Battle Creek zoo animals serve as roving ambassadors
Battle Creek — Children sat elbow-to-elbow on a crowded floor or sandwiched between bookshelves, hoping to catch a glimpse of the creatures encased and covered on the table in front of them.
Spring-break week meant the audience at Willard Library’s Helen Warner Branch was larger than anticipated. The crowd of more than 250, mostly kids, eagerly waited to find out who had come to visit the library via the Zoomobile.
Hannah Smedley, education supervisor for Binder Park Zoo, was giving the presentation, but the main attractions were her friends, Hikma, Radar, Monty and Stevie.
Hikma, a female curly-haired tarantula, was the first to be unveiled.
“My favorite animal to present is actually tarantulas,” said Smedley. “They have so many awesome facts and are so different from us. So I tend to blow people’s minds when talking about tarantulas.”
Blowing minds with “awesome” facts is one of the goals of the outreach program offered by Binder Park Zoo, which uses animals as roving ambassadors. The Zoomobile has visited schools, senior care centers and community events. The program topics vary with the animals.
“We get to go out into the community and bring the zoo to people,” Smedley said. “Our hope is that, when people see animals up close, get the chance to touch them and get an up-close look at them, they will form an emotional connection with that animal, they will be interested in it, and that will translate into being more environmentally conscious in the future.”
Jennifer Allen saw the Zoomobile as an educational opportunity for her daughters: Aletheia, 9, Tenley, 6, and Belle, 3.
“They love animals,” Allen said. “I home school them, so we’ve been studying animals a lot, like jungle animals and desert animals. So any chance they get to be around them, they want to be. We decided it would be a fun opportunity to come out and see them up close, the parrot and the snake — stuff that we have specifically studied. So it was so cool for them to get to see them in real life.”
The animals used in the program cover a wide range from cockroaches to a Patagonian mara, one of the world’s largest rodents. At Willard Library were Hikma the tarantula, Monty, a male ground boa; Stevie, a female blue-fronted Amazon parrot; and a male Flemish giant rabbit named Radar, who audience members were permitted to touch at the end of the presentation.
Before animals leave zoo grounds to be used in the program, they are trained to be comfortable riding in the Zoomobile and being around people.
“We’re not bringing them for entertainment or asking them to do anything that wouldn’t come naturally to them,” Smedley said. “I would think of them more as ambassadors for their species. They are just being able to give people and up-close look. We’re not asking them to do any tricks or do anything that wouldn’t be normal to them in the wild.”
The popularity of the Zoomobile program was one reason Willard Library invited the animals for a visit.
“We have had quite a few requests recently to have the zoo come out,” said Alisha Daugherty, Willard Library youth librarian. “It was just the perfect time to do it, during spring break when everyone is looking for something to do, the zoo is not open yet and we’re all kind of antsy. So animals are always popular, and we love the zoo.”
Binder Park Zoo opened for the season April 12.