Learning Lavatories exhibit officially completed at ‘Ding’ Darling
Within the last couple of weeks, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge put the finishing touches on its unique Learning Lavatories exhibit, which it plans to enter in a national contest.
Funded by a $125,000 grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District and private donors’ contributions, the project encompasses the outdoor bathrooms at the Visitor & Education Center and the walls and ceiling leading up to them. A mural depicts an underwater mangrove world, complete with 3-D sculptures, while interpretative messages and flip signs share educational information.
“This project has been on our long-term planning for many years,” Sarah Lathrop, the associate executive director for the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge, said.
She explained that the idea behind it was the result of a combination of factors.
“We’re running out of space for other exhibits and educational opportunities,” Lathrop said of the limited space available inside of the center. “It got us thinking outside of the box.”
The blank walls and ceiling of the outdoor restrooms caught their attention.
“It’s a captive audience that you have in the bathroom,” she said.
In addition, the refuge sees approximately 1 million visitors each year on Wildlife Drive, but only an estimated 250,000 go inside the center. Many, however, will make a quick outdoor bathroom stop.
“We realized we were missing a big portion of our visitors,” Lathrop said.
She noted that elements of the exhibit tease to additional information found inside.
“It’s to really encourage people to go inside of the Visitor & Education Center,” Lathrop said, noting that the exhibits explain so many different aspects of the refuge. “It’s an opportunity to learn about the refuge and what you’ll see on Wildlife Drive.”
The project kicked off in May with the installation of two sculptures a mother manatee and baby manatee followed by construction on the restrooms. The renovated bathrooms debuted in October, along with their new eco-friendly features, such as low-flow toilets and automatic shut-off faucets.
“We wanted to make them as green as possible,” she said.
Wrapping up in late March, the final phase was the installation of the interpretations.
“The educational information that went onto the walls next to the various species and about the mangrove ecosystem,” she said of the last step. “Just education all-around for the exhibit.”
Along with the manatees, the exhibit features sculptures of an alligator, white pelican and more. The outside mural of the underwater mangrove feeds into the bathrooms, showcasing over 30 species.
“We’ve got different mollusks,” Lathrop said. “We have crabs, we have stingrays, we have fish.”
“Everything that’s painted and sculpted is true to size,” she added. “All of them are realistically done.”
Inside the restrooms, each stall door is wrapped in a crisp colorful photograph of a bird.
“You can read a short fact about that bird or species,” Lathrop said.
“It’s a captive audience, so we want to capitalize on these opportunities,” she added. “We want people to learn about these species, so they fall in love with them too and become passionate about them.”
In viewing the exhibit, visitors also learn about the challenges that the ecosystem faces.
“We also want to educate people about some of the issues we have in our waterways,” Lathrop said, adding that the mural artist painted in a floating plastic bag caught in the mangrove’s roots.
“These are things commonly mistaken by underwater wildlife that ingest them and die,” she said. “That’s real life and that’s things that are happening.”
Monofilament or fishing line can also be seen wrapped in the mangrove’s roots.
“We want to draw attention to some of these issues that can be helped by humans,” Lathrop said.
This month, the refuge and DDWS will enter the new Learning Lavatories in Cintas’ America’s Best Restroom Contest. Cintas narrows the entries down to 10 finalists, which the public then votes on.
“So we’re going to be asking everyone to vote and help us win,” she said if it is a finalist.
For more information on the refuge, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling.
For more about the contest, visit online at www.bestrestroom.com/us.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge Center is at 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel.