Chaffee Zoo, Fresno, California
Where’s Chaffee Zoo?
Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo is in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the “Nation’s Bread Basket”. We serve a 4-county area of 14,376 square miles (compare with the State of New Jersey’s 8,721 sq. mi.) and reach a population of about 1,500,000. Roughly 1/3 of this population is employed in the agricultural industry and many are migrant workers. We also have a large population of immigrants from Southeast Asia.
For many of our touring school children, a field trip to the zoo is their first zoo experience and the first sight of “live” wild animals. We have children from both cities and rural areas. Some of the outlying schools travel over an hour to get to our educational programs. Zoo preview lends itself well to second language learners. We use pictures, words, biofacts, touching and talking directly to students to create a complete learning package.
Why The PRE-ZOO?
We do not offer general guided tours to school groups below the second grade because their attention spans are too short. So, we needed a program for the younger children. ABC PRE-ZOO offers Pre, K and 1st grade students a preview of what they will see when they go into the zoo. We talk about basic animal classifications – – mammals, birds, and reptiles — using the *California State Science Standards as our guideline. In March, April and May of this year we presented the ABC PRE-ZOO to an estimated 2,600 students, plus accompanying teachers and parents. The parents enjoyed the presentations as much as the youngsters did. We heard lots of “I didn’t know that!” comments.
Two and a half years ago when I started helping in the planning and running of our preview program, we were serving school groups of 40 – 60 students. Breaking students into small groups of 15-17 students easily handled these numbers. Each group then visited the basic presentation tables: mammals, birds and reptiles. Group sizes were kept small to allow each student an intimate participation in a “learning experience”. Because of short attention spans, talks last 5 – 7 minutes at each table or station. Then a 2 – 3 minute hands-on tour of the biofacts allows for “touching and feeling”.
Almost overnight some preview tour numbers jumped to between 100-120 students. Because we had room to expand, we chose to supplement with additional presentations rather then offer two or three classes of the same thing. We now have sections with live arthropods, live animals, a rainforest display, and “lunch boxes” in our ABC PRE-ZOO (Preview) program. This expansion tripled our need for preview docents. Docents were needed to present, to act as escorts, and as “timekeepers”. All docents are capable of presenting in most areas.
Escort docents often exchange places with the presenter to ward off brain malfunctions after the 4th or 5th repetition of “How do we know this animal is a mammal?” The entire Preview takes about 60+/- minutes.
Anatomy Of A PRE-ZOO
Today’s presentation covers a PRE-ZOO Preview on May 13, given to 120 students.
Once a school’s reservation is confirmed, it is my job to secure all the docents necessary. On the appointed day, the buses arrive at our Education Center. The “escort docents” line up to receive their groups. A docent escorts the lead teacher to the office for completing the necessary paperwork while I climb aboard the bus to give a short “Zoo Etiquette” lecture. If there are two buses, another docent is assigned to the other bus for this part. Following the talk, accompanying teachers and parents are off-loaded. Then the students are counted off into respective groups of approximately 17 students and turned over to a waiting docent. All the students in this tour will be channeled through 7 different presentations in about an hour and a quarter.
The first group will go to the Mammals. Here the presenting docent interacts with the students in developing the characteristics that make up the mammal class. Depending upon the ages of the youngsters, we also cover various adaptations of these animals for living in different environments and finding food. We use a variety of skins and skulls to demonstrate these traits. After this short talk, the children are invited to circle the table to touch and feel the various biofacts.
After the mammals, the students are usually escorted to Arthropods. (The route the students take is determined by the class site layout.) Here the docent may have a live millipede, tarantula, hissing cockroach, black widow spider and/or crawfish. The idea of exoskeletons and segmented bodies are explored. This is not a “hands on” presentation, but each child is given the opportunity for a closer look and to learn about each particular animal.
Following arthropods, the next presentation is Birds. We ask, “What is a bird?” eliciting special identifying characteristics. We observe the differences in feathers, feet and beaks. Raptors and ratites are identified. Nests and eggs are examined. This is a “touch and feel” presentation, so time is allowed for closer examination of biofacts.
