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Zoo's Animal Magnetism Helps Teachers Motivate Students

August 20, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Fifteen teachers stepped into a tray of disinfectant, then lined up eyeball-to-eyeball with the orangutans.

The disinfectant was to protect the apes, not the people. Viruses might be clinging to the humans' shoes.

Both animals and teachers were behind the scenes at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park, taking part in a recent two-day workshop on the role of zoos in saving endangered species.

The workshop, offered through UCLA Extension, gave the teachers a credit toward the continuing-education requirements for pay raises in the Los Angeles Unified and most other school districts. The course also provided the 16 teachers with up-to-the-minute information on a subject they rely on to interest even their worst students.

Karen McMahon, a teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in the Lennox School District, recently did a unit on animals with her third-graders. "My kids went crazy," she said. They even asked for more work. McMahon said she was able to use their interest in animals to teach non-science subjects such as reading, writing and art. Even her limited-English speakers joined in.

"They go home at night and watch the nature shows on Channel 28 when they can get their relatives to turn off the junk," she said.

"Everyone loves an animal," said Sue Williams, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade life science at Bell Gardens Intermediate School in the Montebello Unified School District. That includes children who are not "strong in books," in her words.

Effective Motivators

Animals are such effective motivators, Williams said, that she always has some in her class. She finds that children are fascinated by creatures as humble as the pill bug. "And, if one gets away, what does it matter?" she says. Her grander menageries have included rats, tarantulas and a Burmese python.

Sandi Wells, a science teacher at Chaparral Middle School in Moorpark Unified School District, said she, too, keeps animals in the classroom. Iguanas and other classroom pets are often useful in teaching responsibility as well as science, she said. "I've taken kids who are behavior problems and made them my animal keepers, and I've seen some real turnarounds."

As zoo keeper Gail Bruner told the teachers in the endangered-species workshop, all primates except humans are threatened with extinction in their native habitats. But orangutans are breeding so successfully in zoos that some, like Eloise, a mother of four at the Los Angeles Zoo, have been temporarily sterilized by implantation of birth-control medication under their skin.

Zoos have had less success breeding gorillas, she noted: Captive males tend to have low sperm counts, and pairs attempting to mate are often harassed by other members of the group.

Keeper Bruner had taken Williams, Wells and the other teachers behind the artificial mountain and moat where most zoo visitors observe the orangutans. In the normally off-limits area where the keepers tend the redheaded apes, the teachers saw the bags of Monkey Chow and crates of yams and fruit the animals eat. They learned that the young apes, called "the kids" by their keepers, don't get oranges, which upset their stomachs. As Bruner explained: "Onions and spinach are high in Vitamin C, so they get those instead."

One of the keepers' tasks is to make sure that Mickey, a male with epilepsy, receives his daily dose of anti-convulsants mashed up with a banana.

Two young orangutans munched on passion vine and stared at the humans as Bruner spoke. Bruner reminded the teachers to stand well back from the cages because the animals are dangerously strong.

Workshop participant Eileen Kaplan, who teaches kindergarten in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, said she had written a whole reading program around animals.

"I find, in working with disadvantaged students, there's very little that motivates kids, but animals sure do," Kaplan said. When she is teaching the short vowel sounds, she has her students draw a tiny elephant over each short e and a little octopus over each short o .

Participant Linda Wexler teaches college-level biology at Santa Monica High School. Her older students are also intrigued with animals, she said. Wexler sends her students to the zoo to observe a particular species of animal and prepare a catalogue of all the things that the chosen animal does.

During the workshop, the teachers learned that the zoo's research department is compiling such a catalogue on the giant eland, a rare subspecies of African antelope. The Los Angeles Zoo has five young giant elands, constituting one of only three captive herds worldwide.

Puzzling Behavior

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