Throughout this holiday season, thousands of people flocked to their local zoo in hopes of immersing themselves in the lights, sounds, and smells of Christmas that many city zoos displayed as “Zoo Lights.” While this is a seasonal event that zoos provide as family-friendly entertainment, throughout the year, zoos also provide numerous environmental and conservation education opportunities. Many zoo visitors may only see the entertainment value in zoo visits, but it is almost impossible to go to a zoo without being educated about the environment and wildlife conservation. As David Grazian explains in his new book American Zoo: A Sociological Safari, zoos can be “centers of environmental education with the potential to mobilize audiences around issues of great import, from ocean pollution to climate change.”1 According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), zoos and aquariums are visited by 183 million people annually. This is just in the United States and only includes the approximately 220 zoos and aquariums accredited by the AZA. With this many visitors, zoos have a large platform upon which they can cultivate an environmentally literate community. In fact, this is a key focus for the Oregon Zoo located in Portland, OR.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Alison Heimowitz, School and Teacher Liaison at the Oregon Zoo, who gave me some insight into the zoo’s innovative environmental education programs. Alison serves as the interface between schools and the zoo and coordinates the programs that go into Portland schools. One of the most recent programs is the Salmon Habitat Restoration Project. This program, which the zoo created for a Portland elementary school with a sustainability focus, teaches students about the biology of salmon, with each grade level focusing on a different aspect of salmon biology. For example, kindergarten learns about habitat, 1st grade learns about adaptations, 2nd biodiversity and so on. Students in 3rd grade study the life cycle of salmon by actually raising salmon from eggs and eventually releasing them into a nearby stream. Students also restored salmon habitat by planting trees along stream banks to create much needed shade, as salmon prefer cold water temperatures.
In addition to the school programs developed by the Oregon Zoo, there are a number of other education programs that take place within the zoo including zoo school, zoo teens, ZAP teens, and exhibit interpretation. Oregon Zoo’s commitment to education has led to the expansion of the education center, which is currently under construction but should be opening in 2017.
Many zoos are situated smack dab in the middle of urban metropolises. This is not coincidence but by design. David Grazian explained that the first US zoos were created as “oases of nature” as a way to escape the industrial and urban development of the 19th and 20th centuries.1 Just because these zoos are in urban environments does not mean that there is not still potential for environmental education. John H. Falk, Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning, states in his article “Evidence for the Educational Value of Zoos and Aquariums” that “many members of the public do see zoo and aquarium experiences as vicarious wilderness experiences, and…for an increasing number of urban dwellers a visit to a zoo or aquarium may be the only ‘nature experience’ they have.”2
Tracy Aviary, one of only two aviaries in the US to be accredited by the AZA, is situated in urban Salt Lake City, UT. The aviary has embraced its urban location and created an environmental education program entitled “Nature in the City.” Free and open to the public this family-oriented education program provides opportunities for participants to explore the nature that is all around us, even if we’re in the city. The programs take place in locations all around the city to show just how much nature is out there that may have been bypassed. In addition to “Nature in the City,” Tracy Aviary also offers Birds of the Great Salt Lake Wetland Tours. These daylong trips give participants a greater understanding of the significance of the Great Salt Lake as migratory bird stop over and nesting habitat. Although it may not take place directly in the city, this program still shows the urban dwellers of Salt Lake City that there are significant natural areas in close proximity that need our protection.3
If you ask an environmental educator why they do what they do, I’m sure many, if not all, will say they want to help connect people, kids especially, with nature. Well, this is a goal of many, if not all, zoos as well. In fact, there is a recent movement within the zoo community to create what are called “Nature Play” areas. The AZA, in partnership with The Walt Disney Company, are working to help zoos develop Family Nature Clubs. These will be “safe havens for unstructured nature play” which are “child-directed and allow for spontaneous learning” within AZA accredited zoos. There is vast research showing the mental and physical benefits of allowing children to play outside in nature, but much of the learning done by today’s children is so structured and focused on technology. These Family Nature Clubs will allow families to bond and learn about wildlife and nature while also fostering a conservation ethic through self-led discovery and shared experiences. As stated by the AZA, “More traditionally structured environmental education programs serve an important role in cultivating an environmental ethic, but direct experience with nature and opportunities for unstructured play in nature are at the heart of most environmental action in adulthood.”4
One of the zoos incorporating the ideas of nature play into their park is Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo which is part of Zoo New England. Through campaign efforts the zoo has raised money to build the Nature’s Neighborhoods: Children’s Zoo where families can experience and learn about red pandas through the Bamboo Climber, climb into a giant eagle’s nest to get an aerial view of the zoo, and track animals through the Tallgrass Maze. This interactive and experiential learning opportunity provides children and their families with much needed connection to nature while instilling them with conservation values.5
While many visitors may not realize it, zoo education expands far beyond the interpretive signs in front of the animal exhibits that guests may or may not read. Zoos are creating opportunities for guests of all ages to connect to nature, become environmentally literate, and participate in conservation action. With about 1 in every 10 people visiting a zoo this year, zoos really can and do make a difference in educating people about our natural world.
For more information:
Featured image from The Oregon Zoo: http://www.oregonzoo.org/discover/field-trips-and-school-programs/zooschool