Where the Wild Things Are
By Breanne Roedler, Fall 2009

Logo for the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium
Pittsburgh Zoo
The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium is known for its exhibits, its educational programs, and its conservation work.

Visitors can journey to a tropical forest filled with a variety of unique primates; venture through the African savanna where elephants, giraffes, and lions roam; see the highly endangered snow leopard on a trek through the Asian forest; and do it all in the Pittsburgh Zoo of Allegheny County.

In addition to exhibits that showcase a variety of different animals, the Pittsburgh Zoo has been noteworthy in its appeal to children and its efforts in conservation. It has been rated one of the best zoos for children and is also a leader in conservation efforts. The Pittsburgh Zoo’s renowned commitment to education provides visitors with a unique experience, making it an invaluable establishment in Western Pennsylvania.

The Pittsburgh Zoo opened its doors for the first time in 1898. The zoo had “iron bars and concrete floors, and certainly didn’t resemble anything modern,” Howard Hays told The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Robin Greene. It has since then transformed to provide visitors with an enjoyable experience while supporting and teaching about conservation. Dr. Barbara Baker of the Pittsburgh Zoo told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s David Templeton, “We used to put animals in cages in our own environment. Now we want to immerse the public in the animal’s environment.” Throughout the 1980s, the zoo designed areas for the animals that replicated their native habitat. The completion of the Tropical Forest, a state-of-the-art indoor jungle, completed the transition to a modern facility with animals living like they would in the wild, according to Baker.

Elephant Habitat
Jonathan Dawson / Flickr.com
Exhibits resemble natural environments as if the animals were in the wild.

Click on this image to see a larger version.

The zoo believes that a major cause of its success is attributed to the shift from a city-run public zoo to a private non-profit organization in 1994. In the same year, the zoo’s Education Complex was built and was then later expanded in 2002 to help the zoo achieve its mission of conservation and education. Since its opening, the Pittsburgh Zoo has successfully become both a recreational facility and a conservation organization, and has “one of the top 10 conservation programs among U.S. zoos,” Bill Langbauer of the Pittsburgh Zoo states in an interview with Alana Semuels.

On a trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo, visitors will be in the presence of animals from over 400 species, including 22 threatened or endangered species. Exhibits housing these animals include African Savanna, Asian Forest, Bears, Tropical Forest, Water’s Edge, and Kids Kingdom. One of the exhibits, Kids Kingdom, has earned the zoo recognition as being the fourth best zoo in the country for kids. Parents Magazine has given this title to the Pittsburgh Zoo in the May 2009 edition, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Pohla Smith. Although other aspects of the zoo contributed to this recognition, such as the polar bear exhibit and the numerous baby animals throughout the zoo, Karen Cicero of Parents Magazine noted to Smith that Kids Kingdom stood out in her mind the most. She also stated that the 7.5-acre Kids Kingdom is one of the largest children’s zoos within a zoo covered by the Parents Magazine survey, and was impressed with the number and variety of exhibits that the Pittsburgh Zoo has for kids. Parents Magazine was looking for zoos that encouraged imagination, creativity and, enthusiasm about learning. Kids Kingdom fits this qualification with its interactive facility described by Lisa Raycher of Zoo and Aquarium Visitor. Kids can play and learn on the playground because the equipment replicates animal motions and behaviors. The zoo provides children with tons of hands-on experiences as well, such as the walk through Deer Yard, Kangaroo Yard, and Goat Yard.

Kangaroos lolling in the Kangaroo Yard
ExtraKetchup / Flickr.com
The Kangaroo Yard gives its marsupial denizens a relaxing environment.

Not only does the zoo appeal to children through its impressive Kids Kingdom exhibit, but also through its various programs for children and teens. These programs include KidScience, Zoo U, and Zoo Camp. The Pittsburgh Zoo describes KidScience as a year-long program for middle school a student that introduces methods and principles of conservation biology through a variety of activities such as classroom lessons, data collection and analysis, behind the scenes tours, and more. Participants are a part of the zoo’s research team and engage in real animal behavior research. Zoe Reitz, a KidScience student, in an article she wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2008, told of how KidScience has been a great experience for her. She stated that students have group activities and talk about recent environmental issues as well as what’s happening at the zoo. She also wrote that most of the time is spent outside observing animals and their behaviors. Some of her team members were designing an enrichment device that would be given to a snow leopard, and the teens would then observe the animal’s reaction.

Students in KidScience have also been given the opportunity to observe elephant behavior according to Linda Wilson Fuoco of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A past class took part in designing and testing elephant radio collars that were used to keep track of movements of elephants in Africa with the goal of learning how to conduct wildlife research and habitat conservation programs. Mandy Revak, KidScience coordinator in 2008, told Wilson Fuoco that many of the students want to be veterinarians, zookeepers, or animal researchers, and the KidScience program informs students on possible majors and types of training they would need to pursue these types of careers.

Zoo U is a similar program that is designed for high school students to explore new areas of science and conservation in a fun and challenging way. Zoo U has different courses to choose from that change each semester. Past courses have included Primate Behavior and An Introduction to Veterinary Medicine. Spring 2010 courses included Family Canidae: Dogs of the World and Island Ecology, as well as an independent study as described on the zoo’s website.

Baby Elephant follows the adults
Spankholio / Flickr.com
A baby elephant learns the ropes by following the adults.