It’s off to Live Animals next. This is a “presenter’s choice” as the presenting docent picks which animals he/she will display. Usually the animals will include a reptile (snake or Bearded Dragon lizard) and one or two small mammals (chinchilla, ferret and/or Guinea pig). We do have birds available, but our birds are “scene stealers” and the docent has to shout above the screeches and chirps, so birds are usually left behind. This is not a “touch and feel” presentation, but the docent makes sure each child gets a good “up close and personal” view, plus a thumbnail sketch of each animal.
Next is the Rainforest display. One of our docents put together our “Portable Rainforest” using an old movie screen, a golf umbrella, and a dyed throw rug. Here the students can actively participate by “populating” our forest. The presenting docent describes a rainforest, its layers, and their respective inhabitants. After a basic description, the students are given pictures of animals and asked to place the animal in its appropriate habitat layer. (One docent was taken aback when a kindergartner confidently placed his elephant in the canopy.) There is also discussion regarding the variety of valuable products produced in the Rainforest, in addition to the wonderful animal life it supports.
After the journey through the rainforest it’s time to head to Reptiles. This spot is a big favorite with the students.
Naturally, special characteristics that make up this class of animals are discussed. The docent talks about growing and “outgrowing” (snake shed). Using a carapace, he/she points out a turtle’s backbone and ribs. A full snake skeleton is examined. Beaks and feet are given close looks. Reptile eggs are also shown. A docent crafted a display depicting sea turtles hatching and the babies scrambling down to the water and safety. The grand finale of this presentation concerns the alligator mother. The docent explains that while most reptiles lay their eggs and leave the babies to fend for themselves, it is the mother alligator that stays with her eggs until they hatch. When they hatch, she opens her great big mouth filled with big scary teeth and tenderly transports her babies to the water. Here she watches over them until they are ready to be on their own. This, too, is a “touch and feel” presentation, so time is allowed for the children to do just that.
For our morning group, it will soon be lunchtime. They know what’s in their lunch bags, but what about the animals’ lunches? The Lunch Box table answers all sorts of questions. With the assistance of our keepers and “Zoo Chef”, I made up a series of boxes containing food items that each of the animals eats. There are currently about dozen or so boxes, each with a picture of an animal on the lid. The presenting docent offers a short talk explaining that different animals require different foods. How each animal’s diet is determined by our Zoo veterinarian and prepared in the kitchen under the guidance of our Zoo Chef. Following this discussion, the group gathers around a table, with each youngster standing in front of a different box. The docent leads the youngsters in identifying the animal on the lid. After everybody identifies his/her animals, the lids come off and the individual diets are exposed. “Who has leaves? Who has fruit? Who has flowers? Who eats vegetables?” Lots of questions elicit lots of answers. The big question, “What does everybody have in their boxes and what does every animal need?” brings a loud reply, “Water”. If any extra time at this station, children are encouraged to switch boxes to discover what “somebody else” eats.
Our tour is now over. The youngsters have been to seven different stations. The presenting docents are hoarse. The escorting docents are footsore. Things have been moved along by the docent managing the “timer” and running to give the escorting docent the “two-minute” signal which is passed to the presenting docent, so the talks can be wound up and the “touch and feel” begin.
The students have enjoyed their time with us and now head out to the zoo, with a little basic knowledge they can put to use. It has been a hectic time; but each docent feels a sense of satisfaction for a job well done.
Before leaving the lead teacher is asked to complete an evaluation form which she received upon arrival. Our rating has been “excellent” and the following quotes are a sampling from the forms: “Perfect for age level”, “Awesome”, “Love the hands on experience. Thank you for allowing them to be children and ask their questions”, “This was great!” “Children were captivated by stations and speakers.” This is why we do what we do.
* California State Science Standards
Kindergarten: Different types of plants and animals inhabit the earth.
1st Grade: Plants and animals meet their needs in different ways