Alex Wehrung has been an outreach coordinator at the Wildlife Center of Virginia since 2016. Working in the outreach department, some of Alex's many responsibilities include conducting public education programs; creating content for the website and social media, including patient stories, videos, memes, and more; training new outreach docent volunteers; and working with the Center's team of education animals.
Why did you decide to work in outreach and public education? What’s your background?
My academic background is in parks and recreation, and environmental education, but I’ve held a lot of different jobs! Thanks to a childhood jam-packed with family road trips to National Parks, I’ve always been motivated to work close to nature and the outdoors. It didn’t take too long for me to figure out what I enjoyed doing the most – getting people excited about nature! I believe it’s more important now than ever before to not just understand, but appreciate the amazing natural world around us. Working in outreach and education gives me the chance to build that bridge.
What’s your favorite thing about working with education opossums?
This is a tough one … though I think my favorite thing about working with them is that we speak the same “language”. Working with birds and reptiles can be more challenging than people might realize – their social cues, body language, and behaviors can be pretty difficult to interpret sometimes. But opossums are on team mammal! It’s easier to “read” them, so to speak, which makes interacting with them different compared to birds and reptiles. Not easier, necessarily, but different!
What’s the biggest challenge in educating the public about opossums and other wildlife?
I think the most difficult lesson to teach is the “look but don’t touch” mentality when it comes to wildlife. All of the educational programs the Center offers have different themes or areas of focus, but a lot of underlying ideas are shared between them. One of those ideas is teaching people that some of our society’s preconceived notions of wild animals aren’t accurate – snakes aren’t inherently evil or mean, vultures aren’t gross, and opossums aren’t dirty, for example. We want people to love and be excited about wildlife, but we don’t want them to go overboard with all that affection! This can be an especially fine-line to walk with opossums. Seeing how cute our opossum ambassadors are can certainly change people’s negative perceptions of them, but we’re always adamant in stressing that our ambassadors are not the same as their wild counterparts. A wild opossum might be cute, but they don’t want your affection like a pet dog or cat does. The best thing we can do for them is to let them be wild.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to work in the outreach/education field?
Get as much variety in your work experiences as you can! Nature-based education and outreach spans a huge number of industries: zoos and aquariums, public parks and natural areas, tourism, and countless others. There’s no way to find out what you’re the most passionate about until you actually experience it first-hand. A mentor and role model of mine during my undergraduate years gave me the same advice – to make yourself into a Swiss Army knife of skills and experiences – and I took that advice to heart. Many job opportunities available to young professionals in education and outreach are seasonal; that can be frustrating, but use it to your advantage. I didn’t always know I’d be drawn to wildlife and environmental education, specifically; it was something I learned about myself through a process of trial and error. Bottom line: try it all!