A Zoo Within the Zoo
Kids' Farm Emphasizes Education
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page B01
It was hard to tell this week which activities at the National Zoo the youngsters liked best: petting the miniature donkeys, watching cows get a bath or cavorting on a giant rubberized pizza with movable mushrooms.
Cows and playground equipment at the zoo?
These and other novelties are part of the $5 million Kids' Farm that opens officially today at 11 a.m. The nearly two-acre expanse, at the end of the zoo near the Picnic Pavilion and Parking Lot D, is designed to teach children about farm animals, including grooming and feeding.
"It's been a big project in the making," said Bob King, assistant curator for small mammals, who oversaw preparations for the exhibit. "It's almost a storybook farm or a Fisher-Price rendition of what a barnyard should look like."
In addition to cows and miniature donkeys, the farm features two breeds of goats, six breeds of chickens and a pond with a small flock of colorful ducks. Visitors can view the animals in a pasture, a bright red barn and special enclosures. Interactive graphics and quizzes provide information about the animals and their care.
For the first time at the zoo, children will have a chance to touch some of the animals.
"The kids here are so urban, they only know these animals from picture books," said David Philhower, founding teacher at Capital City Public Charter School. His delighted third- and fourth-graders were among those given a special preview of the new exhibit on Thursday.
In recent years, an increasing number of zoos have been adding areas, most of them barnyards, where children can have contact with animals. According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, nearly 70 percent of its 163 member zoos have or will soon open "petting zoos" featuring goats, sheep, cows and occasionally chickens.
The impetus for Kids' Farm began several years ago when Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who owns a working farm, decided that urban youths should "know where food comes from." A Smithsonian Institution regent who has helped increase the zoo's budget, Regula earmarked funds for the project.
Some zoo officials were skeptical initially, believing farm animals were more suited to a county fair. Michael Robinson, then the zoo's director, wanted to expand the educational component by including graphics on how farm animals and crops helped build and stabilize civilizations. That idea got dropped after Robinson left in 2000.
Under Lucy H. Spelman, the current director, the zoo has played down the "petting zoo" aspect of the exhibit. Instead, the emphasis is on educating visitors about several farm animals. The yard where the public can touch the animals is called the Caring Corral.
Construction of Kids' Farm began in April 2003. The species on display were selected because of their gentle dispositions. Except for two goats, all the animals come from farms in Maryland.
"It's all about animal care," said Susan Ades, the zoo's acting head of exhibition planning and design. "Visitors will be helping in brushing the donkeys, giving water and shoveling poop -- that's an important part of animal care."
With the addition of a petting area, the zoo must adhere to strict federal sanitation guidelines to prevent the spread of diseases. Hand-washing stations have been set up at the Caring Corral's entrance and exit, and there is a kid-friendly graphic illustrating good hygiene. Staff will make sure children don't bring food into the exhibit or try to eat something after touching an animal.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company