Adventures in Interpretive Exhibit Writing: At the Zoo With Dave Barry

I’m not funny. And that is why I wound up working with the humorist / author Dave Barry.

The story begins back in 1975 when I started working at Boston’s New England Aquarium. One of my tasks was to write and produce educational programs for kids on school field trips. One day, a fellow educator, who actually knew what she was doing, gave me some valuable advice.

“When you’re writing for kids and the public, try to include some humor,” she said. “It’s a powerful teaching tool.”

She was right, of course Humor has always served to connect speakers with audiences, educators with students.

Thirty-five years and many programs, television shows, and exhibits later, I now write exhibits for aquariums, zoos, and nature centers. Apparently, while writing for television and radio I learned a conversational writing style, or voice, that also works for exhibits. Beyond that, working in a TV newsroom taught me about strict fact checking and delivering content on time. No excuses.

A number of years ago, one of my favorite clients named Steve, at the Boston-based exhibit firm Lyons/Zaremba, was working on a new exhibit area at Zoo Miami called Amazon and Beyond. Steve wanted lighthearted, accessible, yet informative content, and knowing that I’m not especially humorous, he suggested that Dave Barry might lend us a hand.

That’s when I recalled my favorite science essay of all time. In a newspaper column titled It’s Windy Under the Sea (November 30, 2003), Dave wrote about marine biologists studying how herring communicate with each other by “breaking wind” and generating bathtub bubbles along with an undersea sound called a “Fast Repetitive Tick, or FRT.”

So I called Dave’s friendly, helpful assistant Judy with our zoo-related request. As it turned out, Dave, a Miami resident, was kind enough to help us out.  

First, Dave and I toured the zoo to meet the animals to be exhibited in Amazon and Beyond. Next, I sent my sciency text about anteaters, howler monkeys, and other animals to him. Dave then transformed my words into his hilarious style that won him a Pulitzer Prize. The final products were funny so-called lollipop signs—also called attractors—rising out of a more traditional graphic panel with more meat and potatoes biological content.

In today’s photo, for example, Dave says:

A Giant Anteater can eat 30,000 ants in a single day. Incredibly, it does this without using ketchup. Instead, it uses its amazing tongue, which is 18 inches long and covered with slime.

Never kiss an anteater on the lips, that’s my advice.

Here are some more:

Howler Monkeys are one of the loudest animals on the planet. They make a hideous noise that can be heard more than a mile away. They’re also known for dropping poop bombs on people from trees. They almost never get invited to parties.

Cotton-top Tamarins: These little animals have big white hairstyles so they can find each other in the dense Amazon forest. When they want to hide from each other, they wear little baseball caps. Just kidding! They wear sunglasses.

Guianan Cock of the Rock: The males of this species court the females by strutting around, showing off their colorful feathers and singing to show what great mates they would make. But after the female picks a mate, she builds the nest and raises the babies alone. It’s a good thing for the males that the females don’t know about lawyers.

Golden Lion Tamarins: These animals have spectacular manes that make them look like small lions scampering around the trees. But unlike lions, tamarins eat mostly fruits and bugs, because unfortunately there are no small, tree-dwelling zebras.

Working with someone as funny and talented as Dave was a total blast. Although his writing may look casual and off-the-cuff, he painstakingly crafts every phrase to maximize timing and impact. But I could not leave well enough alone: On our zoo tour, I offered up my own attempt at humor when we met Fatboy, an unusually hefty iguana.

Responding to my lame commentary, Dave put a friendly hand on my shoulder and said, “Tell you what, Paul. When it comes to the funny stuff, maybe I should do the heavy lifting.”

I silently vowed to NEVER again crack a joke around anyone who makes a living by being funny.


Please see Dave’s original herring-FRT-related column at: http-//www.miamiherald.c#DCDD2B