Sunday 17 November 2019

Claire Bullaro: Zoos are for Education

As a child growing up in Philadelphia, Claire Bullaro was always interested in animals and had lots of pets. “Our family had hamsters, dogs, fish, and budgies, but the snake was mine alone.” One of her fondest memories is of entering a competition on the radio and winning a free entry to the Philadelphia Zoo. Claire’s love of animals and zoos has remained a constant throughout her life. Claire’s husband shared her interest in animals and, whenever the family travelled, they would visit the local zoo.

Claire’s interest in zoos extends beyond personal interest. With a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s degree in Zoology, she has always been keenly interested in education and conservation. “Zoos should be for educating people about animals,” she explains. “Otherwise you’re just torturing animals for human entertainment when they could be in the wild.”

Saskatoon Zoo Society 
Shortly after Claire and her family moved to Saskatoon, the local zoo, which had been very small, obtained all the animals from the Golden Gate Animal Farm when it closed. Claire heard that some local people were planning to start a non-profit zoo society. Claire’s husband joined the board initially but Claire soon followed once their children were a bit older. She has been on the board almost non-stop for the past 40 years and has served as president three times.

The Saskatoon Zoo Society’s role has evolved over the years as has its relationship with the zoo’s management team. In the early days, the Society wasn’t very active. The volunteers would meet with classes and youth groups and share information about the zoo animals. “We had no facility,” Claire explains. “We would meet up in the parking lot and take them on a tour of the zoo.” Jerry Haigh, a wildlife vet who had worked in Africa, was another of the volunteers and he was able to provide some artifacts to help stimulate discussion.

In the mid-1980s, a change in management led to a much more active role for the Saskatoon Zoo Society. Management asked the Zoo Society to start up a gift shop and food concession and Society members could enter the zoo for free. The City also provided some funding for educational programs.

With an annual budget of $400-500,000, the Society was in a position to hire staff and expand their educational program. They hired three educators, all with teaching degrees. The current educators have all been with the Zoo Society for over 20 years. “They’re terrific,” Claire says. “They’re amazing with the kids and full of ideas. I just wish we had enough money to pay them based on their education and years of experience.”

The Zoo Society’s educational programming has proven to be extremely popular. “When word gets out that someone will take you on a tour and talk about things, the requests start accumulating,” Claire says. Some programs, such as the summer camps, are fully booked on the first day of registration. Claire is delighted with the response. “I love the idea of educating people,” she says. “Reaching kids is really important and often they pass the information along to adults.”

Claire’s Dream Zoo
Claire’s many years of experience have left her with a clear idea of what she would like to see in a zoo. Rather than trying to house as many exotic species as possible, Claire believes the emphasis should be on local animals. “We had a group of kids visit the zoo. They lived on a reserve, but they had never seen a live moose,” Claire says. “There are city kids who’ve never seen pronghorn, or great-horned owls, or eagles. The grasslands of the Great Plains are the most degraded habitat in North America. This is something you can teach people about in a zoo.”

Good signage, Claire believes, is key. “You need to do more than display the name of the animal,” Claire says. “You want to give visitors a sense of what the animals is like in its real habitat, how it interacts with other animals, and its importance to the ecosystem.” She uses prairie dogs as an example, noting that by eating the local grasses they help to reseed the prairies and their tunnels provide a home and shelter for snakes, burrowing owls, and black-footed ferrets (now extinct in Saskatchewan). Comparisons with animals that live in similar ecosystems are also valuable. “It would be cool to compare dingoes with coyotes,” Claire says.

The Zoo Society’s current educational program extends from pre-school to high school. In a dream zoo, Claire would like to see weekend and adult programming added to the mix. A group of educational animals that were used to being handled and didn’t need to be in quarantine would be extremely valuable so that children could actually see and interact with the animals.

Ideally, the educational animals would include one or two examples each of birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals. “It would be important to go beyond animals that children can see in a pet store,” Claire says. “It would be wonderful to have Saskatchewan species, such as a skunk, a burrowing owl, and a raptor.”

Claire’s dream zoo would not only talk about conservation, it would also undertake conservation projects, similar to the work being done at other zoos to help restore black-footed ferrets, swift fox, and amphibians to the wild.

Giving Back to Her Community 
Claire Bullaro’s activities extend beyond the Saskatoon Zoo Society. She is also on the board of Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation, Saskatoon Parrot Rescue, Friends of the Forestry Farm House, and the Saskatoon Heritage Society – not to mention maintaining the Saskatoon Nature Society’s mailing list and membership in a church committee.

Photo Credits: with parrot, Claire Bullaro; group photos, Greg Fenty

Further Information 
Zoos in the 21st Century
Profile of Saskatoon Zoo Society, 2011