by Gail Pennington, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 19, 2005

Mike Favazza dug deep to find precisely the right word to describe his recent trip to Kenya to document the St. Louis Zoo's conservation efforts there. He finally came up with one: "transformative."

Favazza, a photographer for KMOV (Channel 4), and Anne Steffens, the station's education reporter, joined Zoo president Jeffrey Bonner, education director Louise Bradshaw and others as they looked at new ways to help Kenyan schools teach conservation. The two-week trip took them to spots including remote Kalama, where a single school serves all the children in a two-hour radius, and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the hub of efforts to save the endangered Grevy's zebra.

Steffens describes the impact of the journey, documented in an hour-long special airing Thursday, as profound. "Dr. Bonner said it would be life-changing, and I thought he was being dramatic," Steffens says. "He wasn't."

Martha Fischer, the Zoo's curator of mammals and ungulates (hooved animals), loves leading trips to Africa for just that reason.

"It's fun for me to take people there for the first time and watch the effect it has on them," she says. "First, there's the big adjustment" to living conditions very different from the ones visitors are used to. "Then you see them begin to change - the people, the animals, the landscapes, the beauty, it all just gets to them."

Steffens singles out the people. "They have nothing, literally nothing compared to what we have. And yet they're so proud, and so gracious."

Favazza quotes Fischer on the subject: "Martha says you go for the animals and go back for the people. I think so, too. The people are what I'll remember most. ... They don't have very much, and they appreciate everything."

The trip and special grew from conversations between Bonner and Allan Cohen, KMOV's general manager. A transplanted New Yorker, Cohen had enjoyed many visits to the Zoo in two decades of raising kids in his adopted hometown.

"But I thought of the Zoo as having boundaries - Highway 40 on one side, Skinker on another. Dr. Bonner showed me it doesn't. The work is centered here, but its boundaries are the world. I thought it would be really cool to document some of that."

KMOV and the Zoo were already partners in the Saturday morning half-hour "At the Zoo," hosted by Steffens with chief meteorologist Kent Earhardt. In fact, Steffens had been lobbying to go on a trip "ever since I found out the Zoo ran trips." (The Zoo Travel Program has tours set for everywhere from Africa to Alaska in 2006.)

A Parkway West High School graduate, Steffens must have spent many happy hours at the Zoo while growing up in St. Louis - right?

Uh, no. "Maybe I went on a few school field trips, but my parents weren't really big animal people. We didn't have pets, and I don't have a pet now."

Even her excitement about hosting "At the Zoo," which she saw as "great fun and different," was tempered the day before the first installment when she learned that she'd be handling a tarantula. On the trip to Africa, she confronted other animals she wasn't thrilled about, including the huge roaches that stalked an outdoor toilet ("it was a hole") and chickens that ran past a butcher shop just before being turned into her dinner.

Favazza, who graduated from Bishop DuBourg High School, grew up fascinated by birds and reptiles. "I wanted to be a herpetologist, but I wasn't very good at science so I wound up as a journalist. But you might say I still have an affinity for wildlife," which he puts to use as photographer for "At the Zoo."

In a picture from Africa that he keeps at his desk, Favazza is lens-to-horn with a black rhino, a curious baby taken from its blind mother and being hand-reared at Lewa. The baby rhino likes to come up behind people and nudge their legs with its horn, which can be slightly alarming, Favazza recalls.

He enjoyed meeting the people of Kenya even more, he says, noting that many speak English and that few were surprised by his camera because of the amount of tourism in the country.

The St. Louis Zoo, partnered with other institutions including the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, has been working for years on a project to save the Grevy's zebra, a charismatic animal notable for its large "Mickey Mouse" ears and distinctive, narrow stripes. Hunted for decades for its beautiful coat, the Grevy's zebra has declined critically in number, Fischer says, with the remaining population of just more than 2,000 centered in northern Kenya.

The project includes visits to schools and the community in Kenya to teach conservation. Last year, Kenyan teachers asked for guidance to teach the subject themselves, year-round, and the purpose of the August trip that included the KMOV team was to assess the needs of schools, teachers and students before a teacher-training course begins next year.

As education reporter, Steffens was particularly interested in visiting Kenyan schools, where she describes students sitting on dirt floors, lucky even to have chalk but still excited to be learning. "They love to be there." In addition to reporting, she was also on a mission.

Cohen had charged her with coming up with a project to which the station and its advertisers could contribute. "I told Anne that if we were going to do this, I wanted it to have an impact long after we'd gone home," Cohen says. "I told her I wanted to do something that could change lives positively, and I asked her to find out what that was."

Steffens came up with a project that Cohen heartily approves and Fischer calls "a fabulous idea" - to build a dorm for the girls at the Girgir School in Kalama to allow them to live at school and get an education alongside the boys.

Those male students already have a dorm, while the girls who want to attend school have to walk to and from each day, maybe hours each way. "They live in huts with no electricity," Steffens says. "How can they study? This dorm will give them the same opportunities as the boys."

She remembers what one child told her: "We don't want to be fed. We want to be taught. Teach us."

Favazza wears a beaded African bracelet as a memento of the trip and has a special Christmas present in mind for his 3-year-old daughter, Tori. "We're going to adopt an animal for her," he says. "Probably a Grevy's zebra."

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLToday.com