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Hands-on learning in new zoo

But hands off the rare bugs. The newly renovated Discovery Center is open again.

July 26, 2007|Brenda Rees | Special to The Times

CARL SELKIN likes to tell the story about moving the Insect Zoo at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, when more than 30 species of bugs -- and the entire Discovery Center -- were taken to their new location near the downstairs cafeteria.

"They were very active in their refurbished habitats. It seemed like they were throwing a party," said the vice president of education for the museum. "The result was that we had a lot more [insect] youngsters in the weeks that followed. I think they handled the move OK."

Indeed, when renovation began last year on the museum's 1913 building, where the Insect Zoo and Discovery Center had been located, staffers had the monumental task of packing up the numerous hands-on displays that included bone, rock and mineral specimens as well as animal horns, antlers and skins -- not to mention live critters such as tortoises, frogs, snakes and skinks.

After nearly six months in hibernation, the educational center reopened to the public late last month; visitors to the new location can expect to find such familiar faces as Jay, the Burmese python, and Cecil, the iguana, along with some new displays to explore.

The nearly 9-foot-tall standing polar bear still welcomes visitors near the entrance, but the 75-foot fin whale skeleton no longer hangs from the ceiling -- not enough headroom.

Nevertheless, the center is abuzz with activities, games and plenty of "ooh" and "ahh" moments.

Perhaps the most alluring change is that the insects, once relegated to an upstairs out-of-the-way setting, are now on the main floor, where visitors have 360-degree views of such famed creepy crawlies as tarantulas, walking sticks and scorpions.

New to the zoo are medicinal leeches, which, Selkin said, are rare in such collections. The long slippery segmented worms are also on a strictly blood diet. "We have staff volunteering for the duty, and one member of our board of trustees has even played host," he says. But don't get your hopes up -- there are no plans for the public to get involved in the feedings.

Another new exhibit is the Paleo Prep Lab, which features an honest-to-goodness fossilized triceratops, which was recently excavated in Montana. Guests can watch scientists up close unearthing the 4,000 pound specimen -- that includes the skull, horn and frill of the great beast -- from its protective casting.

Afterward, paleontologically inspired youngsters can visit a simulated dig site to excavate dinosaur fossils and then go to lab tables to identify what they have found.

Live animal presentations now have an expanded stage area that allows bigger audiences to learn about and interact with some of the center's creatures. During one recent presentation, Living Collection supervisor Leslie Gordon came out with Peace, a 9-foot Colombian red-tailed boa, wrapped around her shoulders and midsection. Sitting on the stage floor, Gordon engaged a group of wide-eyed children about the nature of snakes, how they move, eat and live.

"Isn't this the coolest thing?" she said as she demonstrated with a snake skull skeleton how the reptile can unhinge its jaws to gulp down big prey. The kids were mesmerized and not the least bit afraid of Peace -- which Selkin said is a good lesson for the teens and parents who visit too.

"When people better understand the relationship between nature and human culture, the natural world doesn't seem so alien and distant," Selkin said. "We can have a better idea on how we humans fit into the whole picture."


Ralph M. Parsons Discovery Center and Insect Zoo

Where: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., L.A.

When: 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily

Cost: Free with museum admission: $9 adults, $6.50 children

Contact: (213) 763-DINO (3466)

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