Discovering the animal kingdom at the zoo

How loud is an elephant? What does goat's hair feel like? And how does it smell inside a predator animal's cage?

Those are a few questions that a child might want answered at a zoo and it comes as no surprise that zoos are one of the most popular places for families to visit.

They are an excellent place for young children to gain more experience with animals. But when it comes to questions about keeping animals in captivity, parents should provide open and honest answers to their children.

Having direct contact with animals is an amazing experience for most children.

Children from urban areas have little contact with animals and are often only familiar with them through television.

"But watching television won't help you understand how big a giraffe really is," says Lothar Philips, president of the Association of German Speaking Zoo Educators in Cologne.

Zoos are also places where a child can perfect their observational skills. "How do animals behave?"

"Most people are too easily prepared to base their opinions on superficial general knowledge," says Philips.

Visiting a zoo encourages a child to discover more about nature, according to Frank Barsch, a species protection expert at the Frankfurt branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

"It's very important that children develop a feeling for, and a knowledge of, the plant and animal kingdoms."

Gaining contact with an animal in a zoo can evoke empathy with the child. "That's because we only learn to protect what we personally know."

Lothar Philips agrees: "The animals in the zoo are messengers for their relatives that live in the wild."

But to make a visit to a zoo exciting and educational, the institution must have a child friendly environment.

That begins with the information signs on the enclosures. "Only a few zoos display signs that have been written by educators. In most cases it's the curators who write them," says Philips.

Child-friendly signs have less information and are interactive. "You can manipulate them by opening flaps or turning elements," says Philips describing the latest trend.

But not every zoo can afford such signs. Zoos are easier places for children to visit when they have seating for breaks, places to eat outdoors, according to Marlis Mueller, a teacher from Hamburg.

Transparent cage boundaries are another important criterion. "Children often have problems looking over a fence."

Although zoos have made great strides in designing their enclosures over the past few years, the animals still live in captivity.

If a child asks about the animals' welfare, a parent should not ignore the question, but give it careful consideration.

"Parents can describe the zoo as a kind of Noah's Ark where the animals live in captivity to prevent many of them from becoming extinct," explains Frank Barsch.

Marlis Mueller also believes that parents should be more open with their child.

"I would tell a child that there are animal-friendly enclosures where the animals enjoy living. At the same time I would not avoid saying that some dark, small enclosures need renovating."

As a rule, primary school children do not ask such critical questions, according to Lothar Philips.

"They're so used to being looked after and cared for themselves that life in a zoo seems ideal to them."

INFO BOX: Petting zoos are very popular but also controversial.

However, Marlis Mueller says children always love visiting them. "Being able to touch an animal is a real highlight for a child," says the teacher from Hamburg, Germany.

But Lothar Philips, a zoo educator, takes a critical position when it comes to petting zoos which exist in practically every conventional zoo.

"Children would learn to act responsibly with animals, if they could help take care of them such as in Basel Zoo where children can clean out their cages," he says. ( dpa )

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