a difference for the environment by visiting the parks, so we aligned our merchandise offerings to either give a % of sales back to conservation efforts, got rid of plastic bags (years before this was the trend) or have products that were made of recycled materials,” Street continued. “We also looked at the areas in the parks that didn’t have competition for a guest’s attention and began to strategically place animal ambassadors and educators at those locations to connect with guests when they weren’t expecting it. We began to measure both the quantity and quality of these interactions to help determine which were the most effective. I think one of the hardest things we had to overcome was the sheer size of the guests visiting the parks. Each of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks (there are 4 of them) saw on average about 2-5x the number of people a traditional zoo or aquarium sees in a year, so trying to ensure that each guest has several meaningful conservation interactions in their day is simply a tremendous amount of work.”

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

In 2011, Street was promoted to Corporate Curator of Conservation and Education at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. During this time, SeaWorld was facing challenges as the park came under controversy related to misinformation related to its treatment of killer whales. “I often say that I would never wish on anyone the experiences that we went through at SeaWorld over the past several years, but I would do it all over again because I probably learned more during those years than at any other time in my career.” He reflected. “It was easily the hardest time in my professional career. I think one of the hardest things that I had to come to terms with was that what I saw the company do every day, the dedication of the zoological team and the care that was put into each and every animal, was so incredibly different than the narrative in the public sector. Facts, science, experience, and just simple common sense all had no effect on the emotional upwelling that was created.”

@ SeaWorld

While this was going on, Street concentrated on finding ways to keep SeaWorld impactful and relevant. “One of the things I tried to keep in mind during what happened to SeaWorld was to focus on the things that we could impact and how we could make a difference,” he said “During this tumultuous time, the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund was able to give out record amounts of support to conservation programs. Our education programs were refreshed and focused on critical thinking skills.”

@ SeaWorld

“We developed a Youth Advisory Council comprised of 14-21 year olds that provided advice to our leadership on areas where we needed to improve, and we developed our first corporate social responsibility program which set targets for reducing our environmental footprint and expanding our core animal conservation programs,” Street continued. “We worked closely and quietly with several of the best-known conservation organizations to lay the foundation for the company to take a larger role in ocean conservation.”

@ SeaWorld

One of Street’s proudest achievements during his time at SeaWorld was serving on the board of the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, including a term as Executive Director. “The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund is the primary philanthropic effort for conservation efforts of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment,” he explained. “It is a private, non-profit foundation, and over the past year I have been privileged to be the Executive Director. The Fund raises a little over $1 million each year and, through a grants program, supports conservation projects all over the world.”

@ SeaWorld

@ Busch Gardens

“The Fund has four primary priorities for its giving: habitat restoration, conservation education, animal rescue and rehabilitation, and species research,” Street elaborated. “The Fund has supported several organizations that are well known such as WWF, Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation, but it has also been a long-time supporter of several organizations familiar to the zoo community, such as Cheetah Conservation Fund, SANCOBB, and the Uganda Conservation Fund.”

@ Busch Gardens

@ Busch Gardens

The Fund has not just concentrated on obvious conservation partners but also obscure ones as well. “One of my favorite parts of the Fund is finding organizations that aren’t well known but are doing great work and helping them,” Street commented. “We were early supporters of Arnaud and his giant armadillo research, APPC in Panama are becoming leaders in saving sloth and other Panamanian species, and Living Lands and Waters is this incredible program started by this crazy fisherman from the Quad Cities on the Mississippi River that now removes hundreds of tons of aquatic debris out of our nation’s waterways.”

@ SeaWorld

One of Bill Street’s main interests is how zoos and aquariums adapt to changes in millennial and GenZ audiences. He recognizes that in order to stay relevant zoos and aquariums must take conservation engagement and impact to the next level. “For me, this is a hard question to answer as the expectations of how zoos and aquariums can ‘make a difference’ are changing and different for every organization,” Street explained. “Over the past decade there has been a change from providing information to our guests and ‘educating’ them to working to inspire them to change behavior to create a population that makes wise choices that benefit wildlife and wild places.”

@ SeaWorld

“The work of behavioral psychologists in this area is exciting and fascinating, but it is also very difficult to measure short- and long-term behavior change and what the precursors were for that change,” he elaborated. “Also, the way the public accesses, processes and interprets information has changed radically with social media, and their access to information, whether it is factual or complete fabrication, has created a culture that forms opinions quickly, often without basis, and is attracted to scandal, deceit, and controversy."

