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South Coast Zoo Brings In Top Animal Researchers To Educate Public In Unusual Way

A zoo is bringing the world’s top animal researchers to the South Coast to educate the community in a very unusual way. Science is melded with comedy to create a unique program for the public.

This is IMPROVology at the Santa Barbara Zoo where more than 100 people have gathered to learn science through improv comedy.

It’s hosted by the zoo’s marketing director, Dean Noble.

“Tonight, we are pairing up world-class scientists with world-class improvisers,” he said.

Each IMPROVology show has a different animal theme. This one is about gorillas with gorilla experts from around the globe participating. Dr. Eddy Kambala Syaluha is a veterinarian who treats gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa.

“They think like we think. They can make some trick. They can even play some game. So, all the time you visit them, you see new stories,” he said.

He’s invited on stage.

“Our first guest is Dr. Eddy Kambala. Come on up Dr. Eddy,” Noble said.

He interviews Syaluaha about his experience working with mountain gorillas.

“How many mountain gorillas are left on the planet?” Noble asked.

“There are very few. Extinction,” Syaluha said.

“About how many?” Noble asked.

“880,” Syaluha said.

"880 mountain gorillas left on the planet," Noble said.

Then, the actors turn the interview into a 1950s rock song.

The Santa Barbara Zoo had a lecture series. But Noble says attendance was so low that in May 2015 IMPROVology was born.

“We decided to try a new format that essentially marries a TED Talk with a Who’s Line Is it Anyway? The first night we tried it out, we got 120 people in the audience, which is about 10 times as many as we used to get. I interviewed the experts for two to four minutes and then the improvisers did their magic,” he said.

The magic of presenting scientific research in a fun way.

Austin Leeds from Ohio -- who’s a biology PhD student and researcher at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo -- is studying how the hormone oxytocin varies for gorillas in North American zoos.

“Oxytocin correlates with the quality of your social environment. So, we’re interested if we can use that as a measure to sort of assess how well gorilla groups are bonded,” he said.

As Noble interviews Leeds on stage, the audience learns that the scientist uses urine samples from gorillas to test their oxytocin levels.

“How many urine samples does one need for a study like this?” Noble asked.

“It depends on what you’re looking at. I have in my freezer at work urine from 120 gorillas,” Leeds said.

“OK, that’s very impressive,” Noble said.

Next, it’s time for an interrogation improv sketch in which one of the actors – who was absent during the interview -- has to figure out key points that the scientist said.

“Maybe the liquid of how many?” asked one actress to another.

“One-hundred-twenty-seven,” the actress responded.

“So, close because you said it and then you added a seven,” the other actress said.

“One-hundred-twenty gorilla urinations,” the actress responded.

Leeds says he enjoys watching his scientific insights become comedic play.

“It was entertaining. It was very fun,” he said.

So did the audience like Rich Bartle from Santa Barbara.

“Very cool, very creative, very funny. It was interesting and educational,” he said.

The IMPROVology shows are held four to five times a year at the zoo -- making science accessible to all.