A Zoo-to-Go

For kids growing up in London during the austere decade after WWII, it was a special treat to be taken to the zoo by parents or school teachers. The zoos were crowded. Children had to be hoisted on the shoulders of grown-ups to see the big cats pacing in their cages, and catch the eye of Guy the gorilla across the moat. We had no guilty feelings then about their cramped quarters, because we assumed the animals were there for our entertainment. Nor did we learn much about their wild nature or the habitats from which they were taken. We thought it would be cool to be zookeepers pushing joints of meat under the bars for tigers, tossing herrings for sea lions to catch, and locking our school ma’am in the reptile house at the close of day. But, in hindsight, there wasn’t much difference between the zoo and Wormwood Scrubs prison, except for the species incarcerated.

There were no parklands for those animals to roam, except outside London at Whipsnade.  But zoos have come a long way. The naturalist and author, Gerald Durrell (1925-1995), was regarded by the Establishment in those days as a maverick for calling on zoos to change into centers for captive breeding of endangered species instead of being public exhibitions of unhappy creatures. As is the way of pioneers, he is now celebrated as a visionary and memorialized at the Durrell Wildlife Park for conservation, but there was one thing he never changed. You still had to go to his zoo to see animals.

New Quarter Park, Virginia

Clyde takes his traveling zoo to a public park

One of our master naturalist friends, Clyde, is also a zookeeper, but not the kind I ever imagined. He was more radical than Durrell when he created a portable zoo that could be taken to children in their classrooms and to public parks. The critters were collected in his neighborhood or the local churchyard under state collection and exhibition permits. Reptiles and amphibians were returned to where they were caught a few days earlier, while other creatures were cared for at home. His zoo is transported in shopping bags in his car trunk and, although none of the big predators and venomous snakes beloved by children can be included, his small critters have been tremendous hits. Since it was launched in 2007, he has entertained and educated over 13,000 children and adults across five school districts in south-east Virginia.

The mission of this zoo is education instead of conservation. Clyde was concerned that most children are less connected with nature nowadays than when he was growing up. Few of them grow up on farms or want to visit city zoos or are allowed to roam the countryside unsupervised, and their days are brimful of organized activities and screen time. The writer, George Monbiot, worries that, Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.

We can hope the newly-minted generation will be more caring about the environment than their predecessors, but I think the chances are much greater for those who have met Clyde and seen his menagerie. Watching how they respond to his lessons warms our hearts, the lower grades 2 through 5 especially. When Clyde and his “zoo cru” of helpers transfer critters from Tupperware boxes and glass jars to trays on the front desk, there is plenty shuffling as boys and girls strain to identify the collection of beasts—beetles and butterflies, mantises and millipedes, slugs and snails, salamanders and skinks, toads and turtles. There are a few skins, scales and shells for creatures that are too rare or too dangerous for live ones to be let loose. The boldest kid steps forward to ask if a giant hissing cockroach could rest on his sleeve. Even those who stood nervously behind the front row eventually want to tickle a roly-poly or poke the leaf litter to make a centipede scurry. Giggles and questions go in circles like whirligigs. Some questions from minds full of innocent curiosity are disarmingly penetrating.

Virginia Master Naturalists

“Want to stroke the spotted salamander in my bucket or the Madagascar hissing cockroach on my sleeve?”

Clyde explains that every species has its own life history, then tells their stories. One of his favorites is about the community that lives under logs, where he finds many of his critters. He asks the class what they expect to find when they roll a log over. A short arm shoots up with an answer, usually its “beetles” or “spiders.” He then spins nine yards of ecology, and I doubt any other lesson that day captures more attention.

Leaning forward to the class, he tells them dark secrets about beetles. They feed on the wood rotting on the underside of the log. He shows them a little bag containing brown, granular material. “It’s beetle poop,” he confides (more giggles). “It will be made into healthy soil particles by tiny things called decomposers.” But life under the log is not all rosy. There are predators just as voracious as on the African plain. Beetles, slugs, and spiders are eaten by salamanders, frogs and toads, and occasionally a long black racer winds under the log to gobble all of them up. “After we looked under the log, we must roll it back,” he tells them. “We have to care for nature because all things are connected, including ourselves.”

praying mantis

Amen – the praying mantis

Clyde loves to quote the wisdom of American Indians, but it was Rachel Carson who expressed his role, If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder … he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Most children in this district only have one opportunity to see his zoo, so you might wonder if they will remember his stories in the future. Surely, their memories will gradually sink in their unconscious minds and become overlaid with hosts of new stories and experiences. But they won’t die. I think they will linger underground, maybe for years or even decades, like fungal hyphae which, when fertilized by soil, season, and time, will suddenly sprout above ground into the light as toadstools full of fruitful spores.

Clyde is now a retired zookeeper, but others are continuing his mission.

Thank you, Clyde, for life lessons!

Next Post: A Healthy Oil Change

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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