Zoo animals have been their primary conduit for coming to understand that the world contains a diverse array of climates and ecosystems. We discuss why it is that the tiger comes outside in the winter but the giraffes not. We note how the arctic foxes exchange their white coats for grey ones as the seasons change. Even contrived, pseudo-ecosystems enable the kids to recognize how particular animals are suited to their environments. They marvel at the upper-body strength of monkeys and note with amazement that both polar bears and seals, despite their many differences, are adapted to swimming. A nature show could point this out, but they benefit far more from making the connection themselves.
As they mature, they make cultural connections too. While examining the tiger one afternoon, and my eldest son began explaining to me why tigers seemed to have particularly fearsome and intimidating features (those glowing yellow eyes!), almost as though by design. Didn’t somebody write a poem about that? The connections arise in other contexts too. Once we were discussing the seven deadly sins, and when we came to the sin of sloth, my son cried, “Like the sloth in the zoo! It’s always sleeping.” We have a winner.
In the zoo the children can interact with animals. I like to think that this is a “perk” that zoo animals get over their wilder counterparts. Our sea lions will sometimes initiate a game of “catch” with visitors. (We throw a football back and forth over a five-foot wall.) The giraffes occasionally try to nibble their hair. Again, this makes the natural world a reality for them in a way that pictures and nature shows could never do.