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Bronx Children's Zoo sheds nursery-rhyme image

The sense of wonder and delight is still there. But today's new children's zoos are taking on a new look and a new purpose. They are less cute and whimsical. And they are far more seriously involved with presenting animals as they truly are and as they really live.

This includes showing the types of homes animals make for themselves and the differrent ways in which they move and defend themselves. It also includes illustrating for children, in graphic ways, the acutely developed animal senses of seeing, hearing, and smelling.

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The new Children's Zoo tucked within the enormous and world-famous Bronx Zoo here in New York opened recently to squeals of discovery from visiting youngsters.

For the very young, it was a wondrous new park experience with animals.

For adults, it was a showcase representing both new zoo design and interpretation, and a thoughtful new approach to showing, telling and educating children about both wild and domestic animals.

"Today's child has become far more aware of animal ecology and behavior through television, films, books, and magazines," explains Richard L. Lattis, curator of education of the new zoo. "This awareness has spurred us to find far more realistic methods of presenting live animal exhibitions."

The new concept, four years in development, has had the input of zoo curators as well as educators, child specialists, and construction experts. It has moved directly away from some of the very ideas that the Bronx Children's Zoo pioneered back in 1941 when it opened as the first facility of its kind anywhere.

"We thought then that an exhibit created especially for children should be presented in terms of Noah's ark and of Mother Goose nursery rhyme themes," says Mr. Lattis. "We influenced children's zoos all over the countrey to follow suit , to install replicas of Noah's ark and to encourage young visitors to think of animals in make-believe terms of the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, and Mouseville. Later we led the way to the farmyard approach, as well, and to the idea of giving children the opportunity for hands-on contact with domestic animals."

The new Children's Zoo, a replacement of the 40-year-old model, was built at a cost of $1.5 million with funds made available by individuals and seven foundations, including the Kresge, William Randolph Hearts, Louis Calder, and Charles Hayden foundations.

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Its format is different in many ways. It is designed to show animals in settings that simulate their native habitats. This means that the trail through the zoo winds through five distinctly different terrains -- the woodland edge, the marsh, the forest, the desert, and the farm area where such domestic animals as calves, horses goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, and geese can be petted and fed. Such exposure is especially valuable to city children who rarely have the opportunity to be in such close touch with animals. Various members of the zoo staff enjoy showing children how to stroke and pet the animals gently.

The new zoo also introduces about 110 wild animals in 42 exhibitions. These are all North American species with which children might have some familiarity, such as raccoons, porcupines, cottontails, screech owls, bullfrogs, striped skunks, and wood rats. "We feel it is just as important to give children a sense of appreciation of wild animals, and of their value and need of protection and preservation, as it is to improve their attitudes toward domestic animals," says Mr. Lattis.

The new program is also entirely different in its ways and means of educating and entertaining children. It takes zoo-visiting out of the realm of passive onlooking and converts it into an active mental and physical participatory experience.

A child is invited to climb into and rock gently in a giant reproduction of a black- crowned night heron's nest, for example. As manay as eight moppets have been counted peering gleefully out of one nest.

Youngsters can also put themselves under a child-size snail or turtle shell and learn something about animal locomotion. They can swing on the spines of a 20-foot-diameter spider web made of rope, or crawl through a raccoon's hollow log, or walk through a prairie dog's burrow. They can crouch in a cave to watch a snake, or a salamander beyond a glass partition.

Other devices help children understand something about the highly developed senses of animals. Each child can test his or her ability to see like an owl (with 10 times more brightness than humans see) by looking through a telescopic device. And by putting his head between two mechanical fox ears (with tiny speakers that amplify ambient noises) a child can actually hear sounds the way the fennec fox hears them through his outsized ears, the better to protect himself from predators that might harm him.

If a child wants to make his own "escape" from the lizard display at one platform in the treetops, he can pop down a hole in a hollow tree and whoosh down a 14-foot spiral slide that lands him softly on the ground below. it's typical of the adventures planned for four-to- 12-year-olds who are making their way through the hazards of this re-created forest primeval.

By the time a young visitor has spent an hour and a half viewing and "participating" his way around the park, stopping to pet Lucy the Cereopsis Goose (who likes people better than geese), and checking out the chicks just pecking open their shells, he is ready to sit down to a bit of theater. Several times a day, a teacher comes on stage to chat with youngsters and to answer their questions. She may put a prairie dog on the table in front of her, or an armadillo, or any other animal, and then talk about it.

These 15-minute presentations reinforce the zoo's basic concepts of teaching children about animal homes, animal senses, animal defenses, and animal locomotion. They also remind children of what they have just observed in their rounds of the zoo.

Another way in which the new zoo is different is in its signs and in the words used on them. Their message is aimed at children, so the vocabulary uses the 200 words most familiar to third graders. An occasional big word, like "environment" creeps in, but not often. A secondary sign system is geared to teachers and parents who come with children. The information given on those signs and the questions posed can be used as teaching aids.

The curator points out another innovation. The zoo's extensive plantings of flowers, trees, and shrubs (3,500 higher plants and 2,500 aquatic plants) make it a veritable arboretum. One day, he hopes, a trip to the zoo will present children with a complete ecological experience and give them a feeling for their total environment, including plant life.

The final difference is the total ambiance itself. Gone are the arks and nursery rhyme motifs, and gone are the bright "toy store" colors like bright oranges, blues, reds, and yellows. Very present, instead, are subdued woody effects, the use of cedar shingles, and treated natural pine structures, benches , platforms, and fences.

"Rocks, trees, streams, and logs will, with proper maintenance, always look fresh and never look dated nor go out of style," comments Mr. Lattis.

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