When I was talking with my Jemicy students last fall about my upcoming journey to New Zealand, I asked them to imagine they were explorers setting out to learn about the living things in a different world. What would they need to take with them? What would help them understand the biodiversity that they encountered and share it with others back home?
The kids’ responses ranged from cameras to candy, from pencils to iPhones. I have had the chance to see this question addressed a few times now in the microcosm of the Zealandia sanctuary, which is very much like another world. The first time I observed a school group there, I met beforehand with staff to get a briefing on the program. Darren, the lead educator, was a bit skeptical about the group coming in and how much they would get out of their visit. They were middle schoolers who had just arrived from Tacoma, Washington that morning, without any of the usual preparation that happens in a local NZ school before it makes the trek to Zealandia. I joined Kerry, another educator, as he went to collect a tuatara from its enclosure. As he took Tane out, he noted that these reptiles rarely made an personal appearance, but this was a special occasion. “Seeing and touching a living fossil like this … well, it sends a beam of love straight into your heart.”
The school group arrived, appearing dazed from their 18-hour trip from Washington, and we headed off into the valley. They had cameras, notebooks, and a Zealandia bird field guide/checklist. The kids gaped at the massive tree ferns, took pictures of quail chicks crossing the path, and – as Kerry had predicted – were awestruck by the chance to stroke a tuatara. They chewed on kawakawa leaves as they role-played traditional use of medicinal plants, and spotted five endangered birds. As they wrapped up their tour, one of the boys stood still in the middle of the path, gazed up and down the steep, lushly forested valley walls, and said, “Everywhere I look, there’s beauty.”
My next observation of kids experiencing Zealandia came when I was invited to join a group of Year 12 (upper high school) students receiving a presentation on the biogeography of New Zealand and the ecology of the takahe. Anne, the Zealandia educator emphasized New Zealand’s amazing uniqueness: “70% of its birds, 50% of its trees, 90% of its fish and insects, and 100% of its frogs, reptiles, and bats are endemic.” She shared data describing the sudden, severe decline of the takahe population following the introduction of stoats to New Zealand, and described the two major steps that were taken to bring back a species once thought extinct: isolation, and mammalian predator control.
As I followed the group out to observe the takahe, I took note of the “essentials” that they had brought with them to this sanctuary where the takahe could live much as they had before humans arrived. The students tossed each other candy that they had brought, texted, and took selfies with their phones as the educator pointed out different features in the valley. Once they reached the takahe habitat, though, their attention was riveted by the two colorful birds who had been lured out of the grasses for public viewing. They gathered around respectfully, questions flowed, notes were scribbled, cameras focused on the takahe. One of the accompanying teachers said that only half of the students had been to Zealandia before, despite its relative closeness to the school.
The more I work to discern and articulate the tools that are an essential part of learning about biodiversity, the more I return to the heart of our attachment to living things: the things themselves. Many people in New Zealand will never touch a tuatara, or get close enough to look a takahe in the eye, stand marveling under the beautifully patterned shade of a tree fern, or taste the lingering spicy flavor of a kawakawa leaf. That “beam of love straight to the heart” may come instead from having a pet at home, from working in a family garden, or from getting familiar with animals at the zoo.
This morning I joined a group of primary students at the Wellington zoo “Hero HQ” exhibit as Tom the educator talked with them about habitats. The images on the walls surrounding the animal exhibits were huge, bright, and exciting. In contrast, their inhabitants were generally small, camouflaged, and inactive, advertised superpowers notwithstanding. But after Tom brought out one of the five leopard geckos (all named for Disney characters) and had the kids touch it – “with your zoo finger, like it’s tissue paper” – they raced back to the exhibits to try to find more of these inconspicuous beings who now felt familiar, like friends, sending that beam straight to the heart.