Filling the Void: Public Outreach in the Year of Social Distancing.



I am very thankful that due to the nature of our Wood Turtle conservation program and the low Covid-19 positivity rate in Vermont, our field work in the Great Northern Forests was able to move forward without the need to make substantial operational changes (although the first few weeks were touch-and-go to say the least). The outdoor work is usually conducted in somewhat remote areas and, on the rare occasions Melanie and I worked together in the field, we commuted separately and often worked on opposite sides of a river where substantial social distancing would have taken place regardless of public health concerns. Yet, another aspect of our program in the Great Northern Forests Initiative was scaled back drastically. I am speaking, of course, about our public outreach events – and we are far from alone in this. While putting the brakes on in-person events is a minor inconvenience compared to the pain and loss many of us in the world are going through, the lack of in-person outreach is not insignificant for us and the communities that would otherwise benefit from them – especially now as the need for outdoor education has become critical to the re-opening of many schools.

Wood Turtle survey work was able to continue relatively as planned due to the socially distant nature of the work. Photo by Mel Lohrer.

By this time last year, I had led nine workshops or field trips, given six public presentations, set up a booth at three wildlife festivals, and attended three conferences. This year, the tally stands at one weekend field course, two workshops, zero festivals or conferences, and a small handful of Zoom presentations. Still, every few weeks, I get a calendar alert about an event I had scheduled, but later canceled. Our captive-bred Wood Turtle ambassador, Shelly, has left my office only once this year and that was just to go to the vet, (though she did spend much of the summer in a new outdoor enclosure so I doubt she is complaining). Understandably, the few in-person events that could take place needed to be restructured significantly to adhere to strict health and safety guidelines. While social distancing, the use of facial coverings, and a few other changes were easy concessions to make, I’ll tell you right now that doing away with carpooling and leading a caravan of ten vehicles for a herpetology field course was no easy task and far from ideal. 

Thankfully, pre-pandemic in-person events such as the workshop pictured above can be easily adapted to meet public health guidelines, however the need to keep group sizes smaller means we cannot reach as many people as before.

To make up for for this massive reduction of in-person outreach programs, we have drastically ramped up our presence on social media. Until recently, I would submit picture posts for social media and contribute a monthly blog entry. In addition to upping the number of picture posts, I now also contribute educational videos on a regular basis to cover some of the same materials from past workshops, and where possible, record any webinar I do to share with the public afterwards. My coworkers have done the same, as have folk in many organizations across the world. Arguably, for the first time ever in the history of global health crises, we can actually connect to people all over the world simultaneously without leaving our homes.

To help make up for the loss of in-person outreach opportunities, each program lead at Orianne began producing more educational video content.

While nobody would claim these online materials provide the same experience as an in-person field trip, these digital adaptations have certain advantages. For starters, anybody can watch the videos regardless of location or physical ability, and at any time. And these resources are incredibly valuable to students during a time when parents are desperate to find engaging online learning opportunities for their kids. No, participants can’t hold a snake in their hands, but we can reach more people. 

While video meetings cannot fully replace the value and experience of attending an in-person workshop in the field, the format does lend itself very well to educational presentations and has the added benefit of expanding the audience to include people anywhere in the world.

Beginning mid-summer, as we and other organizations adapted to new normals, I was able to dip my toes back into the in-person outreach waters. It began with a Wood Turtle habitat workshop with people from a partner organization, and I was unsure how easy it would be to do the event with 10 people and maintain proper social distance. To my great relief, the event was incredibly successful and everybody was careful to follow the new rules meant to greatly reduce risk of Covid-19 transmission (even an enthusiastically curious elementary student). A week later I taught a weekend field herpetology course, capped at nine participants, and despite the some hiccups from leading a caravan of cars through an urban area near rush hour, it too was very successful. Finally, a wetland turtle workshop with Sterling College also went off without a hitch. This has me feeling very optimistic that even if we can’t do everything we want to in-person next year, we should at least be able to do better than in 2020, while still moving full steam ahead with online outreach. 

By limiting participant numbers and and making other adaptations as needed, we were able to resume some limited in-person education and outreach events by mid-summer.

But the big events – the wildlife festivals where we interact with the greatest number of people – those are off the table until a vaccine is readily available to the public. These large events are absolutely critical to introducing people of all ages and backgrounds to the important work we and other organizations do. From getting people interested in turtle conservation and raising general awareness about the need to protect biodiversity, to dispelling myths about snakes (including venomous species) and recruiting landowners to manage their properties as wildlife habitat, these events are invaluable to not-for-profit conservation organizations. And for the public, these sorts of events can be the only opportunities some people have to interact with wildlife up close and speak directly to conservation biologists to learn about the work we do and how they can get involved. To children, and sometimes even adults, these experiences have the potential to change lives. Next week, for example, a local grade schooler will be shadowing me on some turtle surveys – something he never would have been able to do had his mother not brought him to a BioBlitz I had a table at last summer. It is through making such connections that many children decide to follow careers into conservation.

The major element that will remain lacking is engaging with the public at large events such as wildlife festivals. These events are the only opportunity some people have to interact up close with wildlife and the connections we make can result directly in habitat restoration or inspire a child to pursue a career in conservation.

While none of us know when life will get back to normal, or how different that normal will be compared to pre-pandemic times, as soon as it is safe to do so, I plan to get back out there and interact with the public as much as possible. We have some serious outreach ground to make up after this, and I hope the people we interact with, who will doubtless be stir crazy after this winter, will be excited to get back out there with me. Until then, YouTube, Zoom, and Social Media will have to do.