Monthly Archives: July 2016

Interpreting animals in captivity

When most people step through the doors of the South Carolina Aquarium, they have a preset opinion in their mind about animals in captivity. You’d think, most of them, because they paid to get into the Aquarium, don’t have a negative viewpoint about the animals that we have in our care. However, that’s not always the case. So, the question is.. does the way that you interpret sway people’s opinions, ultimately driving them to care and take action to help these animals in the wild? It’s an important question to answer.

At the South Carolina Aquarium, we have a bald eagle that was rescued. She has a wing injury that prohibits her from flying, which is why she lives at the Aquarium. Over the past year, we have been hearing more and more negative comments about her being in captivity, looking “sad”, her exhibit space being too small, and being “tied” to the branch she sits on. We can only think that the increase in negative comments came after the movie Blackfish, an anti-captivity movie that played on the emotions of people pertaining to animals in zoos and aquariums. Of course we don’t want people to leave the Aquarium with a feeling of sadness or anger about our animals. How do we make sure that doesn’t happen? One way.. interpretation.

There is a sign at the exhibit, but it is placed over on the side where people have to search for it, and it is not as captivating as it should be. To me, personal engagement and interaction with guests trumps any signage, so we added “Liberty engage” to our daily floor schedule. We try to constantly have staff, interns, and volunteers engaging next to her exhibit to combat the negative feelings that they have. We want them to know that she has been given a second chance of life at the SCA, we want them to know that she isn’t tied to the branch.. those are actually jesses that we use to safely transport her to the roof every morning to get some outside time, we want them to know that her behavior is normal, we want them to know that she gets daily enrichment, and we want them to know that animal care is #1 at the South Carolina Aquarium. Personal engagement and interpretation is so powerful when it comes to conservation and the mission of the Aquarium. It has the power to completely change someone’s viewpoint regarding the animals in our care and what they can do to protect them in the wild. Our mission of conservation is lost amongst our visitors if we don’t use the power of interpretation to educate and inspire.



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Pokemon Go (Or Something Like It) Is Not Going Away Anytime Soon

The game Pokemon Go has made a big splash.  Wildly popular, it has attracted millions of users.  If you listen to the laments of some, you would think that the zombie apocalypse has occurred.  “They just mindlessly wander around staring at their phones!” I have watched lone individuals and groups scour the campus where I work trying to find creatures available in the game.  Not that constantly staring at one’s phone is a new phenomenon, but this game takes it to a new level.

It is a game on your smartphone that blends the real world with a virtual world.  We refer to this blending as augmented reality.  There have been accidents due to individuals being distracted by the game.  It has also caused intrusions on places such as cemeteries that should be respected and made off limits to the game.  However, it has gotten people out and about and visiting places they normally wouldn’t.  Parks of all kind have seen a dramatic increase in visitation.  There are also claims that the getting out and social interactions related to the game have positive mental benefits.

I am not completely settled in my mind how I feel about the game.  As you can see, it has a number of pros and cons.  I should also point out that just because someone visited a place doesn’t mean they connected to it.  Yet, the “Go” part of the game means  you can’t just sit at home all of the time.

With all of this said, one remaining point is very important.  Augmented reality is here to stay.  When interest wains in Pokemon Go, and it will, something else will take it’s place.  For a long while I have thought that this technology could be a fantastic tool to bring heritage interpretation to life.  Imagine if you were to apply this kind of tech to your site. What would it look like?

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Storyteller Spotlight; Robert Hunter

Since story lines are vital to interpretation, I decided to highlight some of my favorite storytellers in this blog.  This is my second spotlight and features someone whose words have had an impact on the lives of 100’s of thousands but his name is not recognizable to most.

Robert Hunter made a living combining stories and poems rooted in American folk culture while incorporating the new ideas and ideals behind the dramatic social shifts that occurred in our country during the 1960’s.  He worked side by side with a man that’s much better known named Jerry Garcia.  Whether or not you dig the Grateful Dead’s sound, Hunter’s lyrics comprise a huge body of work that stands on its own and is quite interpretive.

