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A Trip to the Zoo



Promote greater understanding of other species and/or the interrelationships between species.


Zoological Gardens and Parks have long been popular destinations for school field trips. These visits, and the weeks prior to such an outing, can be fully utilized for their educational potential, with teacher pre-planning. The purpose of this unit is to provide educational activities that will provide structure for a field trip to the zoo.

The underlying goal is to combine zoology, ethnology and environmental awareness, to increase knowledge about zoos and to foster respect and concern for people, animals and the environment.

Students will learn about the following aspects of a modern zoo:

  • The Zoo Staff
  • The Animals
  • Conservation

The lessons have been prepared to serve as a guide to teachers. Although they are clearly outlined, some additional background research and preparation on the part of the educator may be necessary. It is also recommended that a teacher contact the local zoo for supplemental education materials prior to starting these lessons.


A zoo would not exist were it not for people who work there. Most visitors to the zoo are unaware of the many professionals who work there. Here are a few of the positions that can be found in most modern zoos.

  • Ticket clerk Curator of Animals
  • Keeper Veterinarian
  • Veterinary Assistant Horticulturalist
  • Graphic Artist Public Relations Director
  • Education Curator Maintenance Director
  • Security Publications Director
  • Director of Development Purchasing Director
  • Bookkeeper Comptroller
  • Secretary Concessions Clerk
  • Membership Director Zoo Director
  • Board of Directors Summer Intern


A zoo is like a large corporation and everyone who works there is important. Discuss the duties and responsibilities of each of these people with the students. Explain titles and education levels / experience / training required for the job. Demonstrate how each of these professionals contributes to the overall functioning of the zoo and the welfare of the animals.

Example: The Director of Development is a fund-raiser. S/he is college-educated, possibly with an MBA, and responsible for raising money that will allow the zoo to stay open and to expand. Through special events and campaigns, this individual brings in the finances that allow for the building of new exhibits, payment of salaries and the care of animals.


The zoo is being given a pair of rare antelope by the People's Republic of China. Before the animals arrive, what are some of the duties each staff member may have to do prior to the animals getting there? (i.e. Veterinarian needs to study what is known about the health needs of these rare animals, horticulturist and curator of animals must research the species and plan the exhibit, PR person must contact media, concession clerk might stock on extra ice cream for increased crowds, etc.) Encourage a full class discussion and brainstorming. make a list of the findings.


Humans have kept wild animals in captivity since the days of the Pharaohs in Egypt. For centuries kings and emperors have maintained menageries of animals, mostly for amusement.

As a result of exploration of new continents and colonization, early European zoos became collections of "new" animals that were being discovered in far away continents. Animals were sent back to Europe from Asia, Africa and other places. People went to zoos to look at strange and sometimes frightening beasts, like the kangaroo, the elephant or the hyena. Science knew little about these species and many ideas regarding them were false.

For many years animals in zoos were referred to as a "collection of specimens". Zoos prided themselves on showing as many different animals as possible. Fortunately today, the term "collection" is mostly used by museums, and reputable zoos concentrate on exhibiting a limited number of species. Specializing in a smaller number of species has allowed for larger exhibits and better care for the individual animal.

In 1872 the first zoo in the United States opened in Philadelphia. Here, too, the purpose for visiting the zoo was primarily entertainment.

The care and management of captive wild animals was primitive at best until the middle of the twentieth century. Little was known about nutritional needs, habits and veterinary care of exotic species. For many years zoologists thought that gorillas, a vegetarian species, were carnivores. Animals were often kept in totally inappropriate housing systems, were fed inadequate diets and frequently died because of improper care.

During the second half of the twentieth century science began to provide many answers to former mysteries. Through field studies in the wild, new knowledge regarding different species continued to be gathered. Knowledge gained in the wild invariably benefits the animals at the zoo.

Reputable zoos are not only interested in displaying exotic animals for amusement, but seek to provide proper environments, diets and general care. Zoos also increasingly are taking on the roles of conservation, preservation of endangered species and of public education.

The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA) is the umbrella organization that accredits zoos in this country. While over 160 facilities have passed the inspection of this group, there are many other zoos and animal parks that do not meet their standards. Be wary of small roadside zoos and cheap menageries. Most of these are poorly managed and only aim to make a profit. The unfortunate animals in such places are often poorly treated.


