Pinpointing sounds from the Conservators’ Center

With a single human yell, the Conservators’ Center comes alive. Staff and volunteers around the grounds join in before their voices are drowned by 20 lions “oofing,” three wolves howling and nine tigers chuffling.

Matthai Lion does a lazy "oof" from one of the enclosure's platforms.

Matthai Lion does a lazy “oof” from one of the enclosure’s platforms.
Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

“The ones who know them best are the best ones to get them going,” said Mandy Matson, director of communications at the Center.

Over and over, the Conservators’ Center received feedback from visitors about how the sounds they heard at the center had been the highlight of their experience.

Kim and Frank Pyne have worked with the Conservators’ Center since 2007 and have a particular interest for the wolves.

“Wolves make an awful lot of noise and in every bit of social behavior that they do, there are noises,” Kim Pyne said.

When wolves are in a disagreement, she said they rarely partake in a serious fight.

“What you will see is a lot of sounds, a lot of noise, a lot of posturing and suddenly huge big-sized-looking animals because they’re fluffing their fur out to make themselves look big and scary,” she said. “But, it’s all sounds and noise and signifies nothing, to quote Macbeth.”

During tours, tour guides explain the different howls of their three white wolves and how, from across the Center, they could identify which animal had howled. Down the walkway, other members pointed out the small gruffs and “oofs” the lions and tigers made.

The potential for a purely auditory experience was realized the first time the Governor Morehead School for the Blind inquired about touring students who are visually impaired.

Wolves make a variety of different sounds, including the well-known echoing howl.

Wolves make a variety of different sounds, including the well-known echoing howl.
Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

“I focused on any auditory cue I could give them – not just oofing, howling, and chuffling, but also things like the noise of Tango Geoffroy’s cat on the leaves running back and forth along the front wall of her enclosure to say ‘hello,’” said Megan McGrath, programs supervisor, who lead a group of these students. “On the flip side, I also taught them many of the noises even if the animals weren’t being as talkative.”

The results were so satisfying that the school plans an annual visit to the Conservators’ Center. As other groups for the blind have learned the Center will customize a tour to focus on senses other than sight, they have brought their students to enjoy the sounds and scents of the Center.

Last April, the Center held a special event, just to highlight the noises around the facility.

Community members were invited to attend the Center’s “Sound of the Center” event April 27 to hear lions, wolves, tigers and New Guinea Singing Dogs communicate with each other. Visitors were encouraged to wander the walkway at their own pace and listen to staff members talk about how and why the different animals communicated, what they were saying to each other and to the people and why their sounds are so important.

The idea for the event first came into bloom when McGrath became fascinated with introducing the community that had already seen the Center as an entertainment destination to a more education-focused experience.

“This was our first experiment with seeing how (far in) education we can go and how far we can go in this direction and still have people be motivated to come out and meet our animals,” McGrath said.

The staff members were scattered around the Center, each engaging in an intellectual conversation about various animals. Their passion was evident as they described the animals as they would a friend.

“Little things like that are what makes us so successful,” McGrath said. “It really helps reinforce the idea that we’re a community and that we all work together.”

By Stephanie Butzer

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