Each and every day at the Cincinnati Zoo we ask ourselves “How do we inspire our guests to truly care about wild animals and wild places?” What we have determined is this caring starts with a personal connection between a guest and one of our wonderful animals. We call this getting our visitors “close enough to care.” The Zoo’s goal is to bring guests up close and personal with as many animals as possible. This could mean standing within inches of a Malayan tiger, racing against chickens in the Blakely’s Barnyard Bonanza, or touching a flamingo while walking through the Zoo.
And, the Zoo’s Interpretive Collection is critical to the success of this goal. Also known as the Zoo’s outreach collection, more than 200 animals are used exclusively for educational programming and intimate encounters with guests. Bringing animals out on Zoo grounds and into classrooms allows guests and students to get close enough to care. Once someone can make a physical connection, phobias are broken down and a new understanding emerges. Adults and children alike make a personal connection with the animals as individuals. Our hope is that this will translate into caring for the species as a whole.
Every animal in the Interpretive Collection can be handled in one way or another by specially trained staff and volunteers. The animals are cared for by seven full-time keepers that are fully devoted to supporting the mission of the Zoo through close-encounter experiences. The Interpretive Collection’s mission is to provide unique opportunities and experiences, positive relationships, and greater knowledge to the people and animals we encounter each day.
The Interpretive animals are often found running in and out of a circle of children, flying over-head in a classroom, coiling around an arm, flapping down a path, creeping over a hand, burrowing under an arm, or rooting through a garden. We aim to let each animal showcase its natural skills and abilities. Every animal is given the choice to participate in a program or encounter, which keeps the animal, visitor, and keeper happy.
Many of our animals are trained through operant conditioning, using only positive reinforcement. Some are simply trained to crate themselves while others are trained to exhibit said natural behaviors for guests. Relaxed animals make for great encounters and that is an important rule that the Interpretive Collection staff lives by.
As the Zoo’s attendance continues to increase and more educational programming is added, the need to grow the Interpretive Collection also increases. We already have the distinction as one of the largest (if not THE largest!) interpretive collection in the United States. So the next time you are at the Zoo or the Zoo is visiting you – get up close with the animals. Ask questions, touch them, take your time and study them. Whatever you do, please get close enough to care!