We have so many wonderful animals at The Zoo in Forest Park, but not everyone can get here,” said Sarah Tsitso.
So was born the Zoo On the Go program several decades ago to bring their animals to everyone.
“It’s a unique hands-on educational experience that brings our zoo animals to schools, libraries, after-school programs, senior centers and senior living facilities, as well as other organizations with an interest in having us come out to showcase our zoo animals,” said Tsitso, the zoo’s executive director.
Zoo On the Go presentations are offered year-round and are designed to provide information about the animals, including their special adaptations, habitats, behavior, diets and status in the wild. Sessions provide an opportunity for participants to touch and observe the animals, as well as ask individual questions.
The Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center, located on 293 Sumner Avenue in Springfield, is a non-profit organization governed by the Forest Park Zoological Society. It features exotic and indigenous animals representing a large variety of specifies found throughout the world and in North America.
Animals showcased in the Zoo On the Go Program are referred to as animal ambassadors.
“It’s a common name used in the zoo field and not one we came up with. These animals are ambassadors in the sense that they are helping to teach people lessons that they might not be able to learn beyond the textbook or in a classroom,” Tsitso said.
Which animal ambassadors are chosen to travel with the Zoo On the Go program on any given day depends on a number of factors, including the length of ride, weather, and if it is indoors or outdoors such as at a camp.
“We have a list of some 25 animals we choose from. If the weather is warm and we are going to be outdoors, for example, we would bring more reptiles that are comfortable in the warmer weather as opposed to mammals with their fur coats,” Tsitso said.
“Also, animals are like people. They sometimes don’t want to be bothered to leave their home, and it is for that reason that we don’t really select which animals will come with us until that day,” she added. While people often request a specific zoo animal, they sometimes ask educators to not bring a particular species.
“We do get requests to leave the snakes behind, and we are respectful of these requests. We don’t want to force any animal on anyone,” Tsitso said.
“The focus is on education, so when we do take a snake along we talk about how they have their own individual personalities, what their interactions with humans might be, that not all are venomous and hurt you, and their importance to the ecosystem. And, if we change a few minds about snakes along the way, then we’re done our job,” Tsitso said.
Among some of the animal ambassadors in the Zoo On the Go program are cockatoos and macaws, bearded dragon, blue-tounge skink, Madagascar hissing cockroach, turtles and tortoises, hedgehog, rabbit, ferret, opossum, corn snake, silky chicken, and many others. “I love bringing Cherry, our threelegged opossum, out with me when I am doing a Zoo On the Go program. I start by telling everyone her story, how she was injured when she was much smaller, just a little bigger than your hand. Cherry came to us from a rehab center down South, where they had to amputate one of her back legs or she wouldn’t have otherwise survived. And because she could not go back into the wild afterwards and survive, Cherry was sent to our zoo to make her new home,” said Caroline Adams, programs zookeeper.
“I also explain to groups that Cherry is special in that she is the only marsupial in North America to carry babies in their pouch. While opossums are unlikely to carry the rabies virus, it gives me the opportunity to explain to young kid what rabies is and how it is treated. And, I always say if you see an opossum in your backyard, it’s a good thing because they are big tick eaters, but don’t approach them because they are a wild animal,” she added. When it comes to the interactive portion of the program, it all depends on the animal.
“We may have kids who want to put our smaller Madagascar cockroach on their arms. But other animals, especially mammals, can be a little bit rambunctious and are not appropriate for them to hold. For example, we would not put our hedgehog in someone’s hand because we don’t want it dropped or injured. But the hedgehog can be touched to see how it feels spikey and often curls into a ball when held. It’s also wonderful to see the reaction of kids when they touch a snake, which they think will be slimy, but are really cool and dry,” Tsitso said.
Other “touchable” items include the many artifacts that are brought along to presentations. “These artifacts often tie in with a special lesson we’ve created for the group. We might bring a tortoise shell, plaster of paris paw prints to show different sized footprints, or snakeskins. Our snakes often shed their skins and we have some very beautiful ones to show,” Tsitso said. There are also a lot of questions asked during a Zoo On the Go session.
“Many want to know where these animals live….their native habitats….and what they eat. Each of our animals has its own unique story about being rescued or coming from a sanctuary because they were injured, and we love to share those stories. We are also asked where our animals live in the winter when our gates are closed. The answer is they remain living at the zoo where we have heated housing for them,” Tsitso said.
“Everyone seems to be fascinated by poop and it’s crazy how many questions I get about how big a particular animal’s poop might be. I’ve also had questions asked about if we bring our leopard
out as part of the Zoo On the Go program,” Adams said about the obvious answer.
How far the program extends depends on travel time.
“The safety and comfort of our animals is paramount and we don’t want them in a car for too long a time, with that said we have traveled as far as Greenfield, Pittsfield, Worcester and even Mystic, CT,” Tsitso said.
Zoo On the Go presentations range from 30 to 60 minutes and can include anywhere from 5 to 9 animals depending on the time and number of participants based on groups of up to 30 and others 30 or larger. Prices range from $150 to $300 in addition to a travel fee.
To make a reservation or to learn more about the program, contact the Education Department at 413-733-2251, ext. 305, or email education@ forestparkzoo.com
For more information on The Zoo in Forest Park, visit forestparkzoo.org
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