Zoo program aims to recruit young environmentalists

Andrew Baker, the zoo's chief operating officer, explains the new construction at the Philadelphia Zoo. On Saturday, KidZooU will open, with many interactive features for youngsters.
Andrew Baker, the zoo's chief operating officer, explains the new construction at the Philadelphia Zoo. On Saturday, KidZooU will open, with many interactive features for youngsters. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 08, 2013

The Philadelphia Zoo's new children's area - its largest construction project ever - is a place where sheep have four horns and trained chickens will turn a light on and off.

A place where a kid can climb opposite a monkey, watch a bug walk on water, and get eyeball-to-antenna with ants.

"It will be a game-changer," said Marina Haynes, curator of the new KidZooU.

"Until now, the children's zoos have had a simple focus - the barnyard, the backyard, and pets," she said.

The zoo's new $33.3 million children's area, which took nearly two years to build and opens Saturday, is taking a more sophisticated approach.

Officials are calling it a "wildlife academy," featuring more focus on conservation and more interaction with the animals, including a 400-foot goat trail that runs along the walkway for humans.

Goats love to climb, and they'll be able to go up and down one side of a tower where they can also pull up a bucket on a rope. In a concept called "parallel play," aimed at creating empathy for the animals, kids can climb the tower's other side and mimic what the goats do.

Through that, zoo officials hope to help foster a generation of kids who care about animals enough to aid their conservation, and even help save the planet.

Climate change is not up for debate in KidZooU. "This is a real issue that needs to be addressed," chief operating officer Andrew Baker said.

In one exhibit, with a fake polar bear looking through the window, kids can turn off household electrical devices, showing that saving energy can help stall climate change.

Beside a large recycling truck, where children can load bottles and cans onto a conveyor belt, is an exhibit of green Australian parakeets - called budgies.

Signage explains the link: Budgies fly from oasis to oasis and need water. Making new bottles and cans uses electricity, made by plants that burn fossil fuels, which makes greenhouse gases that trap heat and contributes to climate change, which causes droughts where budgies live.

"The Australian outback may seem far away," Baker said. But in the exhibit, where the greenery extends into the truck, "it's actually on the other side of the recycling truck's window. We're that interconnected now," he said. "Habitats you're impacting might as well be outside your back window."

These features may be sophisticated, but Baker thinks the kids are up to it.

"This takes messages that they're getting elsewhere - hearing it at home and getting it at schools - and puts an added twist on it, relating it to animals," he said.

Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the industry group the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, called KidZooU a "next-generation kids area" that "takes the educational messages to a new level."

Zoos across the nation are starting to integrate conservation action into exhibits, said Carrie Chen, chairwoman of the education and conservation committee for the AZA.

She praised Philadelphia as "doing a fantastic job" in a way kids can understand.

The conservation message applies to the former elephant house. It was built to qualify for LEED certification - a program overseen by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The exhibit has geothermal wells to assist with heating and cooling. Rainwater is collected from the main roof and used to flush the toilets. The stables have "green roofs" planted with sedum to absorb stormwater.

Conservation starts with empathy, and many of the exhibits at KidZooU have that goal.

Kids can climb a rope spiral that mirrors ones monkeys might be climbing across the way.

A rat gymnasium touts the furry creatures as smart, awesome, curious, entertaining, clever, ticklish, agile, affectionate.

"We're trying to show animals they might be familiar with, but in an unusual context," Baker said.

Over at the ant colony, a child can crouch underneath and put his head up into a dome in the center of the ants, observing their behavior close-up.

Major contributors to the project include board member and software entrepreneur Richard K. Faris and his family, plus the Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton and her family.

Hamilton has long been concerned about the decline of rare agricultural breeds - including horses, sheep, goats, and chickens - so that, too, is a focus of KidZooU.

The shift in agriculture from small family farms to large high-production farms has led to a concentration on a few breeds, and the decline of others.

For instance, there are 7.3 million Holstein cattle in the United States - making up 93 percent of the nation's dairy animals. There are only 22,000 animals across eight rare breeds of cattle.

Agronomists view the rare breeds as insurance. If Holsteins were wiped out by a new disease, other breeds with different genes might be resistant.

Hamilton funds a $2 million-a-year effort on a Rhode Island farm to preserve genetic material of rare breeds by freezing it in a technique called cryopreservation.

So far, 65,000 specimens - embryos, semen, cells, and blood - are held at minus 384 degrees Fahrenheit in large tanks of liquid nitrogen, said Peter Borden, executive director of the facility, Swiss Village Farms.

Although KidZooU's petting zoo has more traditional breeds, the exhibit has 21 rare sheep, goat, chicken, and duck breeds.

They include Jacob sheep, a spotted breed with four large horns that became popular in British parks because they were so picturesque, and Arapawa goats, found on an island south of New Zealand that early explorer Capt. James Cook visited.

Only about 300 Arapawas remain today, said Ryan Walker, a spokesman for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, whose mission is to conserve the animals by breeding them.

So, in a sense, they may be more in peril than some of the rarest wild animals at the zoo, although wild species face different challenges.

Walker praised the zoo not only because the animals there will be bred, but because of the "great exposure" the exhibit will bring to the issue.

"A lot of people don't realize that livestock are endangered," he said. "And that some are even more endangered than the animals that get all the publicity."

Even the signage is inclusive

The signage at KidZooU, the Philadelphia Zoo's new children's area, is designed to reach a wide audience, including children with autism.

The signage is based on a picture exchange communication system, developed in the 1980s.

M. Michelle Rowe, executive director of the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at St. Joseph's University, who consulted on the project, said she knew of no other museum, zoo, or other cultural institution where it was in use.

She wishes it was.

Children with autism and other disabilities, she said, like routines. Change - including a visit to a zoo - stresses them.

These children also are visual learners. The new signs - each a drawing of the animal - will be at each exhibit.

The same drawings will be online at the zoo site, so children and their parents can prepare a visual "map" of where they'll go and what they'll see.

"We all want to know what's coming next," she said. "So giving them the full plan of what's coming" - and a way to recognize it through the simple signs - "is going to dramatically improve their experiences," Rowe said.

The signs also include Braille and depict American Sign Language. QR codes - those black-and-white matrixes that can be scanned with a smartphone - will connect to sites where an animal's name will be pronounced in a dozen or more languages.

- Sandy Bauers

Contact Sandy Bauers

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