The Pandamobile: a story of wildlife, children, and passion


Posted: 27 June 2003

Author: Michel Terrettaz

Introducing children to the natural world, and helping to instil love and care for it, is a vital task. One man who has been doing it by bus for 25 years is Michel Terrettaz. This is his Success Story.

"To me, every child is a ray of sunshine. After a quarter of a century with these little rays of sunshine, they still light up my life like the sun itself."

The speaker is Michel Terrettaz whose Pandamobile has been visited by over 280,000 school children during its yearly tours of Switzerland, where it travels to even the most remote villages. Michel TerrettazMichel Terrettaz© WWF / Aldo Fluri Ever since I was very small, I've been fascinated by animals. Each time I knew the circus was coming to the Plaine de Plainpalais in Geneva, I would ask my father to wake me up at 6 in the morning so I could get there in time for the big event.

I never needed to be excused from school because the circus always came to town in the last week of the summer holidays.

At around 11 o'clock, I would go to the freight depot to watch the animals being loaded off the wagons. Children were allowed to walk the horses, ponies, zebras, and buffaloes along the 3km from the depot to the circus tent.

As well as the sheer pleasure and pride we took in leading the animals, we would also be given a free ticket to go to the circus. Sadly, I never got to lead any animals because I was too small, or maybe too shy - too respectful in any case: I never dared push and shove to get to the front. So I also remember the feeling of failure and frustration I had each year.

When we went back to school, I would go off whenever I could to see the animals in the menagerie. To get in without buying a ticket, I would crawl under the caravans or over the fences. One year, I fell in love with a dwarf zebu. One of the circus crew allowed me to go and talk to it, and then to look after it, feed it, and change its litter.

That year, as soon as the circus left, I fell ill. The doctor eventually realised what was the matter with me: I was lovesick for my four-legged friend.

As time went by, my passion for animals grew. I saw every one of Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan films, sometimes over and over again. My favourite bits were the credits and the endings, because they showed so many different animals filing past. One sequence bothered me though, because the action was happening in Africa and the elephants they showed were Asian elephants.

Unfortunately, Geneva didn't have a zoo, and you couldn't work as a zookeeper anywhere in Switzerland. I trained as a carpenter, which was one way of getting in touch with the natural world by working with wood.

Then I went to Basel to find a job and learn German. Opening the paper one morning I spotted an advert: "Zoo seeks zookeepers with manual qualifications". I could hardly believe my eyes. I phoned immediately and the very next day I was in the director's office for an interview. And he took me on!

I thought about my friends in Geneva who were always saying: "You're going to end up working in a zoo or a national park, or maybe you'll be a circus clown..."

Entering a newspaper competition, I was lucky enough to win an unforgettable trip to the Galapagos Islands with Christian Zuber, the French wildlife film-maker and writer.

The next thing that happened was that the new management at the Basel zoo fired me for having gone off without permission to join the campaign against the baby seal killings in Canada in the 1970s. I'd expected to be sacked, but I never regretted my decision because I was convinced that the campaign was more important.

Soon after I came home, the former director of the zoo asked me if I could go to Turkey at short notice to lead a WWF project to save the bald ibis. After a few training sessions with Hartmut Jungius, the director of WWF International's European programme, I set off for Turkey.

When my contract came to an end, I contacted WWF-Switzerland with an idea for a travelling educational exhibition. Incredibly, WWF-Switzerland had just fitted out an old bus for an exhibition on energy, and were desperately seeking a French speaking driver-cum-educator to take the exhibition into Swiss schools. On 1 June 1978, I took charge of the first tour with the Pandamobile, which at the time was called the "Quizmobile".

The original Pandamobile,then called the Quizmobile.© WWF / Hansruedi WirzProblems cropped up almost immediately. The canton of Valais, which was well known at the time for its hostility to ecology in general and WWF in particular, banned the exhibition bus from its schools.

Later on, in the same canton, an exhibition on lynxes stirred up the most extreme reactions that even included death threats. In some regions of the canton, the tour had to be postponed for a year for security reasons. I had to be on my guard practically all the time, making sure the bus was parked in a locked garage or in front of a police station and never leaving it during intervals in the show.

A few years later, again in the same canton during the "bearded vulture" exhibition, an enraged inhabitant told me: "If I ever meet you at night, I'll smash your face in!" Fortunately, threats like that never came to anything, but my bus was paint-bombed several times - and not by the schoolchildren either!

Working with the children still brings me as much joy as ever. Once, a 13 year-old pupil got me a lemonade and asked me what training or studies he would need to be in charge of a Pandamobile. He desperately wanted to learn the job. I sometimes meet up with teachers or journalists who have been to one of my exhibitions and I'm often amazed by how much they remember, even years later. Michel TerrettazMichel Terrettaz explains the current Pandamobile exhibition on tropical forests to school children.© WWF / Aldo Fluri In 1978, I promised I would still be around with my bus in 1979. In 1987, I insisted on taking charge of the 1988 bearded vultures exhibition. Now in 2003, I'm still here, with my convictions, my energy and - I hope - the spirit of my youth still intact. Though I have to admit I never imagined I would manage to keep at it for so long. What has always kept me going is the spontaneity and the joy I see each day in the children.

I've received hundreds of drawings and letters that are sometimes very moving. People's behaviour and mentalities are different in Switzerland's different linguistic regions (German, French, and Italian). In fact, that variety is important to my work. Several people have asked me how I can keep repeating the same things over and over again without getting bored. My answer is that in fact, it's different every time because every child is unique. My job isn't just about telling young people about the environment and encouraging them to protect it, it's also about sparking off a passion in the liveliest ones and the show-offs, congratulating the shy ones, and encouraging the ones who have learning problems at school.

Some children have told me about their unhappiness, their fears or their worries, things they couldn't always tell their teachers or even their parents about. I don't have a lot of time to grasp the character and behaviour of children I see for the first time. What I want is for them to accept me from the start as an educator but also as a friend. Without trust, understanding and emotion, you can be the most intelligent person in the world, you can be as full of facts as a computer, but you won't get the message across.

I obviously have to take a break sometimes and recharge my batteries. That's when I go off to hike in the mountains. And I spend a few weeks each year in Africa, living and sleeping in the open among the animals and wildlife of the savannah.

So far, all my dreams have come true. I still have several, but one in particular is maybe yet to come: my childhood dream of working as a wildlife ranger in Africa. Who knows? The day you stop dreaming is the day you die.

Michel Terrettaz has been in charge of WWF-Switzerland's travelling Pandamobile exhibition since it began in 1978.

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