Animal Magnetism of Zoo Helps Teachers in Motivating Students

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen teachers stepped into a tray of disinfectant, then lined up eyeball-to-eyeball with the orangutans.

The disinfectant was to protect the apes, not the people. Viruses might be clinging to the humans’ shoes.

Both animals and teachers were behind the scenes at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park recently, taking part in a two-day workshop on the role of zoos in saving endangered species.

The workshop, offered through UCLA Extension, gave the teachers a credit toward the continuing-education requirements for pay raises in the Los Angeles Unified and most other school districts. The course also provided the teachers with up-to-the-minute information on a subject they rely on to interest even their worst students.


Karen McMahon, from Jefferson Elementary School in the Lennox School District, recently taught her third-graders about animals. “My kids went crazy,” she said. They even asked for more work. McMahon said she was able to use their interest in animals to teach non-science subjects such as reading, writing and art.

“They go home at night and watch the nature shows on Channel 28 when they can get their relatives to turn off the junk,” she said.

“Everyone loves an animal,” said Sue Williams, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade life science at Bell Gardens Intermediate School. That includes children who are not “strong in books,” in her words.

Effective Motivators

Animals are such effective motivators, Williams said, that she always has some in her class. She finds that children are fascinated by creatures as humble as the pill bug. “And, if one gets away, what does it matter?” she says. Her grander menageries have included rats, tarantulas and a Burmese python.

Sandi Wells, a science teacher at Chaparral Middle School in Moorpark Unified School District, said she, too, keeps animals in the classroom. Iguanas and other classroom pets are often useful in teaching responsibility as well as science, she said.

“I’ve taken kids who are behavior problems and made them my animal keepers, and I’ve seen some real turnarounds.”

As zoo keeper Gail Bruner told the teachers in the endangered-species workshop, all primates except humans are threatened with extinction in their native habitats. But orangutans are breeding so successfully in zoos that some, like Eloise, a mother of four at the Los Angeles Zoo, have been temporarily sterilized by implantation of birth-control medication under their skin.


Zoos have had less success breeding gorillas, she noted: Captive males tend to have low sperm counts, and pairs attempting to mate are often harassed by other members of the group.

Keeper Bruner had taken Williams, Wells and the other teachers behind the artificial mountain and moat where most zoo visitors observe the orangutans. In the usually off-limits area, the teachers saw the bags of Monkey Chow and crates of yams and fruit the redheaded apes eat. They learned that the young apes, called “the kids” by their keepers, don’t get oranges, which upset their stomachs.

One of the keepers’ tasks is to make sure that Mickey, a male with epilepsy, receives his daily dose of anti-convulsants mashed up with a banana.

Two young orangutans munched on passion vine and stared at the humans as Bruner spoke. Bruner reminded the teachers to stand well back from the cages because the animals are dangerously strong.


Eileen Kaplan, who teaches kindergarten in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, said she had written a whole reading program around animals.

“I find, in working with disadvantaged students, there’s very little that motivates kids, but animals sure do,” Kaplan said. When she is teaching the short vowel sounds, she has her students draw a tiny elephant over each short e and a little octopus over each short o .

Linda Wexler teaches college-level biology at Santa Monica High School. Her older students are also intrigued with animals, she said. Wexler sends her students to the zoo to observe a particular species of animal and catalogue the animals’ behavior.

The zoo’s research department is compiling such a catalogue on the giant eland, a rare African antelope. The Los Angeles Zoo has five young giant elands, one of only three captive herds in the world.


Puzzling Behavior

The teachers observed a puzzling giant eland trait: The antelopes rub their horns and foreheads in muddy urine. Zoo researcher Nickie Miller said she and her colleagues do not know why. One reason for studying elands, Miller explained, is to accumulate information that may be helpful in breeding the animals when they mature.

Greg Smet, who teaches sixth- grade science and health at Crescent Intermediate School in Anaheim Hills, said he has been teaching his students about endangered species for three years. Each student chooses an endangered animal, writes a paper about it and makes a stuffed paper model.

“Besides just learning about the animal, this gets them to do research and research writing, which is very useful in junior high,” Smet said.


Several teachers said they feel a social responsibility to teach about threatened animals. Cathy Webster, a health and science teacher at Robert Peary Junior High School in Gardena, estimates that she makes about 300 students a year more aware of environmental issues. The plight of endangered animals touches many students, she said. “I can teach them about animals in a way I can’t teach them about plants.”

She speculated that students are particularly moved because: “We’re animals, we’re in the system, and we’re the biggest cause of extinction.”

The teachers said their own heightened interest in endangered species was one thing they would take back to their classrooms. “If I’m excited about it, the kids will be excited about it,” Williams said.

Some had ideas for specific classroom projects. Benita Mysorski, a math teacher at Luther Burbank Junior High School in Los Angeles, plans to use a shopping list prepared by the zoo to teach graphing.


Real Data

“I like to give them the opportunity to work with real data,” said Mysorski, who believes her students will be intrigued to learn that each month zoo animals consume, among other edibles, 17 tons of alfalfa, 2,600 chicks, 6,000 crickets, 10 sacks of Flamingo Diet and 3,000 pounds of horse meat.

Almost all the teachers said they intend to give lessons on the California condor. The Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park are participating in a breeding program that is the last hope of survival for the huge native vultures, none of which remain in the wild. The teachers traced life-sized drawings of the bird from a zoo model.

Barbara Marchant, who teaches at Bret Harte Elementary School in Burbank, said she plans to hang a paper model on a wall of her classroom and let her third-graders measure themselves against its 9 1/2-foot wingspan.


Linda Wexler also plans to take the model to school. As she explained:

“You can put it over your door and say, ‘This is it, kids. There are only 27 of these left.’ ”