I have had a love for frogs and salamanders since childhood and have made them the focus of the majority of my research. Being engaged in this field, most of the people I interact with have similar feelings towards herps causing me to forget that this isn’t “the norm” public attitude towards these animals. This is probably a dangerous way of thinking, as the effectiveness of conservation depends on public support of these efforts. If the public does not have positive attitudes towards species of concern, conservation efforts may be futile.
When thinking about endangered species, most people picture the charismatic animals that they have seen in books, news stories, or in zoos. People have been found to have more positive feelings towards animals that display neoteny, or those that retain juvenile characteristics into adulthood (see article here). So what can we do as scientist to change public opinions, or make other species known to the public? And will public outreach actually change public opinion?
In a recent article examining public opinions towards the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis), it was found survey respondents had more positive attitudes towards hellbenders when given more information about them (see article here). Hellbenders are amazing animals, but are probably not the most charismatic as they definitely do not fall into the cute and furry category (see picture below). This study highlights the impact public awareness can have on attitudes towards uncharismatic animals, or those that are less publically well known. And amazingly, how giving people just a small amount of information about a species may lead to more positive feelings towards it.
Watching school children go from terrified of snakes to actively seeking them out and picking them up is a great transformation I’ve witnessed at outreach events. There may not be statistics behind these observations, but it has clarified for me the impact outreach can have on public opinion. At a minimum, into the future these children may not kill a snake out of fear. Or the impact of this outreach might reach further and lead to higher support of governmental conservation efforts.
I believe it is our role as scientists to educate the public about species they may not be familiar with, or are in need of conservation. So what exactly should we be doing to accomplish this task? Most of us feel time-limited already, and public outreach is a task that can be easily shifted to the back-burner. Or, maybe we just don’t know where to start if we’ve never engaged in public outreach before. I have found that public outreach can involve short or long time investments, and can take many forms, some examples are (here, here, here).
I have been able to engage in outreach activities in the classroom environment. By emailing teachers from local schools, I have found many are willing to give their classroom over to you for an hour or more to educate students about your research. This takes only a few hours of your day to talk about something that you love. Small efforts like this from many scientists may lead to people putting more value on wildlife, even if it’s not cute and furry.