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About 30 kids have gathered at the Midtown Carnegie Branch Library to see animals from Dickerson Park Zoo up close and personal.
Zookeeper Jamie Schmitt shares facts about the animals she’s brought, but even better—she allows the kids to touch most of the critters.
There’s the Flemish giant rabbit, a ball python, a greater Madagascar tenrec, a great-horned owl and an endangered desert tortoise.
And the kids love it.
Schmitt calls these animals ambassadors for their species, especially the endangered tortoise. She hopes Dewey brings awareness to the public about his species’ plight so they might take action to help save them.
The zoo offers zoo classes for kids as well as outreach programs like the one at the library and also at places like day cares, nature centers, schools and nursing homes.
Schmitt says having live animals at the programs enhances the learning experience, especially for children.
"Kids connect with animals very well. Well, people in general connect with animals very well. You can bring any type of animal, and it just brightens someone's day, and they want to know everything about it whether it be their name or how old they are or even what species they are and then there's some questions that are very abstract, and people want to know everything there is to know about this species. It's wonderful," she said.
The zoo has a large menagerie of animals designated for use in education, according to Schmitt. They’re all considered safe, so kids can get close to them. And there’s a large raptor collection, which includes hawks, owls, eagles, falcons and kestrels.
Several of the critters were pets whose owners could no longer care for them. The raptors come from the raptor rehabilitation clinic at the zoo.
These animals are helping to spread awareness of the diversity of the animal kingdom.
Melinda Arnold is spokesperson for Dickerson Park Zoo. She says most people aren’t going to have the opportunity to see exotic animals in their native habitats. Helping them learn and helping them connect to nature in general, she says, is at the heart of what the zoo does.
According to Arnold, our quality of life is directly tied to the quality of our planet. She hopes by sharing animals with children, they’re educating the next generation of conscientious consumers—people who will protect wild places and create yards that benefit wildlife so the planet stays healthy.
But the animals can have therapeutic values as well, especially when zookeepers take them to area nursing homes. Jamie Schmidt says they take them about every two months.
"You'd be surprised at how many people have never touched a snake before and when an elderly person for the first time touches a snake and realizes that they're not that bad it's a neat feeling," she said.
She hopes the animals bring joy and something out the ordinary to the residents.
The zoo recently acquired a lesser sulfar crested cockatoo named Professor Elliot who Schmitt says is quite vocal. The education department agreed to take him after his owner, who trained him as a therapy bird, suddenly passed away. She says eventually, after zookeepers get him used to being around large groups of people, he might be used in children’s programs.
"He says, 'hello, professor,' and he says all these funny little things. He's gonna be a riot. I'm so thrilled to work with him. He's been a wonderful bird, and they did a great job training him up and making him a good acceptable bird to take to places," she said.
She says some training is required to handle the animals, especially the raptors, which have sharp talons and require handlers to wear gloves and also use special apparatuses so they don’t fly throughout the room during programs. And it’s not just paid zoo staff members who take the animals out for programs—zoo docents who volunteer their time give programs as well.
This afternoon at 4:30 hear about two dogs that are helping students in area classrooms as our Sense of Community Series continues.
For KSMU, I’m Michele Skalicky.