Green the Zoo: Four Ways the San Diego Zoo Pumps Up A Family’s Eco Experience

A day at the zoo brings back classic kiddie flashbacks for just about everyone. Who doesn’t remember an afternoon of lions, tigers and bears? But – oh my – as our eco savvy radar grows savvier over the years, the zoo experience can be a bit of a conundrum: How can we justify the variety of issues zoos bring to the plate – from cages to carbon footprints – for today’s world?

One approach: Select your zoo destination carefully and make a conscious effort to make your experience as green and educational as possible. One suggestion:

Head for the San Diego Zoo. Sure, the San Diego Zoo has been heralded as a zoological leader for decades and remains a southern California pillar of tourism. But there are reasons for that as the San Diego Zoo keeps redefining and reinventing the zoo experience. With a dash of educational effort, your family zoo outing can evolve to an inspiring environmental educational experience.

At their core level, the San Diego Zoo – like other zoos – bring a global array of animals directly in front of one’s eyes. Kids naturally form a magical connection with animals – the challenge is how to further this fascination into a lifelong habit of stewarding the planet and taking the conservation message to heart. The San Diego Zoo offers various approaches to do just that, as my family and I experienced during a recent trip to sunny southern California, escaping the Wisconsin winter back on our farm.

Here’s four tips from our San Diego Zoo outing on greening your zoo experience with kids:

1. Prep Beforehand
A dash of preparation beforehand can significantly enhance the zoo experience. The San Diego Zoo makes this easy to do by offering a variety of kid-friendly games and activities online. By spending some time exploring the site before our zoo outing, our seven-year old son started making connections between the animals and endangered species (through a card matching game), size of animals (through building an online “Jungle Bridge”) and built up educated anticipation for our zoo adventure. The San Diego Zoo site also offers hands-on crafts, recipes and science experiments to enhance your experience.

Reviewing a zoo’s website also helps you connect with and better appreciate the history and mission of the organization – things that are readily missed once you get into the busy excitement of the day. Turns out the San Diego Zoo runs the center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES), the largest zoo-based multidisciplinary research team in the world, which has been leading the Giant Panda Conservation Unit, dedicated to restoring the population of this highly endangered species.

2. Tap into Special Events
With so many animals and a 100-acre park so overwhelming you’ll see tourists like me constantly studying our maps, it helps to narrow down an educational focus of the trip. Here’s where a steady stream of special events at the San Diego Zoo help showcase specific animals and conservation issues. We were fortunately able to plan our trip during “Koalapalooza,” a festival celebrating not only that cute and cuddly marsupial, but tying in various other aspects of Australian culture and conservation issues, complete with didgeridoo demonstrations.

Through daily live animal shows, kids can experience animals up close and personal. From sea otters to birds, these special daily events spotlight the trainers and researchers involved with the care of these animals and promote a strong conservation message.

3. Use those Educators

As a world-class research institution, the San Diego Zoo offers top-notch educators throughout the zoo to both answer questions and warmly engage kids. The key is to take advantage of this opportunity – whenever you see an educator out and about, corner them with questions. They will be thrilled, and you’ll be amazed at how real the experience all of a sudden becomes to kids. During the “Koalapalooza” festivities, we were fortunate to encounter a researcher who was engaging kids to hands-on experience the types of tracking devices used to study koalas in the wild.

4. Take it Home
The conservation message refrains throughout a day at the San Diego Zoo – it is up to us to hear it and bring it back to our home habitats and routines. Each animal show ends with a specific call to action to help habitat destruction – such as working against the illegal exotic pet trade or making sustainable seafood choices. Pick one thing, one action that you as your family can do and make a concerted effort to incorporate into your daily home routine.

Another way to keep the zoo experience real is to revisit those websites and on-line activities, looking at them with a different perspective now that you’ve been to the zoo. Through use of Live Zoo Cams and a wide range of Zoo Blogs, kids can “keep in touch” with their favorite animals through different seasonal and life cycles.

While the San Diego Zoo remains at the forefront of such progressive zoo efforts (it was a pioneer in creating “cageless” exhibits) – and has the size and funding to serve in this leadership role – these tips and ideas can be utilized in varying degree at a zoo near you. By adding a dash of strategic educational focus behind your zoo outing, these trips take on much richer meaning for the whole family. And who knows – the trip may just have sparked a science career that takes on endangered habitat from a completely innovative perspective.

Photo Credit: John Ivanko

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