What’s new at the Zoo?
Focus on global awareness, animals and geography
By CYNTHIA V. CAMPBELL
Published: Apr 26, 2009
Crossing the wooden bridge at the zoo entrance, we watched moms, cameras dangling from their necks, pushing strollers. A group of curious kids gathered around the Globe Fountain. Made of solid black granite, the globe weighs one ton, but it continually turns — floating on a bed of water. By putting their hands on the globe, kids can turn to different continents on the globe. And, they can literally stop the world — at least for a few moments.
"This is Conservation Plaza," said Mary Woods, marketing director for BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo. Pointing to banners waving in the breeze above our heads, she said, "All the animals pictured here on the banners represent different continents. They are actual pictures of our animals here at the zoo. We are setting the tone so that when visitors cross the bridges, they realize they are about to take a trip around the world."
Global news often baffles Americans. Even when modern technology transmits world news swiftly, our knowledge of world geography is sadly behind the curve. Recently, The Advocate reported scientists have found an orangutan population of 2,000 in Borneo. Where is Borneo? What about endangered frogs in the Amazon Basin? Where is the Amazon?
Learning adventures can start right here at home. The Baton Rouge Zoo is a wonderful place to begin geography lessons. Both children and adults can get up to speed on the basics — and they can do it together.
Modern zoos are changing. Once they were more concerned about displaying animals and entertaining visitors. Today, they are about conservation and education. Baton Rouge Zoo is keeping pace with the trends with educational programs and expanding habitats focused on continents.
Woods said, "The conservation we do here in Louisiana has global reaching effects. We actually support the Cheetah Conservation Foundation in Africa and the International Elephant Foundation in Asia."
Currently being put into place is a tall pole that will have smaller signs pointing in all directions. The signage will show exactly how many miles it is from Baton Rouge to places around the world.
As we talked, egrets, blue herons and swans on the lake gathered to snack on a morning breakfast of silvery fish. Moving past the lake, we strolled toward a massive new project, Realm of the Tiger, a large Asian habitat under construction. Here, visitors will see koi (Asia and central Europe) ponds and siamang gibbons (native to Malayasia and Sumatra) and an Asian aviary. There will be a large tiger exhibit with three large plexiglass windows. "We will have room for up to eight tigers," Woods said. "And we will be equipped to breed tigers."
Next, we came upon the zoo's male cheetah (Africa) strolling leisurely along the fence pretending to ignore morning visitors, yet keeping a careful eye on a nearby construction crew. The cheetah's sign on the fence features a map of Africa showing the big cat's range in the wild. An animal education sign at each exhibit in the zoo shows the animal's continent and range. The sign also features a color code from bright red (extinct) to bright blue (common) letting visitors know the animal's endangered status.
Kaitlyn Butler, 5, from St. Francisville was visiting with her aunt, Kassandra Butler. She stared intensely at the cheetah as it strolled along the fence. Kaitlyn said she didn't know the cheetah was from Africa, and she shyly told us her favorite animal was the elephant.
Waiting to see the elephant show, Jenna Lowe, 9, a student at St. Jean Vianney, said she enjoyed seeing the globe at the zoo's entrance. She liked the signs with maps showing where the animals are from. "My favorite animal is the elephant," said Jenna. "I like the ones with the little ears." She knew the small-eared elephants are from Asia.
Pat Reeves of Central, Jenna's grandmother, said, "This is a wonderful zoo. I took my kids here and now the grandkids."
Continuing our walk, Woods explained, "When you present animals in a geographic continental habitat, it's good for people and the animals. It's enrichment for the animals and encourages their natural behaviors. Ultimately we get the animals to behave as they do in the world."
In the zoo's South America area, we saw Andean spectacled bears, a llama and a jaguar.
We continued past the American bison to view the black-handed spider monkey lazing in the sun and munching on green leaves. In the Atchafalaya Basin exhibit, a zoo keeper was talking with a school group, explaining the life of river otters who were swimming about seemingly unaware of the attention they were getting. Visitors enter the otter exhibit through a simulated Cajun cabin featuring hands-on displays.
Then it was on to Flamingo Island and the pink Chilean flamingos. Here, new landscaping is designed to lead visitors along a path toward a spacious viewing area constructed with wood stakes and plexiglass.
At the giraffe habitat (Africa), we ran into kids participating in the zoo's Spring Break Camp. Feliciana Johnson, education curator, held out a bouquet of spring grass to a curious and hungry giraffe, who shook his head, wiggled his ears and calmly leaned over for a snack. She said students were learning about birds and how they adapt to the place they live.
"For example, a parrot in Brazil has a beak that can open a Brazil nut," Johnson said. "We explain that their diet is special because of the place where the animals live."
Our next continental stop was Australia, where we watched kangaroos hop about a green lawn, then stand tall in the shade, observing us with cool glances.
Before leaving the zoo, we walked through the Kids Zoo, where youngsters brushed the coats of baby goats. We also spied The Toulouse Goose, from where else but France, and the perfectly content Jacob sheep, native to Greece.
During another recent trip to the zoo, we stopped by the Parrot Paradise area where we talked with Vadim and Galina Kochergin and their son, Nicholas, a third grade student at LSU Lab School. By checking out the map there, he immediately knew the green macaw here was from South America.
"Nicholas is way ahead on his geography," said Galina Kochergin. "He knows a lot of geography from a computerized globe. It's worth more money than many toys, but it's better than anything else for the kids." She said the globe has games and explains about country's money, population,
animals, music and anthem. "The child is playing and learning," she said.
When learning is combined with play, as is the case with BREC's Zoo, then knowledge comes swiftly. Toward that end, the zoo has plans to remove chain-link fences wherever possible and replace them with natural barriers such as wooden posts, cargo netting and plexiglass. "It helps the barrier to disappear into the background, said Woods. "It makes the habitat appear natural, and facilitates the human-animal connection. It also helps people to realize how small our world is getting."
If you go
GETTING THERE: BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo, 3601 Thomas Road, Baton Rouge. Call (225) 775-3877. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m., weekends, April-Labor Day. Admission is $6, adults and teens; $5, seniors; $3, children 2-12; free to children age 1 and younger. Because the zoo remains open during inclement weather, there are no refunds or rain checks.
Restrooms and drinking stations are found throughout the property. Food and snacks are available at the Flamingo Café daily. A sidewalk narrated tram ride throughout the zoo is $1.50 per person. Train rides on the Cypress Bayou Railroad cost $1.50 per person. The last train ride is one hour before the zoo closes. Wheelchairs and strollers are available for rent. Animal encounters include: elephant show, 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; otter encounter, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; and wildlife safari theater, 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
MORE GEOGRAPHY: Geography is the study of the surface of earth, its divisions into continents, countries and its climate, plants, animals, natural resources, inhabitants and industries of the various divisions. Visit these Web sites: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/;
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org