Review the terms mammal, bird, reptile, insect, and fish. Once you are sure that your students understand these terms, introduce additional vocabulary words in preparation of meeting animals in the zoo.

  • Wild - Wild animals are those that are found in nature living on their own. They take care of all their own needs, such as food, water and shelter. Only when humans bring them into captivity do they depend on us. Butterflies, lions, whales and fleas are all "wild" animals.
  • Domestic - Animals that have become used to living with people are domestic or domesticated. Most domestic animals were originally taken from wild species and changed through millennia of selective breeding. The wolf became the dog, the Indian Jungle fowl became the domestic chicken and the onager became the donkey. All over the world people have domesticated animals over thousands of years to carry burdens, to produce milk, meat and wool or to protect their homes. Some unusual domestic animals include the llama, the dromedary and the yak.
  • Social - These are animals that need to live in groups. In the wild, chimpanzees travel in large family units, as do elephants. Social animals like to have others of their own kind around and do not thrive when kept alone. In the zoo these types of animals should have companionship.
  • Solitary - Animals that need to live alone are solitary. Hamsters, owls and tigers spend most of their lives by themselves, except during mating season or when a mother has young to raise. In the zoo these animals will either be housed alone or with just one or two companions at the most.
  • Adaptation - This refers to the physical and behavioral characteristics of an animal that allow it to live in its wild environment. Over millions of years each species has developed specific ways of coping with climate, food sources, terrain and other factors. The way an animal looks (size shape of beak, color of feathers, special body parts) or acts (the way it hunts, sleeps, walks, eats) are all adaptations and tell much about that animal's lifestyle. Giraffes have long necks because they mostly eat leaves from trees, lions have claws to hunt with and whales have sonar communication to contact each other in the ocean's depth. All of these are adaptations.
  • Habitat - This is the place in which an animal lives. Climate, terrain, vegetation, geology and altitude are all factors that make up a habitat. Today, most zoos try to make the zoo habitat as close to the wild one as possible. Animals that live in trees get climbing space, animals that swim have water, animals from the arctic regions need cold, etc. To truly understand an animal's needs it is vital to know its habitat. For example, not all penguin species live in the icy Antarctic. Some live close to the equator where the climate can be very hot. That is why some penguins have climate- controlled housing at the zoo and others do not.
  • Range - This is the geographic area where a species can be found. Some animals such as the sea gull have a large range and can be found in many countries all over the world, while others, such as the Giant Panda, have a limited range, as they are only found in one province in China.
  • Camouflage - This is a special adaptation to allow animals to blend in with their natural habitat. Spots on a leopard may seem like a distinctive coloration, yet on the grassy plains of Africa, spots make the animal blend in with its surroundings. Many animals have coloration to hide them from the animals they hunt or to protect them from predators.
  • Ethology - This is the study of animal behavior. Why animals do what they do is a question that still is of great curiosity to science. Without knowing about the behavior of wild animals, it is difficult to house, feed and care for them properly. An individual who studies animal behavior is called an ethologist. The most difficult and meaningful work done by ethologists is the "field study." This requires an ethologist to spend many months and sometimes years, living with the animals day in and day out, much can be learned that no one knew before.
  • Endangered species - This is a type of animal that is in danger of disappearing from earth. Most animals are endangered because humans have either hunted them or destroyed the forests, plains or oceans where they once lived. The mountain gorilla, blue whale and California condor are all endangered species. Nowadays there are many countries and organizations that try to protect endangered species. But despite such efforts, each year more animals are added to the endangered species list. Plants, too, can become rare and there is an endangered species list for them also.
  • Extinct - When all the individual animals or plants that made up an endangered species have disappeared from the earth, then that variety has become extinct. The Carolina Parakeet, Stellar's Seacow and the Tasmanian Wolf are gone and will never be seen again. Extinct is forever and many species, large and small, become extinct every year.


Part A

Divide the class into small groups and assign them each an animal that can late be seen at the zoo. Have them research their species through books and magazines in the library. Ask them to apply each of the terms above, (e.g. is the animal endangered, what does it eat, where is its range.) Later, have groups report to the whole class on their animal's lifestyle profile.

Part B

On the next day divide the students back into the same groups as for A. Let each group member individually design an imaginary zoo habitat for their animal. Let them draw this habitat on a large sheet of construction paper. What should it look like to resemble the wild environment? Would this animal like to live alone, in pairs or in large groups? What will this animal need in the way of food, temperature and water?

