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There is a small natural history museum in Colchester, England, where a common sight is a party of school-children, all armed with pencils and drawing paper, intent upon sketching the stuffed animals in the showcases. A few miles down the road they could sketch living animals at the zoo. But so far as the law in many countries is concerned stuffed animals are educational and living animals are entertainment. And sadly, this seems to be the view of many educators as well.

Not so many years ago, a visit to the zoo was unashamedly for fun. School trips to the zoo were seen as a good end-of-term excuse to let children enjoy themselves for once, comfortable in the knowledge that while they may be making ribald remarks about the colourful hindquarters of the primates, there would be no danger that they might actually break anything, they would not have to be kept too quiet, and while a few might become temporarily lost, the zoo itself would act like one enormous enclosure from which escape should be highly unlikely.

These days however, zoos have discovered ‘Education’, and school trips to the zoo may never be the same again. So what exactly are zoos trying to educate us in? And why should they be making such an effort?

Motives are probably a good place to start. It is easy to be suspicious when an establishment that takes your money at the gate suddenly takes a strong moral stand on a subject like education. Education, like conservation, can be a very convenient label for poor zoos to use in an effort to justify their existence. It cost very little to produce an ‘Education-Pack’ of photocopied drawings for children to colour, or a simple quiz for school parties to complete. Then any zoo can claim to fulfil an educational role, and who are we to know better?

We often hear it said that television is now the best medium for teaching children (and adults, too) about wildlife. In many ways it is difficult to argue with this proposition. But then again, television is so forgettable. We see so much of it. Most children watch several hundred hours of television every year, so that an episode of a wildlife series, however brilliant, soon fades into the recesses of memory. By contrast a visit to a zoo or a safari park is so memorable. Who can ever forget the baboons climbing over the car, or the roar of a hungry lion, or the playfulness of a pair of otters? A face-to-face confrontation with an elephant is so unlike anything that television could ever offer that it beggars comparison. Only in the flesh, so to speak, can you realise just how tall a giraffe is, just how agile monkeys are, just how colourful are the parrots. There is something about the solid, three dimensional, living, moving animal with all its smells and noises that imprints itself upon the mind, and for children the distinction is even more emphatic. Take children birdwatching and they will soon learn to identify different birds. Show them an educational video and they still won’t distinguish a starling from a sparrow. Something about the experience and sense of occasion that children feel when they see a live animal, even if it is only in a zoo, cannot be replaced by other teaching aids. This is the key to the powerful educational potential of good zoos. Children (and adults) visit a zoo emotionally prepared to assimilate a lot of new information, and the circumstances ensure that much of that information will be retained. So the onus falls upon the teacher and the zoo itself to ensure that this opportunity is used to the best advantage.

Good zoos recognise the responsibility they have to educate while they entertain. Perhaps the most important indicator of commitment here is the information provided on each enclosure. While no one expects an encyclopaedia of information alongside every cage, an accurate, legible label is essential. What appears on the label tends to vary considerably from zoo to zoo. An illustration of the animal in its native habitat perhaps, a distribution map, life style, main source of food, litter size, gestation time, and so on. It helps if the label adds something unique or interesting about the animal concerned. Capybaras become more memorable when you learn that they are the world’s largest rodents, spider monkeys when you learn to watch for them swinging by their tails, Przewalski’s horses when you learn that they are extinct in the wild. A good guide book can complement the signs, but should never replace them.

Many zoos now have an education department, a classroom, full time educational officers, and extra teaching support in the summer.  Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland has pioneered a scheme called ‘interlink’ which combines the resources of the zoo, local museums, and the botanic gardens to create educational courses. Like several other zoos it offers teachers a range of courses from day trips with infants to intensive courses for Advance Level students, and even undergraduates. In 1991 over 50,000 students were involved with structured courses at Edinburgh Zoo. Schools are also offered educational ‘packs’ to issue to children, and most good zoos will offer advice to teachers on the most appropriate areas of study for that zoo.

We have tried, in our zoo ratings, to judge the educational service offered by the good zoos. Zoos are a resource that our schools probably undervalue. They have a lot to offer, and in the end the zoo visit will probably be remembered longer than a whole year of classroom lessons.

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Editor: Jon Clarke    Research: John and Sue Ironmonger, Ray Heaton, and the readers of goodzoos.com   Illustrations by G.L.Grandy. Thanks to John Ironmonger for the original idea of GoodZoos.com.

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