Zoos as Community Institutions

In my last blog, I wrote about my French class being the best class of all time. But, after this week’s incredible field trip, my “Zoos as Community Institutions” class really challenged that conviction. From the title, you can tell that it’s not a typical class. It’s taught by the Vice President of Education, Interpretation, and Volunteer Programs at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. In class, Dr. Finkelstein draws on her professional experiences to show how a Zoo functions in its many roles as a museum, a community center, an educational environment, a wildlife conservation, and more. As a change of pace last Tuesday, Dr. Finkelstein took us behind the scenes of the Maryland Zoo to bring our discussions to life.




She made it clear that, since the zoo was not open to the public on the day we went, we probably wouldn’t see too many animals at all. Most would be getting vet check-ups, eating a meal, or sleeping indoors. This sentiment didn’t deter my enthusiasm for the trip, though. The Zoo is located in Druid Hill Park, an exceptionally beautiful area in its own right.




Yet, I can’t say I was disappointed when we were able to catch peeks of some animals on exhibit.


Despite the fun of seeing some animals, it wasn’t an ordinary zoo trip. Throughout our tour, we spent time considering the administrative thought processes behind structures at the zoo, the political implications of decision-making, or the tension between conservation and commercialization.




For example, these rocks sparked a conversation about whether putting some rocks in an exhibit was an acceptable strategy for making the area seem “natural” to visitors and to animals. We noted that the rocks were shipped to the zoo similarly to animals, a human interference which inherently defies nature.





We also used a stage for a puppet show to understand the problematic nature of anthropomorphizing the animals on exhibit. While it is engaging for young learners to interact with cartoonish animals, does it undermine the zoo’s mission? Is it against the conservationist mission to encourage children to empathize with animals because human characteristics, rather than the animals’ independent worth?


All in all, I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn about these issues. This class might not change my professional trajectory, but it will certainly allow me to imagine a new set of political issues complexly.



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