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Social Work students work to save pandas

DU master's students Kelsey Holmes, left, and Samantha Rabins interned at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China in summer 2011.

The giant panda — beloved emblem of China, celebrity-in-residence at a handful of zoos worldwide and cuddly poster child of the endangered species list — has never lacked for friends, fans and advocates.

What it really needs is a reversal of fortune.

Enter DU’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW). Over the past two years, four GSSW students have interned at China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to saving the beloved bear. Founded in 1987 with six giant pandas rescued from the wild, the research base focuses on captive breeding, conservation education and educational tourism.

Sarah Bexell, scholar-in-residence at GSSW’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, serves as the center’s director of conservation education. She enlists the interns in staffing an education program for English-speaking visitors, who learn about how population growth and human consumption patterns contribute to the habitat loss that threatens the panda’s existence. Getting that word out may — just may — ensure the panda a viable future.

Inevitably, says Samantha Rabins, an MSW student who interned in Chengdu in summer 2011, visitors want to know why species conservation interests social workers.

“We would start our conversation by talking about giant pandas, but it always led into, ‘What are two American social workers doing talking about giant pandas?’” she explains.

From there, the discussion typically pivoted to a talk about the connection between a healthy environment and healthy societies.

As Bexell sees it, this message is essential if existing biodiversity is to be preserved along with any number of endangered species. And social workers are the ideal messengers. After all, they are advocates for people, and they understand how to connect with individuals and groups. The same can’t always be said for the biologists, zoologists and other conservation scientists who, critics often charge, may relate better to the subjects of their study than to human beings.

Bexell’s work at the panda breeding base began in 1999, when her employer at the time, Zoo Atlanta, sent her there to study panda behavior. The Chengdu facility is at the forefront of panda conservation efforts. According to its website, it has pioneered attempts to use frozen semen to breed giant pandas successfully. It also has an impressive track record in hand-raising infant pandas.

With a PhD in education with a focus on conservation science, Bexell was eager to learn anything she could that would help pandas survive. Before long, she recalls, it occurred to her that nothing she discovered about panda behavior would matter if the mountain forests they call home continue to disappear.

“What we realized right away was that breeding animals in captivity without saving habitat was spinning our wheels,” she recalls. And saving habitat was highly unlikely if the average citizen — whether from China, Spain, Scotland or the United States — couldn’t see the need for it. That’s where Bexell’s public education efforts come into play.

For Kelsey Holmes, now in her second year of studies at GSSW, working at the panda base in summer 2011 opened her eyes to the universality of biodiversity issues. For example, one visitor from the United Kingdom drew parallels between the panda’s plight and the circumstances that pit British badgers against British farmers.

“We’re trying to make animals adapt to our living space,” Holmes explained, noting that many species simply can’t withstand humanity’s footprint in their habitat.

To expand the audience for their education efforts, the GSSW interns staffed a one-week camp for Chinese children, drawing, Bexell explains, on the human-animal bond “to try to get people to respect animals at the individual and species level.” Because entrenched cultural attitudes toward animals are not easily altered, and because population pressures on habitat remain intense, Bexell can’t be sure that these efforts will have lasting effect.

But, she says, “We saw great leaps in their knowledge and their desire to protect nature and animals, and children can be powerful advocates.”

The program at the Chengdu base aligns with GSSW’s emerging emphasis on global practice and “one health,” a concept that encourages social workers to draw upon the natural and environmental sciences as they attempt to understand the issues facing human society.

As Clinical Professor Philip Tedeschi puts it, global practice and one health helps social workers “understand the environmental forces that create and contribute to problems in the everyday lives of people. We are advocating for vulnerable people and communities, where the pressing issues often focus on land use, access to food, water, wildlife conservation, and humane treatment and care of animals.”

Bexell believes that global practice and one health provides social workers a chance to effect the long-term health of human societies.

“Humanity is literally at a tipping point,” she says. “We need to decide, this year, next year, whether we want Earth to be habitable for us. That sounds really harsh, but it’s just the truth.”

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