Feature

One of the most effective speakers at APA's 2007 Annual Convention didn't say much. She eyed the crowd intently and yawned when she felt her co-presenter, biologist John Aikin, was getting long-winded.

But just by her presence, "Sequoia," a 19-year-old bald eagle from the San Francisco Zoo, silently communicated the need for psychologists to partner with environmentalists to help people reconnect with nature in an effort to preserve it.

"There's a connection here between what [psychologists] are doing in trying to understand humanity and its problems, and the challenges [conservationists] face in the world," Aikin said. "Can we come together and find solutions?"

One place to start might be the zoo, he said.

Furry ambassadors

As attendance at national parks declines and metropolitan sprawl impedes people's access to nature, zoos remain a popular place to make connections with wildlife, said session chair Susan D. Clayton, PhD, president of Div. 34 (Population and Environmental Psychology). In fact, more than 600 million people worldwide-including nearly 160 million Americans-visit zoos every year, Aikin noted.

With that captive audience already interested in animals, zoos can encourage a lifelong commitment to conservation, Aikin said. At the San Francisco Zoo, for example, zookeepers in the children's petting area encourage visitors to help groom the animals. This, along with other conservation-oriented exhibits, fosters responsibility for wildlife and shows people that they can make a difference-whether it's taking shorter showers to protect bald eagles in California or donating a dollar to save mountain lions in Africa, said Aikin.

In fact, Aikin believes that the negative coverage of humans' effect on the environment discourages people, and suggested that as masters of the human psyche, psychologists can put a new spin on saving the Earth.

"It can't be about telling scary stories that the sky is falling, because people tend to shut down when they hear that," Aikin said. "We need to find ways to talk about it that make people feel good," so that they're motivated to conserve rather than give up.

A win-win

To that end, Aikin is working with a local college psychology class to encourage awareness and change behaviors. Students from Santa Clara University collaborated with the biologist to create an educational exhibit and donation station for the zoo that highlights gorilla conservation.

"My class learned concepts like social influence, altruism and empathy a lot better than they would have in the class alone, and the zoo got lots of great ideas," said Santa Clara psychology professor Amara T. Brook, PhD.

Opportunities abound for psychologists to take part in research and environmental efforts, Aikin said. Psychologists can serve as community grief counselors when a beloved zoo animal dies-an often overlooked, but much needed service due to the fact that these deaths often hit people harder than expected, Aikin said-or help organize local Earth Day celebrations to entice people's involvement in conservation.

"Protecting species requires people, and as psychologists, we can help biologists understand and motivate the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that are needed," Clayton noted. "In addition, protecting nature is good for us as well as for other species. People are psychologically connected to the natural environment in ways we are just beginning to recognize and study."