What do sick bats have to do with baby oysters? And what do either of them have to do with you? An area of research known as “One Health” views the world through a lens of relationships, human, species, and the planet.
In AreaHub’s Climate Clear podcast, Alison Gregory interviewed Katherine McComas, professor of risk communication and vice-provost for engagement and land grant affairs at Cornell University, to learn more about how to communicate a “One Health” message.
One Health is the idea that humans, animals, and the environment are all interrelated. But sometimes, getting that message across becomes rather difficult. Why should the average person care about a bat getting white-nose syndrome?
McComas claims that the key to showing others that the wellbeing of humans and animals is connected is an audience-based approach. By knowing the audience’s values and beliefs, scientists and communicators can develop a more engaging message.
One recent event that connected animal and human welfare was the COVID-19 pandemic, which let animals take most of the blame for creating the disease. One of the initial suspects was bats.
“We want to place blame on the wildlife or the animals for this,” McComas said. “And this can lead to us over focusing in on certain solutions without really viewing the wider system that led to this virus being in the animal or wildlife, and then being transmitted to humans.”
Bats are facing their own battle with white-nose syndrome. Entire colonies of little brown bats in North America have been decimated by a fungus that wakes them up prematurely from hibernation. When bats wake up out-of-season, there is little food, and they starve to death. Even though bats are an important part of a healthy ecosystem, many people have a difficult time caring about them. Rabies, vampires, and other representations of bats in media cause many people to fear them.
“We found we could generate responses where people were supportive of bat conservation, while also recognizing that indeed bats could be a source of public health risk,” McComas said.
McComas and her colleagues found this tactic was also useful when educating the public about the challenges oysters are facing due to warming oceans and ocean acidification. “In terms of warming oceans this can lead to more presence of bacteria that can make people sick if you eat a raw or undercooked oyster, so there’s a public health implication there,” McComas said.
In some areas, oysters are a key part of healthy shoreline ecosystems that can stand up to strong storms. Yet teaching people about public health challenges caused by oysters, and how ocean acidification can affect oyster larvae is challenging, especially when shellfish is not exactly an exciting topic.
McComas asserts that the best way to communicate these issues is by figuring out what matters to your audience, such as public health, and then tailoring your message to meet it.
“One thing that we learn in communication, and that we teach our students, is that not everybody's going to pay attention to the information that you think it's so important that they know,” McComas said.
Links from the Episode & Other AreaHub Resources: