Something there is that loves and doesn't love a zoo. I'll venture that one of the more memorable experiences of childhood is a first trip to the zoo. I recall mine. It was Fleishacker Zoo in San Francisco. I was in the third grade.
The sights, sounds, and smells of the zoo made a greater impression on me than the ocean did. I had no real concept of the magnitude of the world's seas. But seeing life-forms so different from me up close fed that most human trait - wonder.
My imagination had me roaring like a lion, running as fast as a cheetah, flying like an eagle. It wasn't just that the elephants were so much bigger than on TV; or that the snakes seemed so slow; or even that the gorillas looked so human, even though I hadn't yet heard of Charles Darwin. I became, however nascently, conscious that I needed an imagination to negotiate reality.
This all changed with a seventh grade visit to the Bronx Zoo in New York. A new sensibility crept in. Zoos weren't fair. I realized that people had the power to confine other creatures against their will. I shrugged it off but never again felt comfortable at a zoo.
All of which is to say, visits to the zoo stimulate profound thoughts in children. They convey a set of values, impressions, sights, and sounds that remain in consciousness - metaphors for all kinds of experiences.
As Julie Finnin Day's story (at right) makes clear, zoos are changing their mission. Their roles are much more complex today. In a world of diminishing animal habitat, Noah's Ark comes to mind. What effect will this have on the imagination of children? It behooves us all to pay attention to the sense of wonder in the next generation.
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