Hunter once wrote “The storyteller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice.  His job is to shed light not to master.”  I wonder if he knows about Heritage Interpretation.  He sure described it and many of his lyrics provoke thought.  “Lady finger dipped in moonlight writing ‘what for?’ across the morning sky.  Sunlight splatters dawn with answers.  Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye” is an image I have found compelling for years.  It gets me interested in learning more, which is of course what we try to accomplish with our audience as interpreters.

In looking at Tilden’s Principles of Interpretation, I’d say Hunter’s stories hit every one- except interpreting to children and that wasn’t the audience.  So if rock and roll lyrics are interpretive, what is the resource?  The answer is the same as so many great storytellers, our collective experience.  And that is a resource that is cultural, historic, and natural!

You can find Robert Hunters’ work in his book Box of Rain; or, a set of annotated lyrics including many by Hunter; or most any Grateful Dead song by Jerry Garcia.  Two of my favorites are Ripple and Days Between  You might want to check them out.  “Once in a while you can get show the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” -Robert Hunter

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Mystery Matters


(Revised from my Tales of the Bent Twig Trail blog post from Bernheim May 2)

It’s not what we know that matters, but what we hunger to understand. Whatever fuels our curiosity lights our path, as surely as moonbeams or even moth wings. Could it be that our personal evolution is sparked more by moments of wonder and the journey that such “wonder-lust” leads us on than by moments of clarity? I’m not trying to sound prophetic, I’m merely pondering the possibility that mystery or wonder may be necessary to our personal and planetary salvation. Surely, there would be no hope for us, or the plants, animals, and landscapes we cherish without it.

A couple of years ago, I joined outstanding Volunteer Naturalist, Joe Cichan for a Froggy Night Adventure here at Bernheim Arboretum where I work. In the darkening woods of mid spring the mayapple blossoms shone brightly in the moonlight as the spring peepers, toads, and cricket frogs   added their soundtrack to our evening in the forest. Because of the brightness of the blooms, I bent to examine one beneath the mayapple’s twin umbrella leaves. By chance I touched a petal that wasn’t a petal. It moved, revealing itself to be a white moth. Her wings were nearly as large as the petals. I looked closely and discovered seven white moths, each with the same tan-colored line on their wings, and each moth hidden well against a petal. I was awestruck!


In all my years of traipsing about the woods and looking for and at wildflowers, I’d never seen these moths. What kind were they, and what were they doing? I researched, but only found one reference to this white moth and no genus or species name that might provide a more sure road map. Last year I checked out dozens of mayapple blooms, but never found the mysterious white moths.

This spring when I noticed the mayapples blooming on a small woodland trail near my office, I took a peak, and there they were! In fact, over fifty percent of the fully opened  mayapple blossoms I examined had one to seven of these moths tucked inside them. Nearly all of the moths faced inward towards the pistil in the middle of the flowers, and this added to the floral illusion.  Once again I searched reference books and the Internet for clues. This time I uncovered at least part of the mystery. The white moth is called the white slant-winged moth, Tetracis cachexiata and belongs to the family Geometridae. I learned that the caterpillars feed on ash, maples, cherry, and several other trees and shrubs, but found nothing noting their communal behavior, or what the relationship between the mayapple and the moth might be, or how it evolved.


Since all parts of the mayapple except the ripened fruit are poisonous,  I fancied that the moths were in a secret lepidopteran society partaking in an ancient narcotic nectar sipping ritual, but my research indicates that mayapples produce no nectar. Then I speculated that they were gathering pollen and were circled about in a moth version of a quilting bee, quietly stitching together some secret fabric of the planet, yet to be discerned. When collected by entomologists and studied the moths had very little pollen on them, and thus it seems unlikely that the white moths contribute much to mayapple pollination. Certainly the careful camouflage provides protection for the moths, but how did this relationship evolve; and if not helping with pollination, do the moths contribute something or some service for the flowers? Or are these winged phantoms the sole beneficiaries of this relationship?

The mystery of the white moth is a reminder that observation and wonder point us on a journey. We move a few steps forward, uncover a clue and are teased to follow the path beyond where the light shines, or in some cases we follow the will-o’-the wisp. But even that “foolish fire” can lead to worlds unknown; maybe the the white moth has even greater secrets to reveal.

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