Suzie, a young visitor at the Philadelphia Zoo, calls out, "Mommy, what's that animal over there, between the parrot and the snake?" "I'm not sure, but I think it's an aardvark. Yes, and the man is feeding it."
These animals are at the zoo, but they are not in cages -- they are rod puppets putting on plays in a special theater, educating and informing children and adults about the animals.
The puppets -- an aardvark, a snake, a parrot, and one puppet called the "enviro" man, teach visitors the proper care of zoo animals. They also warn people not to feed or tease animals and not to litter the park.
"The park is the animals' home," says Maxime Graboyes of the Philadelphia Zoo's development and education department. "The puppets tell the children not to throw trash just as they wouldn't in their own homes."
Visitors are reminded that animals are on a restricted diet and it is dangerous to feed them.
Three years ago the Buffalo Zoo became the first to try puppet shows. Pat Myers of the zoo's education department says the project has been very successful. She has observed more courtesy to the animals and less littering of the grounds.
"Visitors enjoy the shows," she says. "They aren't offended by advice from the puppets as they might be if a zoo attendant gave them the same instructions."
The shows are performed by 25 junior zoo aides, teen-age volunteers who are trained for three days to put on the plays every half hour. The script is on tape.
"Last year's aides became so enthused through the puppetry that they volunteered to help in other ways at the zoo," Pat Myers says.
The education department has extended the puppet shows over the past two years, taking them to local schools and hospitals. The zoo also gave a class in puppetry last fall. "We intend to continue to build the program," says Pat Myers.
The zoo project was originated by Das Puppenspiel Theater Inc. (German for The Puppet Show Theater), a four-member troupe in Westfield, N.Y.
"Children believe in the magic of puppetry," says Jenny Klein of Das Puppenspiel. "Puppets are real characters for children and not just inanimate dolls. By using this sense of realism, puppets can explain better than a zoo authority the proper care of zoo animals."
People are more receptive to information through a project that includes fun, she adds.
Das Puppenspiel was organized six years ago by a group of art graduates of the State University of New York College at Buffalo. Although at first troupe members had to supplement their income with other work, during 1978-79 they were employed by the federal CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program to perform and give workshops at the public schools in Chautauqua County, N.Y. The work has launched them into full-time puppetry.
Along with their zoo projects, the puppeteers create and perform a variety of children's shows in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.