A miniature Betty White in a safari suit appears to sit in a notch of a rock to explain the habits of the very real spotted skunk running around below. The illusion of a vampire bat hangs near a visitor's shoulder as well as inside protective glass, and touching a blank glass wall produces surprise images of everything from a bear to--yechht!--a cockroach.
Nearby, the Zooputer quizzes the visitor who has just pressed a button summoning a photo of a chuckwalla lizard: "What lunches on the chuckwalla?"
When the pupil presses the "whale" button in answer, the Zooputer replies in a mechanical but uncritical voice that urges a child to keep trying: "My sensors do not detect any whales living in the desert."
The video projections, sensory toys and computer games are all contained in an $8.3-million state-of-the-art children's zoo called Adventure Island scheduled to open within the Los Angeles Zoo Friday.
"We chose the opening carefully, thinking Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday, would emphasize the southwestern theme of Adventure Island," said Bruce A. Nasby, president of the 41,000-member Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., which has raised the money for the new attraction from private donations.
Nasby sees Adventure Island as a "new beginning" for remodeling the entire 113-acre zoo, and said a master plan is now being drafted to utilize the new teaching techniques developed for the children's area throughout the zoo.
"It is really hard for kids in Los Angeles to have any grasp of elephants being endangered when they are not even aware of skunks and scorpions," said Lora LaMarca, a zoo spokeswoman. "So we concentrated on the Southwest for Adventure Island, teaching children about their own animals so that when they grow up to be environmentalists, they will protect all animals."
Adventure Island goes far beyond the old concept of children's zoos, where youngsters watched baby animals being fed or ran freely with goats in open petting pens. The new attraction does include an expanded nursery for baby animals that must be separated from their mothers and a "hacienda" with domestic goats, chickens and miniature cattle, horses and donkeys that can be petted under supervision.
And it does have real undomesticated animals native to the Southwest--about 35 species--including sea lions, spiders, prairie dogs, turtles, raccoons and a lone mountain lion, the theme animal for the attraction.
But Adventure Island also includes the latest educational gimmicks designed to teach children more than they ever imagined they could learn about animals--painlessly.
'Spoonful of Sugar'
"We are taking techniques and technology used in amusement parks and putting them to use in educational environments like zoos and museums," said Joe Garlington, the Disney-trained principal of Art & Technology Inc., the Burbank company that invented the learning aids liberally strewn throughout Adventure Island.
"They help get around the problems associated with the fact that Americans don't read very much anymore," said Garlington. "It's like the spoonful of sugar."
Other zoos recognize the need to modernize children's sections but hesitate to redesign them because of cost and because they don't want to shut down such a popular part of a zoo for renovation. Los Angeles closed its old Children's Zoo two years ago and spent 18 months building the new one.
The renowned 125-acre, 73-year-old San Diego Zoo hasn't touched its Children's Zoo, involving the old concept of a petting paddock and a nursery, in eight years. But innovative teaching techniques are being worked into newer exhibits.
Los Angeles Zoo educators and Garlington's staff have been mindful that people won't read much, keeping the signs in Adventure Island to a few words and relying on videos and voices to transmit any complex information.
The colorful signs identifying Adventure Island's five environments--shoreline, cave, desert, meadow and mountain--and the nursery and hacienda pose a couple of questions to prod the curiosity of children. The questions, such as "How do they find food?" in the cave area or "How do animals stay cool?" in the desert area are answered by various games near each animal's habitat.
Garlington and his staff, who have brainstormed with zoo staff for four years to develop the educational toys, tickle the child's senses with such marvels as:
- Animal hopscotch, where a child (grown-ups love it, too) hops on eight discs with paw prints to produce the growls of a mountain lion and bear, and another eight with bird footprints to hear a sandhill crane.
- Animal eyes, where children can look through the eyes of a make-believe mountain lion, a prairie dog and a bee to see as they see--in limited color, with wide peripheral vision, or in prisms, respectively.
- A bear nose, where an odor wafts over the child, putting him in the place of a bear who must identify the smell as wild onions, strawberries or grass.
Appealing to All Ages
Tested happily by 20 children, ranging from a 2-year-old to teen-agers, and informally by nearly all the zoo's 250 grown-up employees, the teaching techniques are aimed primarily at youngsters age 2 to 10.
"Our goal," said Garlington, "was to have people leave saying, 'I've never seen anything like it.' "
Adventure Island, located near the entrance to the zoo, 5333 Zoo Drive in Griffith Park, will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Admission is free for infants, $2 for children 2-12 and $4.50 for anyone over 12.