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Zoos have come a long way from Mother Goose

June 12, 1997

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Kelly Cavendish knows her meerkats from watching animated Timon in ``The Lion King″ movie and from TV specials on the African mammals. She’s now seen one up close.

In fact, the 8-year-old girl burrowed right into the meerkat exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo without raising an adult eyebrow Tuesday. ``There were, like, three right there,″ Kelly told her 2-year-old sister as she pointed toward the animals just inches from their faces.

With its new Kids Kingdom section, Pittsburgh joins a growing list of zoos that have scrapped Mother Goose or farm themes for hands-on exhibits that let children mimic animals as they learn.

Kelly’s mom, Barbara Cavendish, remembers a different children’s zoo in her youth, when ``hands-on″ meant petting puppies and kittens. But zoo directors say domestic animals simply aren’t satisfying today’s children, who often see exotic species on TV and the Internet.

Kids Kingdom delivers more than a video image. Children can slip down an otter slide, hop along with real kangaroos, scamper through a mole rat tunnel and enter a dark cave where piano wire separates them from the bats.

``You hear them squeak or hear the flap of wings, and you can’t do that with glass,″ said Henry Kacprzyk, Kids Kingdom’s curator.

Children also can use computers to learn about conservation issues and write to lawmakers or explore animal-related careers.

Allen Nyhuis, author of ``The Zoo Book: A Guide to America’s Best,″ published in 1994, ranks Pittsburgh as one of the three best children’s zoos in the country. The Fort Wayne (Ind.) Children’s Zoo is No. 1, he said. The Baltimore Zoo’s children’s section ranks with Pittsburgh.

Nyhuis, who has visited 130 North American zoos, said 20 percent have updated their children’s areas and he expects all zoos will include such involving exhibits 20 years from now.

Kids Kingdom already is the most popular section in Pittsburgh.

When the 7-acre outdoor area opened in 1995, attendance grew 26 percent. It went up another 18 percent last summer, and the second phase of Kids Kingdom, the indoor Discovery Pavilion, opened last month.

The Bronx Zoo was the first to revamp its children’s area in 1981 after a group led by Richard Lattis decided a nursery rhyme theme didn’t say much about wildlife.

``Think of the rap the wolf gets. He eats up Little Red Riding Hood and kicks over the pigs’ house. What we want to say is wildlife is worth saving,″ said Lattis, now director of Conservation Centers, which operates five New York zoos and aquariums.

He also noticed that proximity is a bigger draw for youngsters than exotica.

If a chipmunk crosses a sidewalk in front of an elephant exhibit, ``the kid will immediately look on the ground and watch the chipmunk,″ he said.

Lattis’ latest challenge is helping design an area in the Central Park Zoo that will let young children hatch from a turtle egg, hear sounds through rabbit ears and step across squishy lily pads.

``If they can imitate the animals they can identify with them,″ said author Nyhuis. ``If they can identify with them, they will care about them more.″

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