Being an Outreach Coordinator: Raina DeFonza

Raina DeFonza has been an outreach coordinator at the Wildlife Center of Virginia since 2012. Working in the outreach department, some of Raina’s many responsibilities include conducting public education programs; creating content for the website and social media, including patient stories, videos, memes, and more; and working with the Center's team of education animals. Raina is also an associate producer of the Untamed series. 

See Raina at work in our 13-episode TV series, Untamed!

Why did you decide to work in outreach and public education? What’s your background?

Before joining the Wildlife Center, I was on track to go to law school – I wanted to be an environmental lawyer with a focus on protecting wild animals. Around the same time I was accepted into law school, I was working as a naturalist at Cattus Island County Park in New Jersey. I realized how much I loved talking to people and working directly with animals and the community. I had zero experience working in natural resources before my job as a naturalist – my supervisor at the time told me that he took a chance on me because he thought I’d do a great job communicating to the public. I’m so thankful for that job because it helped me find this career path! I decided to ditch law school and look for work in outreach and education. I found this (super weird) job description for an outreach coordinator position at the Wildlife Center, applied, and was lucky enough to land the job in 2012. As I initially suspected, the job is super weird … and lovely and so rewarding. Since starting at the Center, I’ve grown even more invested in being a strong science communicator. I love helping people make connections with wildlife and nature. I think that explaining the Center’s work is a really important part of that.

What species of turtle do find most interesting?

I really love spending time in the forest, and I associate the woods with finding box turtles. They often inhabit my very favorite landscapes – the forest floor, among the ferns and rotting logs. They are curious and expressive little animals; while some of the box turtles I encounter are tucked away in their shell, a lot of them are just as intrigued by my presence as I am about theirs. I maintain that Wilson the Woodland Box Turtle is hands down the coolest education animal at the Center.

What’s the biggest challenge in educating the public about turtles and other wildlife?

One of the most significant challenges is preventing wild turtles from ending up as pets. In general, I think humans have a desire to “possess” the things we find beautiful or fascinating, which might feel really natural … but can be very harmful to wildlife and is more than a bit selfish.

Taking a wild animal from its home to keep for your own enjoyment is not a kind thing to do, and it can have consequences not just for that individual, but for the population as a whole. Box Turtles, for example, take a long time to reach sexual maturity and are not prolific reproducers, so removing a breeding adult from the wild means that fewer turtles will be hatched in the wild, and even less will survive for the next year.

Additionally, it’s pretty impractical for most people to keep turtles as pets. They require special enclosures, heating, lighting, and nutrition, and it’s not okay to cut corners. It’s also difficult for most people to identify signs of stress or illness in pet reptiles, which makes it really hard for owners to know if the turtle’s needs are being met in captivity – are they healthy, active, and enriched? Wild animals, particularly reptiles, just don’t make great pets.

What’s your advice for people who want to work in the outreach field?

If you’re the kind of person that likes to find and make connections between people and ideas, outreach might be the right career for you, whatever your field of interest. To work in wildlife education and outreach, it’s important to (obviously) know about the wildlife species or ecosystem about which you’re speaking. Read as much as you can (using reputable resources, of course) or take coursework in wildlife ecology, natural resources management, or anything specific to the wildlife that interests you.  

Ultimately, with public outreach you’re translating information and connecting people to the work, so you need to develop your communication skills – that means speaking, writing, and perhaps most importantly, listening. In this field, we often have to help people work through conflict with wildlife or overcome fears or misconceptions; talking at people will do little to help the situation, but sharing information, perspective, and stories will do a lot more to help people make those deeper connections that lead to tolerance and even appreciation of wildlife.

Looking for more information and advice on working with wildlife?