A regular fall activity of Jemicy’s youngest science classes employs a tub of hundreds of plastic animals and another of wooden blocks. We start off with “zookeeper” activities, where kids can select and organize animals as they wish – this tells me a great deal about how kids think about animal groups, the taxonomic characteristics are significant to them, and which ecological relationships they may grasp. Can they distinguish between vertebrates and invertebrates? Herbivores and carnivores? Do they know that whales are mammals, and that penguins are birds? What do they have to teach me?
Once the kids have established some basic ground rules (i.e. “water animals here, jungle animals there”), narratives begin to unfold. A zebra wanders into a pen of lions and other big cats; predation ensues. A family of sea turtles adopts a baby penguin and teaches it to swim. A horde of spiders is corralled and, when I ask if they can climb out, is magically covered with invisible webbing “so they feel at home.”
Each new year brings unique configurations of animals, spaces, stories. I’ve heard numerous zoo tales that reflect news, popular culture, and current trends in children’s lives. The gorilla, previously nameless, was dubbed Harambe this year. One 8 year old eyed a strange looking insect warily and asked, “Is that what carries Zika virus?”
Also appearing for the first time this year was the theme of rescue technology. One JE student tried to get his giraffe to stand in its pen, but it kept falling, its wall collapsing on top of it. “Oh no!” he called. “Giraffe down! Giraffe down!” He ran to another tub, this one containing Matchbox cars and other vehicles, and unearthed a helicopter. “Here! We’ll airlift him out!” The giraffe was rapidly rescued and moved to a safer location.
Suddenly, virally, all sorts of animals – zebras, rhinos, polar bears, centipedes – were falling ill and in need of medical transport. A large bat came flying through and hovered close by. The boy holding it explained, “This bat is a drone. The doctors send it out to look for sick animals.”
An animal enclosure was instantly transformed into an animal hospital with a heliport.
In another class, at the far end of all the activity, one girl worked steadily, quietly, constructing a large space with an open side. This, she told me, was “a place where animals are getting ready to go back into the wild.” It was another first in all these years of this activity: using the resources to allow animals not to be caged. The innovations that I witnessed this year made me realize, with hope, that our culture may be moving beyond the traditional function of zoos as human entertainment. Maybe, as Marc Bekoff’s essay on Harambe suggests, successive generations of zoos will be less about keeping and more about giving back.