These programs led to a very exciting opportunity for one KidScience and Zoo U student. Sean Broderick attended both KidScience and Zoo U. At age 16, in the summer of 2008, he was chosen to represent the Pittsburgh Zoo as the first Arctic Ambassador to Polar Bear International’s Leadership Camp. This camp is located in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Polar bears migrate through this “polar bear capital of the world” each year, and Sean was able observe polar bears on his trip. According to an article Sean wrote himself for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before his trip, he felt that leadership camp would help him “develop the skills to lead and make changes to help save the environment.” He was also excited to “meet other people who share his enthusiasm for animals, research and conservation”, and learn about cultural differences though his interaction with students from around the world.

Zoo Camp is another attractive program the Pittsburgh Zoo offers for children and teens. Zoo Camp began with 253 campers and now gets that many in a single week, with total enrollment over 2,000 says Brian O’Neill of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. O’Neill spoke with one camper, Leann Colella, who started attending Zoo Camp at age 4. Her family’s move to Montana did not stop her from coming back to Zoo Camp year after year as it is the highlight of her summer. Children come from all over the world to experience this opportunity. The Pittsburgh Zoo is filled each week with behind the scenes tours, arts and crafts projects, and classroom discussions on bio-facts and live animals, writes Mark Reardon of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He believes that Zoo Camp is a fabulous opportunity for kids “who are interested in learning about zoo animals, the people who take care of them, and the challenges they face in nature.”

The Pittsburgh Zoo strives to provide children with fun and exciting experiences, all while instilling the principles of conservation and a desire to make the world a better place for animals. Along with these programs, the Pittsburgh Zoo is dedicated to conservation in many other ways. The zoo has a Conservation Education Department that is dedicated to teaching those of all ages about conservation in hopes that they will learn to care for all life on Earth and make sustainable choices. Apparent from the zoo’s website, this department offers a variety of programs, including workshops for teachers, and wildlife classes for all ages.

Baby monkey clings to adult
Elston / Flickr.com
Children who visit the Zoo can see how other children, like this monkey, are raised.

Not only can the zoo come to schools to conduct interactive presentations with live animals, but teachers can attend workshops that help them learn about and incorporate wildlife and conservation into the classroom. Workshops cover various topics such as endangered species, primates, and biodiversity, and are aided by zoo tours, biofacts, live animal visits, and art projects. Peg Dumbaugh, in her article Teachers and Creatures, noted that preschool teacher Valerie Patilla left with great craft ideas and ways to teach letters after attending an Animal Alphabet workshop filled with games, visits from animals, crafts, and more. The alphabet memory game, I went to the zoo and I saw..., was played, and teachers wrote songs about animals to familiar tunes. They were visited by a chinchilla, porcupine, and hissing cockroach, and left the classroom to view lions, tigers, and other animals. Rebecca Colangelo, a first grade teacher, told Dumbaugh that she loves the program and always comes away with something different. Amy Aufman, another first grade teacher, was impressed with her first workshop and walked away with ideas for her classroom that she feels kids will love.

Conservation education does not stop there. A wide variety of classes is available for ages two through adult. Mark Reardon feels that “teaching children and adults how to appreciate their environment and discussing how they can create positive environmental changes are by far the most rewarding aspects of my position as assistant curator of conservation education.” Senior education specialist, David Mintz, engages his students in the learning process, challenges them to use a minds-on approach, and asks them to come up with ideas that they could do in their lives that “would have a positive impact on conservation efforts.”

Along with conservation education, conservation research is a top priority of the Pittsburgh Zoo. With its transformation into a conservation organization, the zoo feels it is essential that research be conducted in order to make good conservation and management decisions. Research is not only conducted on site, including research from teen programs such as KidScience, but internationally as well. International projects are conducted in collaboration with the local people of countries where threatened or endangered animals live.

Zoo staff members, such as conservation biologist Peter Fashing, partake in international research projects with the objective of maintaining the health of animal populations outside of the zoo, according to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Alana Semuels. Fashing has studied monkeys in Kenya and gelada baboons in Ethiopia, which have not been studied since the 1970s due to Ethiopia’s Civil War. Semuels also writes that the zoo sponsors two other researchers who have studied translocated elephants in South Africa and orangutans in Borneo. 

Keep Schoolhouse
Pittsburgh Zoo
The KEEP schoolhouse was built, in part, by the Pittsburgh Zoo, who also helped to develop its curriculum.

The Pittsburgh Zoo supports community based conservation programs started and run by local people. It provides staff involvement and supports the Kakamega Environmental Education Program (KEEP), in which was founded by Wilberforce Okeda and the local community members. KEEP was started to teach local children about the preservation of the Kakamega Forest, one of the last remaining rain forests in Kenya. Now KEEP has become a volunteer organization with over 100 teachers reaching over 10,000 students. The Pittsburgh Zoo sponsors this program and has built a schoolhouse, developed the curriculum, provided materials and supplies, and arranged staff exchanges between the Pittsburgh Zoo KidScience and KEEP staff. Katie Philip, KidScience and Zoo U coordinator, in 2006, was fortunate for the opportunity to travel to this rain forest and help KEEP staff with their educational programming. After her trip in 2006, KidScience developed a pen pal program between KidScience and KEEP students.

“We’re not just a fuzzy Kennywood. We have a much grander mission,” Bill Langbauer tells Alana Semuels. This mission is what makes the Pittsburgh Zoo so deserving of attention. We aim not only to provide visitors with an enjoyable experience, but to be a leader in conservation and education efforts. Through its exhibits, educational programs, and significant conservation projects, the Pittsburgh Zoo encourages positive relations between animals and people that will make the planet a better place for all who inhabit it.

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