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New Central Park Zoo Programs Teach Next Generation of Conservationists

By Amy Zimmer | September 15, 2011 6:19pm

MANHATTAN — The Central Park Zoo needs no boost in being a kid magnet — but it's about to become even more appealing for the next generation of wildlife conservationists.

Young animal lovers, from toddlers to teens, will soon have new ways to learn about and interact with its collection of polar bears, sea lions, red pandas and endangered sea ducks, as the zoo announced that it's creating a host of new education programs.

"We are definitely expanding the level of programming," said Don Lisowy, director of education at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Central Park Zoo, along with other city zoos and the New York Aquarium.

The Central Park Zoo’s new education programs are especially focused on a group that may have outgrown the 6.5-acre zoo that gets 1 million annual visitors: teenagers.

"Our history as an institution has focused primarily on schools and teachers and we continue to do that. It’s important to us to get the Wildlife Conservation Society’s mission into schools," he said. "What we’re doing now is taking that effort and modifying it and reaching out to children, especially teens."

The Central Park Zoo is starting an after-school arts program on Tuesdays and Thursdays in October where teens will work with educators from the American Museum of Natural History to observe, sketch and then sculpt the zoo’s animals. The program for 15 to 20 kids aged 12 to 18 will cost $400 (or $350 for members).

It comes on the heels of this summer’s new internship program, where for three weeks 20 teens learned how to care for the animal from the zookeepers.  (The program cost $2,000, or $1,800 for members.) The zoo is also in the midst of creating a teen program that will explore urban ecology.

The Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium have long had programs for teens focused on conservation, including a 40-year-old teen docent program, Lisowy said.  "We haven’t had that history at Central Park," he said. "Now we’re starting it up. We are trying to build at Central Park a teen audience."

The new programs are designed to be hands-on. The sculpture one will help kids learn about how the adaptation of the zoo’s animals and their natural habitat.

"It will incorporate a lot about animal ecology," Lisowy said. "What are these animals designed in such a way for specific habitats? Why do they look a certain way?"

While the Central Park Zoo is making a special effort to court teens, it is not neglecting its historic fan base of New York’s littlest animal fans. 

The Central Park Zoo piloted a new “toddler time” series last year, which is now expanding to the Prospect Park and Queens zoos, where children ages 2 to 3, get a peek into wildlife and nature through crafts, sing-alongs, story-telling and other activities while interacting with rabbits, hedgehogs and other cute critters.

The Central Park Zoo’s toddler series, which kicks off again on Sept. 22, is on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and costs is $35, or $30 for members for each session. It was wildly popular.

"Originally it had 15 sessions," Lisowy said. “The response was so great, we doubled the number.” This year, the zoo will offer even more toddler time.

“The hope is to capture these participants at an early age,” Lisowy said, and now with the programs aimed at older kids, the zoo is hoping to keep them. “In a sense, what we’re doing is being a constituency for conservation.”