This past week I had the opportunity to chaperone Weezy-Jean’s field trip to the zoo. As I was corralling six very active seven year-olds I realized that our local zoo, which we have been visiting since the girls were infants, is one of the first places that my children began to see the diversity of the world around them, and to appreciate it. Taking a trip to the zoo shows us animals that are definitely not native to our area – like rhinos and baboons – and it leads to great discussions. Learning about these animals helps us learn about the world; climates, cultures, and environmental concerns.
However, I admit that I am not always comfortable watching orangutans through bars and seeing elephants in an enclosure instead of roaming the savanna makes me, well, just sad. It would feel negligent if I failed to address that many people have very strong emotional and valid reactions to animals removed from their natural habitat and raised in enclosures. But, my experience in Museum Education (which includes zoos) has shown me the great benefit of using zoos as educational resources. In a world where habitat loss threatens so many species, the ability to teach future generations about them is an important piece of the puzzle to ensuring their survival. And I have never met anyone who works at a zoo because it is just their job. People who work in zoos are there because they absolutely love animals, it is a passion, not just a profession.
HuskyGirl’s favorite animals at our zoo are the Mexican gray wolves (most likely due to their visual similarity to Siberian Husky dogs). We’ve read the signs many times, and know that these wolves are severely threatened due to the fact that the region they live in, Southwestern US and Mexico, was overrun by ranchers in the early 1900’s. The ranchers didn’t like that the wolves attacked their livestock, so the ranchers “protected” their operations by eliminating the wolves. There are only about 83 Mexican gray wolves living in the wild right now. In 1977 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. Components of this include the Species Survival Plan which is managed by the American Zoological Association. Long story short, zoos raise, breed and hopefully reintroduce wolves into the wild! We saw this plan in action when we visited the Lehigh Valley Zoo in Schnecksville, PA. Their Mexican gray wolf area is designated RL – real life – where the wolves natural behaviors and feeding habits are preserved to make them eligible for reintroduction. It was awesome! This is one example of how zoos help promote animal preservation and public awareness.
Ideally zoos will continue to expose and educate visitors about the incredible diversity of species that share this planet with us, and give an appreciation that will make animal lovers, and protectors of us all. Going to the zoo can be really fun – check out these zoo books; they’ll complement a zoo trip or help you continue learning and loving animals after you get home. Making a visit to the zoo on any vacation can be fun, but some zoos are destinations on their own – check out the list of a few “destination zoos” after the booklist!
Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann- This classic boardbook is a children and parent’s favorite. As the Zookeeper makes the rounds saying goodnight to all the animals, the Gorilla takes his keys and quietly lets all the animals out. Following him home, they settle down to bed, but the Zookeepers wife is quite surprised when she gets more than one “goodnight”. This book has very few words, and the repetition makes it a perfect book for your favorite toddler to tell the story with you. It also allows for great narrative extensions as you make up your own story about the animals. PB
Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Ron Campbell – Another classic boardbook! A zookeeper sends an animal as a pet, but it is never quite right (giraffes are too tall!) so each time they need to be sent back. Each pet is presented as a package that is “opened” with lift-the-flap excitement. Will the perfect pet ever arrive? Wonderful introduction to the diversity of animal life, and the unique characteristics of the animal families. PB
Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Bill Martin Jr. & Eric Carle – This classic follow-up to Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? introduces a variety of unusual animals and concludes with the Zookeeper who takes care of them all. A familiar formula and the repetitive text make this a favorite of toddlers and preschoolers and kids love making the animal sounds! Great extension activities include making your own version of the story using photographs from your latest trip to the zoo! PB
Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations by Jacqueline Mitton – Combine a love of animals with Astronomy in this picture book that explores the constellations. Learn the legends of the night through wonderful stories in this National Geographic book. PB
Put Me in the Zoo (I can read it all by myself’ Beginner Books) by Robert Lopshire – How can Spot prove he belongs in the zoo? In this fun story he shows all he can do with his spots – from juggling to changing colors – that make him perfect for the zoo. But is that really where he belongs? Celebrating uniqueness and discovering that there is a “spot” for everyone is at the heart of this story. ER-1
Amelia Bedelia Goes Wild! (Chapter Book #4) by Herman Parish – Amelia Bedelia takes everything completely literally, which leads to all kinds of confusion and hilarity. And she’s always been this way as this series about her childhood tells us. Amelia and her friends create their own backyard zoo and give tours to neighbors, but as always with Amelia things are always as simple as they could be. In this illustrated early reader you’ll find fun, humor, and Amelia’s positive can-do spirit. ER-2/3
The Secret Zoo by Brian Chick – Noah and his sister Megan live next door to the zoo. The animals are behaving strangely, and then Megan disappears! Noah and his friends realize that they need to figure out what is really going on at the Clarksville Zoo! Following mysterious clues and sneaking into the zoo they find adventure and camaraderie, but can they find Megan? MR/RA
This is book 1 in a series, for information on the other titles check out Brian Chick’s webpage.
*PBP note: HuskyGirl, at age 9, loved this as a read aloud with Dad. My husband however was a bit taken aback at the fact that sections portray the parents experience with a missing child. One of the key plot points in many kid- centered adventures are the “absentee parents” . However, in this book, the parents aren’t absent, they are frantically meeting with the authorities who are searching to find Megan. Although – spoiler alert – everything does turn out just fine, and HuskyGirl didn’t seem at all bothered by it, Dad was definitely moved by reading about the parental perspective of missing a child.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – Ivan, a captive gorilla, is content to spend his days watching television and painting. When he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from the wild, he is forced to rethink his world and his art. This tale of hope and friendship is narrated by Ivan himself, giving a unique perspective. Hailed as the best book of the year by Kirkus, School Library Journal and Amazon, and the winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal, The One and Only Ivan is destined to become a classic. MR/RA
Trial by Journal by Kate Klise – Due to a new law that states if a jury trial involves a child there must be a child juror, Lily finds herself missing school to serve on trial of Bob White, a zoo employee accused of killing a young man Perry Keet, who also worked at the zoo. Although there are perks to being on the jury – including a stay at the Menagerie Hotel and a private tour of the zoo – there are some things that aren’t quite what they seem, like the mysterious reptile house! At the end of this trial Lily wants two things: to find out what really happened to Perry, and avoid summer school by turning in her jury journal as a report. Uniquely told through journal entries, newspaper clippings, and court documents this is a cool mystery and an inside look at a jury trial. MR
Trip It: Check out these great Zoo destinations
National Zoo, Washington, DC – As part of the Smithsonian this zoo is free to the general public and has some unique animals, like pandas.
Pittsburgh Zoo, Pittsburgh, PA – Over 100 years in the Highland Park neighborhood make this a Pittsburgh institution.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Orlando, FL – Part of the Walt Disney World Resort, this theme park has rides, shows, and animals everywhere!
Looking for a zoo in your area? Check out the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Zoofinder!