Part C

On the day of the visit to the zoo, let the groups examine the habitats of the species they have studied. Do they feel the zoo matched the needs of the animals sufficiently? How might they improve on it? Although no zoo can ever recreate nature, do the animals have an approximation of their natural habitat? Do they appear to be healthy and contented?


Have each student select an animal of their choice to observe for twenty minutes during the visit to the zoo. Students should have note pads and pens to record all of the things that animals do in that time. Here is an example of what should be on their paper. It may help to make up a "research handout" for them. It might look like this:

Number of animals in exhibit:
Behaviors animals show in twenty minute observation:

  • eating sleeping
  • playing fighting
  • nursing grooming
  • climbing running/flying/crawling
  • bathing/swimming nesting
  • making sounds other

What do you notice about the zoo habitat for this animal?
Check the following... Are there...

  • rocks branches
  • a pool plants
  • trees sand
  • light/dark shade
  • toys food/water*
  • nest boxes caves

* Zoo animals do not always have food or water visible in their enclosure. This does not mean that they do not get fed.

Students should research and discuss whether habitats provide some area for privacy. Are exhibits large enough so that animals can live accordingly to their natural needs? Can the animals fly, run, climb, live in herds or alone, as they would in the wild? Are animals from this zoo ever sold to circuses, laboratories or to "wild game" parks or hunting preserves?

Once students have returned to the classroom they can write a report on their "field study". They can recall what their animals did during the observation time and what type of habitat they lived in at the zoo.


Modern zoos are dedicated to conservation. Conservation can mean many things to a zoo. First and foremost a zoo wants to keep the animals in their care healthy. Secondly modern zoos are trying to prevent animals from becoming extinct. This is why zoos are involved in the breeding of endangered species. A few species have actually been saved by captive breeding in zoos (i.e. bison, black-footed ferret, etc.)

However, today so many animals are becoming threatened in the wild that there is not enough space in all the zoos in the world to save all the large and small endangered species. Therefore, zoos are working together not only to breed rare animals, but also to ensure that wild habitats are preserved and that some rare animals bred in zoos will be returned to the wild.

Without spaces to live in, the rare animals saved in zoos will never be able to be reintroduced into the wild. Although only the larger and wealthier zoos can actively participate in international conservation research and activities, even the smallest zoos now try to contribute to conservation in some way. Educating the public about conservation issues is an important responsibility of all zoos.

Saving habitats such as the ocean is crucial. yet zoo conservation starts at home. Most reputable zoos recycle paper, glass and other materials used in their institution. Their offices use recycled paper and the cafeteria does not use styrofoam cups or straws. In dry parts of the country, zoos make sure they do not waste water and all zoos are concerned over polluting water sources with chemicals.

A zoo that does not have an environmental/conservation plan is behind the times and should be encouraged to live up to these civic responsibilities.


Compose a business letter with the class to the zoo public relations office or the education department.

Explain that your class will be visiting and that you are very concerned and interested in conservation. Ask questions about how the zoo participates in the breeding of endangered species, in the preservation of environments and species reintroduction, as well as in "at home" conservation.

This letter should be written prior to the field trip and if a response is not forthcoming, a follow-up letter might be in order. However, most zoos welcome the chance to educate the public about their efforts on behalf of conservation.


Study one threatened habitat such as the rainforest (or wetlands, arctic tundra, the Mediterranean area or the state of Florida). Much information is available on these topics in books, periodicals and in the media.

Incorporate a lesson on the tropical forests, for example, showing how deforestation affects people, animals and the environment. Here are some of the complex issues relevant to this threatened habitat:

  • loss of genetic diversity climatic changes
  • economic considerations poverty
  • extinction politics
  • laws indigenous people
  • poaching slash and burn

While these issues may seem far removed from the animals at the zoo, in reality all of them are very much interconnected. By providing the background for your students, you will encourage the students to begin to see the zoo animals within the context of the environment and the earth.


How can your class participate in "at home" conservation? Together with your students, decide on three things that the class will be able to do for the rest of the school year to make a difference to the environment and to animals. For example: Recycle paper, pick up trash around the school, collect and recycle soda cans, use cleaners that have not been tested on animals, put up and maintain a bird feeder, or plant a small butterfly garden on school property.

