Colleen Mitchell is passionate about educating the public on conservation.

Her effort, with the help of others, is currently on display in the form of an ocean mural at The David Traylor Zoo of Emporia.

Mitchell, education director at the zoo, said the project came about as part of World Ocean Day.

“We celebrate World Ocean Day through all accredited zoos all over the world during the month of June,” she said. “Last year we did a plastic chandelier project and got all of the people involved who were visiting the zoo and hung that in our concession area. Then we started collecting bottle caps and had people bring them to us. We’ve been collecting them for over a year. Then we started thinking — what is it that we can do with them?”

Mitchell said the whole idea was to educate people on reducing their use of plastics, reusing items and recycling.

“Plastic is something we are all so dependent on but can be really dangerous when it finds its way to the ocean,” she said. “We are a landlocked state and people don’t really think our plastic bags, drinking straws and bottle caps are finding their way to the ocean, but they are.”

Mitchell said she wanted to bring awareness to that fact and also celebrate World Ocean Day.

“We started the World Ocean Day celebration the first Sunday in the month of June,” she said. “For those being present at the zoo, we began by talking about that conservation message and we had a big board that we wanted to transform into an ocean scene. We had the kids and grown ups give us their ideas and we sketched them on paper and hung the board that week. The next Sunday, we asked the people who visited to help us use the ideas from the week before, and we painted a mural. Once again, we were able to talk to people and spread the conservation message.”

The mural contains an ocean scene with an octopus, a jellyfish, other fish and a big sea turtle, all made of bottle caps. The mural hangs above the zoo snack bar, on the way to new lemur exhibit, Mission Madagascar.

“It was an idea that turned out fabulous,” she said. “There are two areas on the ends that are still being finished. When we first made it, we didn’t know how heavy it would be to hang, so we didn’t finish those areas. But it went up just fine and we are now filling in those end pieces so it will completely cover the whole area above the snack bar. We are really pleased with it.”

Zoo Director Lisa Keith said the conservation project is something the entire staff at the zoo is excited about and that other future projects would be forthcoming.

“Colleen came up with the idea to do something exciting with the recycled bottle caps,” Keith said. “You can’t recycle those little caps. They just sit in the landfills or people throw them on the ground. We wanted to try to eliminate some of that so she came up with the idea to do this mural.

“We put it up before the grand opening of Mission Madagascar. It was fun to listen to some of the people who commented. They couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and how you could use bottle caps to create something so beautiful. It’s been an awesome thing and we hope to do more. We are still collecting bottle caps.”

Mitchell said during the project she enlisted the help of one of her friends, Kristin Oberle, Emporia Middle School arts teacher.

“Kristin came and helped us with her art eye,” Mitchell said. “She worked with us every Sunday. On the third Sunday, we began screwing on the bottle caps. The Emporia Arts Center heard that we were doing this so they donated some they had. Kristin worked on this for the rest of the month, then we took the mural into the classroom.

“For the entire month of July, Kristin helped us spread the conservation message and we continued to screw the bottle caps on the mural. Our goal was to have it done by the grand opening of Mission Madagascar because we knew we would have a captive audience to see it.”

Mitchell was pleased with the mural and wanted to thank all those who helped work on it.

“I called on Kristin to help bring this to reality,” she said. “She really enjoyed it. I think everyone who was at the zoo those weekends and helped us enjoyed the project. I’m really proud of it. The people who have visited the zoo and have seen it have really enjoyed it. They ask what it’s made from, not even realizing that we have taken junk and repurposed it and made it into a really beautiful piece of art. I don’t know if we’ll be able to top that next year, but we will certainly try.”

Plastic pollution is making its way into the food chain. Bottle caps are just one example of plastic that resembles baitfish. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish and sea turtles die each year by mistakenly eating plastic junk or from being ensnared in it.

“It will be a lasting reminder of the beauty in the ocean but also a sad reminder of how much plastic is out there, finding its way to the ocean,” Mitchell said. “It ends up as baitfish and now many animals and fish are full of plastic, and that is endangering our food chain.”

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