By Rachel Solomon
The first time Kristin Holland explored the Woodland Park Zoo’s Night Exhibit, she couldn’t see a thing.
All the kids in her daycare squirmed outside the doors, antsy to file inside the warm, eerie building. First, there was nothing. Then, something hooted. Something hissed. Something scurried across a tree branch.
As her eyes adjusted, a 7-year-old Holland began picking shapes of critters out of the dark.
“The moment things became clear, we were oohing and ahhing at all of the sights to see,” Holland recalled. “At that time, the bats seemed to be the most exciting to observe because occasionally one or two would fly around. The nocturnal house is the most vivid memory I have of that day at the zoo.”
When Holland, now a student at Bellevue College, read that zoo officials were yanking the plug on the popular exhibit, she was shocked. So, she did what most millennials do when they get upset: She joined a Facebook group.
As news of the exhibit’s closure permeated the Seattle community, more than 25,000 members swelled the “Save the Woodland Park Nocturnal House” Facebook group, created by Capitol Hill attorney Scott Gifford in early January. But this wasn’t a case of passive activism, as so many Facebook campaigns tend to be.
With a few clicks and some good old-fashioned strength in numbers, Gifford and company arranged a meeting with zoo officials, who found a way for Seattleites to donate to their favorite nocturnal creatures. The Night Exhibit shut its doors March 1, but it didn’t go without a fight. And, thanks to Gifford’s online efforts, it may not be closed forever.
When the recession hit, it didn’t spare this Seattle favorite. The cost to operate the Night Exhibit ran a steep bill, even before the economy soured.
It had to be warm and humid, and keeping the exhibit dark during the day meant lighting it up in the evening, usually around 4 p.m., to simulate daytime. The building itself was also extremely energy-inefficient, and therefore inconsistent with the zoo’s goal of sustainability. Shuttering the exhibit will save the zoo $300,000 annually, said David Schaefer, the zoo’s director of public affairs.
“We had to make decisions we didn’t like,” Schaefer said. “No one was happy about it.”
When it was announced in early January that the nocturnal house would close, the online world went ape. Gifford admitted to forming the Facebook group as a joke.
“I just sent it to my friends, but then a lot of people started joining and pretty soon we had a few thousand people,” Gifford said. “It just kind of took on a life of its own.”
Initially, supporters mailed donations to the zoo in order to sustain the exhibit. But the donations were returned: The zoo couldn’t accept money for something they were planning to discontinue.
The zoo earmarks donations for specific causes, such as the meerkat exhibit or a new west gate, Schaefer said. No such fund existed for the nocturnal animals.
That changed when the Facebook activists met at the Night Exhibit, an event they engineered on the group’s discussion board. Gifford and 30 or 40 fellow Facebookers spoke with zoo officials, including Schaefer, who was surprised at the response.
“We knew closing an animal exhibit was going to be a serious thing, but I don’t know that without social media it would have gotten the same amount of attention that it did,” Schaefer said.
Though Schaefer said the zoo didn’t make any changes entirely due to the Facebook page, the zoo did decide to find a way for its patrons to contribute to the care of the nocturnal animals by establishing a Nocturnal Animal Fund.
It was also announced that they would keep as many animals as they could. Some were transferred to other buildings, while others will be kept but not on display.
Gifford was confident that his group played an integral role in the zoo decision.
“I think they didn’t quite realize the level of support,” Gifford said. “… is a very quick way for people to share what’s happening, and it can spread very quickly.”
Video: Nocturnal House
Ivan Vukovic and Wilhelmina Hayward
‘It’s Just Easy’
Before Facebook, probably even before computers, these pro-nocturnal house advocates still would have existed. They just wouldn’t have had a way to contact each other or take comfort knowing that there were others like them out there.
“What tools like Facebook do is make it easy for people who normally have no power—in other words, citizens of Seattle who just care about the Woodland Park Zoo—to find one another and then exercise the power of numbers,” said Kathy Gill, a senior lecturer in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication who focuses on social networks, media and government. “Before this technology, all of these people that got together probably all cared, but they didn’t know how to find one another.”
Today, Facebook plays host to countless campaigns, allowing would-be activists to make a statement by simply clicking their cursors. Causes range from the trite—“Can this pickle get more fans than Nickleback?”—to the earnest—“For each person that joins this group, we’ll donate $1 to fight global poverty” to the absurd—“If 1 million people join this group, my dad will not put our hippo to sleep.”
There are even groups that mock the very act of joining groups, such as “An arbitrary number of people demanding that some sort of action be taken” and “I bet I can find 1 million people who hate ‘I bet’ Facebook groups.”
It’s classic slacktivism, Gifford said. This term, coined in the 1990s, refers to feel-good, almost effortless social measures, like donning a colored wristband to support cancer research or taping a political bumper sticker to a car.
“Joining the group is a very low threshold of involvement, incredibly low,” Gill said. “But getting people into the next step, actually doing something—that’s something else.”
In this case, that “something else” was a donation. Once the zoo set up the Nocturnal Animal Fund, Gifford plugged it on the Facebook page. So far, it’s accrued about $5,000.
Holland said she receives a fair number of invitations for groups and protests—and, most of the time, she selects “join.”
“I believe a lot of the time, people join groups though because they know that it wouldn’t hurt anything if they joined,” she said. “When I joined the nocturnal house , I really wanted to help the cause. With others, I joined to show my support.”
Gifford’s group wasn’t political in nature, and perhaps that was one of the reasons it attracted so many supporters.
“Something like this where it’s a local, it’s not something a lot of people know about, and I think it has shown the power of this medium to communicate info to members quickly and cheaply,” Gifford said. “For anything beyond that, get a million people who are pro-choice or whatever, I’m not sure that’s going to do anything.”
Raising awareness doesn’t always translate to action, Gill said, but in this case, there was enough of it to validate a meeting with the zoo. So sometimes, a couple clicks really can affect change.
“It is so easy to form a group on Facebook; it is so easy to promote your group on Facebook,” Gill said. “We cannot underestimate how important it is that the tools to help people connect to one another are easy to use. So, from the technology side of the story, that’s something that is incredibly important: It’s just easy.”
Saying Goodbye… For Now
Two days after the exhibit shut its doors, the BNSF Foundation offered a $20,000 challenge grant to the Woodland Park Zoo. If it’s matched by May 1, the entire amount will go toward the care of the nocturnal animals and to make modifications to their new habitats.
Visitors will still be able to coo at some of the night creatures when a refurbished Adaptations Building opens May 1. Two-toed sloths, tamanduas and Rodrigues fruit bats will call it home.
But for now, the old building stands dormant, unheated and uninhabited. The zoo is saving for an assessment to determine whether it can be remodeled or if it needs to be torn apart so construction on a new one can begin. Ideally, they’d like to resuscitate the exhibit in a couple years.As for Gifford, he visited the exhibit for the last time a couple weeks before the closure.
“I’m definitely sad to see something that’s been part of the zoo and something I’ve gone to visit for many, many years go away,” he said. He continues to post news and tout the Nocturnal Animal Fund on the Facebook page, optimistic that the exhibit will return in the future.“We’re not going to save it, obviously,” Gifford said. “I think it’ll be coming back—hopefully not before too long.”