Another worthwhile effort would be to collect money for a conservation effort that will help animals in a wild habitat. The class could decide that they will hold a bake sale or give up their "popcorn money" on the day they visit the zoo. Pool these funds for a donation to the zoo or to another worthy wildlife cause. The lesson learned here is that in order to make a difference, people must not only take action, but may also have to give up something that they themselves want.


Historical Profile Study:

CARL HAGENBECK (1844 - 1913)

Carl Hagenbeck was a German wildlife importer who traveled throughout Africa and Asia to capture animals for zoos and circuses in Europe. During the time of Hagenbeck's life, animals in zoos were kept like prisoners in bare cages that had thick heavy bars on them. Carl Hagenbeck developed a new concept in keeping exotic animals. He designed a brand new type of zoo in Hamburg, Germany, at the turn of the century.

Hagenbeck's major contribution to the world of zoos was the NATURALISTIC EXHIBIT. His achievement was to design moats and ditches that kept the animals inside their areas without having to use prison - like bars. Hagenbeck had traveled in Africa and Asia and knew what the animals' natural environment looked like. He tried to build enclosures that simulated nature. The wildlife could now be kept in much more open areas, without the danger of their escaping. Lions, tigers and elephants could be seen more easily and the animals had healthier and more natural settings to live in.

Another innovation started by Hagenbeck was the combining of animals in large enclosures. Since antelope, zebras and ostriches often travel together in Africa, Hagenbeck placed them together at the zoo, as well. Lions, the natural predator of these animals, would be housed adjacent to them, with only a moat separating the two. This gave the zoo visitor a keen sense of what life on the African Plains must be like.

Today, arctic penguins are kept in arctic simulations, monkeys live in rainforest settings and large animals such as giraffes have open spaces to roam in. Plants, rocks and trees are incorporated in and around the exhibits and in the indoor areas painted backdrops give the visitor the illusion of a wild habitat. Nowadays, most reputable zoos throughout the world try to recreate environments that suit the animals.


The following organizations can provide materials to study animals, the environment and zoos. Many of them have additional lesson plans, curriculum materials, posters and other items available.

American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA)
Oglebay Park
Wheeling, WV 26003

Rainforest Action Network
301 Broadway, Suite A
San Francisco, CA 94133

Wildlife Conservation International
185 Street and Southern Blvd.
Bronx, NY 10460

World Wildlife Fund
1250 24th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037

ZOOBOOKS, published quarterly by Wildlife Education, Ltd.

Although cases of animal abuse and/or neglect do occur in zoos, there is often an explanation for what you are observing. Only through asking questions can people learn about the needs of exotic animals in zoos and the reasons why they are kept in certain ways. If you or the students are in doubt about the care a zoo animal is receiving, please contact the following groups for clarification:

  • The administration of your local zoo
  • The AAZPA (see above)
  • Your local Humane Society

The American Humane Association
63 Inverness Drive East
Englewood, CO 80112-5117


There is a wide spectrum of beliefs as to the value of zoos in our society. Some individuals and organizations regard them as a valuable resource, while others, including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) believe that "most zoos cannot and will not significantly improve enough to meet the legitimate needs of animals."
(Grandy, John, PhD, 'Zoos: A Critical Review", HSUS News, Summer 1992)

Concern is based upon the belief that sometimes insufficient dollars are used to create quality zoos, as well as the philosophy that animals should not be housed in zoos. As discussed in this unit, there is also concern regarding roadside menageries and the need for exhibits that can meet the physical and behavioral needs of all the animals. There is also great concern about the disposal of "surplus" zoo animals which sometimes are sold to "game ranches", i.e. as animals to be "hunted" at on of the approximately 4,000 game ranches in the United States. A call is beginning to be heard for "regional bioparks where meaningful educational material is available and where native wildlife can be studied and appreciated in their natural habitat"
(Grandy, HSUS News, Summer 1992).

The editors of this manual acknowledge the divergence of views regarding zoos by individuals and organizations within the animal - welfare, animal-rights and environmental communities. However, trips to the zoos by classes of elementary school children and their teachers continue to be an extremely popular outing. This unit on zoos has been designed to help keep educators and students informed and to make these school trips as meaningful as possible.

For additional information contact:

Animal Protection Institute (API)
2831 Fruitridge Road
Sacramento, CA 95820

Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)
2100 L Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037