@ SeaWorld

“One of the strongest critics against marine mammals at zoos and aquariums once said to me ‘You can’t prove that your education programs have had any impact on improving the environment’ and she was a little bit correct in that there still is very little published research that shows this direct connection between zoo and aquarium education programs and changing participant behavior,” Street stated. “It is very hard to ‘prove’ this without significant investment of money and time into answering these questions, and frankly, most of the education departments I know are just trying to keep up with the programmatic demands. However, I believe that our programs do have this impact, and just because we are still trying to prove it doesn’t mean it is not happening. I come across people all over Washington DC and where I visit whose life was changed by a visit to a zoo or aquarium as a child. There are a lot of great organizations that are tackling that question right now, and over the next 5-10 years, we are going to have a much clearer picture of our long-term impact.”

@ SeaWorld

For years, Street served on the board of International Zoo Educators (IZE). “In 2006, I was fortunate to travel to South Africa to participate in my first IZE conference,” he recalled. “It was an incredible experience that allowed me to learn about the impact zoos and aquariums have on facilities across the globe, but perhaps more importantly to learn about some of the cutting-edge efforts by small institutions that I had never heard of and to see how I could bring what they are doing back to SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. A few weeks after that conference, I was asked to be on the IZE Board, and then a few years later, asked to be the Treasurer. I ended up serving for nearly 10 years on the IZE Board and helped to make it financially stable, registered it as an official non-profit in the U.S., and made countless life-long friends that provide me with great advice.”

@ SeaWorld

@ SeaWorld

Recently, Street has joined the board of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE.) “Right now I am leading the strategic planning process for NAAEE and we will be publishing a strategic framework in early 2019 that will set the trajectory for environmental education over the next few years,” he stated.” In August 2018, Street left SeaWorld and started in January 2019 as Senior Vice President of the Indianapolis Zoo, where he will help create the zoo’s vision for the future.

@ Indianapolis Zoo

Street is prepared to take on the challenges and opportunities that come with zoos and aquariums moving into the future. “In the most immediate future, zoos and aquariums will need to overcome ‘the moral disquiet with zoos’ to alleviate the moral and ethical concerns regarding animals in a zoological setting,” he reflected. “This requires nearly complete transparency, the courage to initiate educated, meaningful and open-minded conversations with the public about animal welfare and rights and establishing meaningful connections with our visitors to share our love and passion for wildlife and wild places. It also means that zoos need to recognize that guests are motivated to visit our facilities for a myriad of reasons that continue to change with societal needs and our facilities need to adapt to these changes. We will become better equipped to understand the generational differences between GenX, Millennials, and the iGen and provide experiences that best suit them.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“In the future, zoos and aquariums will become the most influential organizations for shaping a worldwide consciousness of animal welfare, conservation and a compelling shared vision of the interconnection between natural systems and human lives,” Street continued. “Our organizations are uniquely qualified and positioned to marry conservation science and community based social marketing to foster sustainable behaviors while fostering meaningful interactions with animals that reinforce and energize our need to ‘connect.’ Innovative zoos are learning that quality interactions aren’t in conflict with quantity, and that the visit to the zoo or aquarium is the start of the experience, not its entirety. We will figure out ways to measure and value our impact post-visit, and like many of the big non-profits, learn how to cultivate our audiences into higher levels of financial, behavioral and advocacy engagement, increasing the social capital value of our organizations.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“Although organizations will become hubs that directly shape their surrounding communities, they will have a much greater impact on a global scale and be the voice of the ‘big picture,’” Street remarked. “The zoo community will become much larger, becoming more inclusive of field conservationists (like those celebrated by the Indianapolis Prize), IUCN and impactful conservation non-profits such as WWF, exceedingly wealthy philanthropic foundations (such as the Dalio Foundation and Walton Family Foundation), media conglomerates (such as Disney/National Geographic or Discovery), corporate social responsibility platforms at major corporations, animal rights and welfare organizations, and even seemingly strange bedfellows such as religious organizations, banks and insurance agencies, those concerned with national defense, or even companies with poor environmental records. The most innovative zoos will become organizations that connect and become the home base to these audiences and help them bring their strengths to the solution.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“I also think zoos and aquariums are going to become much more ‘human’ and exceptionally transparent,” Street continued. “When I started over two decades ago, zoos and aquariums didn’t typically identify individual animals and talk about their specific traits as we do today. When an animal passed away, our answers were scientific and emotionless, where as today we share our sadness and talk about animal welfare and empathy. Although we are already credible within the public perspective, I believe zoos and aquariums will become one of the most credible voices in the environmental field.”

@ Indianapolis Zoo

“I am excited to see so many of my education colleagues now as CEO/Executive Directors at so many zoos and aquariums around the country and within our associations, and I think that is only going to make our organizations stronger,” Street concluded. “Having a much stronger focus on our guests and enriching their lives through meaningful animal connections will progress with education professionals taking more leadership roles within AZA and their institutions.”

@ Bill Street

#SeaWorld #BuschGardens #IndianapolisZoo #SheddAquarium

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