By: Mary Young
Oahu Island News

Crowded, noisy, colorful – Waikiki is a “zoo” of sorts. But the real Honolulu Zoo, located at the Diamond Head end of the famed commercial strip, is worlds away – a peaceful place where traffic sounds diminish behind the chattering of exotic birds, the quiet conversation of human visitors, and the occasional call of an elephant.

Not only a classic family destination, the zoo is the perfect place for keiki to learn in depth about animals, their habits and their habitats.

Honolulu Zoo offers a variety of educational programs about ecosystems and animal adaptations, endangered species, and even a career at the zoo. Young visitors learn answers to such questions as, “Why do zebras have stripes? Why do porcupines have quills?” One of the zoo’s many remarkable programs is called “Keiki Zookeeper.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Zoo’s Discovery Center, a small group of 6- to 9-year-olds gathered around a table to examine replicas of animal skulls (“biofacts,” in zoo lingo). They listened to instructor Anne Staggemeier explain how an animal’s tooth and jaw structures are adapted to its diet. A half hour later, these keiki showed a clear understanding of the differences between carnivores, herbivores, insectivores, and omnivores.

Staggemeier, wearing khaki shorts and the education staff’s blue polo shirt, lectured with obvious enthusiasm and kept the pace moving. A former classroom teacher, she has a knack for keeping this age group engaged. The theme that day was “What’s for Lunch?” so her focus was on feeding habits.

The gharial – a crocodilian species with a very long, narrow snout – is
a fish eater. (Incidentally, the zoo recently opened its new gharial exhibit and added a male to its original three females.) Gharials are endangered, Staggemeier told the children, because they’re found in only one place: India.

The Komodo dragon, she said, can smell prey five miles away. “And he will eat it alive or dead … slowly.”

“And the crocodile could definitely eat you in one bite,” she added.

When it was time to visit the animals, Staggemeier cautioned the kids to use “quiet voices and quiet feet.” No jumping up and down. The animals
are very sensitive. Elephants, for example, “hear” – feel vibration – through their feet.

“All of our animals have hiding spots in their cages,” she said, “and they use them.”

The first stop was to see the hyenas: meat and bone eaters. “The females are in charge,” said Staggemeier. “They run the show.” The girls reacted in unison: “Cool!”

The group made visits to the monitor lizards, great plated lizards, zebras and giraffes. (Q. Why is a giraffe’s tongue black? A. It’s protective coloring, since the giraffe is out in the sun all day.)

Cheetahs are the world’s fastest animals, yet they catch only one out of five times that they hunt. In the wild, Staggemeier said, a running cheetah’s back bends like a Slinky to allow the hind legs to move ahead of the front ones.

Lions at the zoo are fed meat, meat chunks, and a special treat known as “bloodsicles”: frozen blood with chunks of meat and liver. This delighted the kids, who responded, “Ey-eww!”

The high point of the day was feeding apples to Kruger, the 5,000-lb. white rhino. Kruger, an herbivore, usually eats zoo ration, alfalfa hay, trace mineral, salt and water, so apples are a sweet treat. Zookeeper Bryan Egan (“Keeper Bryan”) assisted by gently lifting Kruger’s head by the tusk to steady him. Everybody was tentative at first, but eventually each child took a turn placing an apple on Kruger’s tongue.

There’s a gross-out factor to feeding Kruger: his breath is not fresh and it’s hard to avoid getting drooled on. Staggemeier took the opportunity to point out that zookeepers get dirty. “I get dirty, too,” she said. “It’s part of working at the zoo.”

The final stop was at the hippos’ pool, viewable through a Plexiglas window. It was snack time for Cleo, Rose and Louise, who eat the same diet
as Kruger. An unseen keeper lobbed apples into their huge mouths, to the enjoyment of the viewers as well as the hippos.

Then class was over, and it was ice cream time for the young humans.

Sarah Polkabla, who’s going on 8, liked Keiki Zookeeper so much that her parents plan to enroll her in one of the zoo’s summer programs. “She hasn’t stopped talking about that day,” says her mother, Mary Polkabla. “She just really loves being with the animals, and they’re teaching them more in-depth than just walking through the zoo.”

The animal visits included in a session depend on the availability of the keepers, the creatures’ health, and other factors, Staggemeier says. And sometimes the class starts by preparing animal chow. “We’ll make a primate paste and make it into lau laus and give it to the primates, or we’ll make fruit kabobs for the birds,” she says.

Besides Keiki Zookeeper, the zoo offers “Vacation Adventures” (summer day camps); a class for toddlers and their parents; and “Junior Zookeeper” for children age 11 or older. In Junior Zookeeper, there’s more emphasis on careers, Staggemeier says, and “sometimes the encounters are a little more in-depth. One time, the elephant keepers allowed us to come back and actually help clean the exhibit. The little ones, they aren’t up for that. For the older kids, it was a good experience.”

The evening and overnight programs, “Twilight Tours” and “Snooze in the Zoo,” are perennial favorites. New this year are “Vacation Adventures” in Japanese for grades 1-6 and “Pre-Vacation Adventures” for younger day campers. Most of the classes – and there are many – are adaptable for keiki with disabilities.

Honolulu Zoo began in 1876, when King David Kalakaua granted 300 acres of royal lands to the people for a 30-year lease. Two hundred subscriber members, the Kapiolani Park Association, administered the parcel, a marshy series of lagoons and islands. The park opened to the public in 1877 as Queen Kapiolani Park, named for the king’s wife. In those days, the park was home to the king’s collection of exotic birds. Descendants of some of those birds are said to still live at the zoo.

Plantings and peacocks were gradually added to the park, and in 1914 the city and county of Honolulu assumed its administration. After that, Kapiolani Park began acquiring animals, starting with monkeys, bears and lion cubs. The Depression years through post-World War II brought more and more animals, but the zoo’s facilities were deteriorating. In 1974, the Dairymen’s Association donated a camel, elephant, chimpanzees and deer, and interest in the zoo was revitalized. The City developed a master plan that set the zoo’s current boundaries and provided its first full-time director and a staff of thirteen.

In 1969, the Honolulu Zoo Society was founded as Zoo Hui. The present society is a non-profit organization, 6,000 members strong. It funds various projects, including research, and manages the zoo’s volunteer program. The education program, a relatively recent development, amounts to an agreement between the city and Honolulu Zoo Society that the society provides the education programming for the community and the schools.

“We have been in existence for 10 years now, and we’ve grown steadily,” says Susie Gardner, the Society’s director of education programs. “We started out in the early years with about 5,000 a year coming through the program, and this past year we had about 26,000.”

Even so, Gardner says, “I definitely feel like sometimes we’re the best-kept secret in town. It’s very rewarding to see lots of children come back again and again to try our different programs.”

Staggemeier, who has a master’s degree in science education from USC, says, “What I find the most rewarding about it is I get to teach the kids about the animals and what is going on with them. A lot of people don’t know that many of these animals are endangered, why they’re endangered, and what we can do to help them along.”

“I talk about not buying teak furniture be-cause teak forests are where the tigers live, and tigers are becoming endangered because their habitat is being depleted, being chopped down. So don’t buy teak furniture, because that will help the tigers.

“I let them know that the horn on the rhino is used for various things, so don’t support these kinds of organizations. Or don’t support the illegal pet trade.

“I just kind of let them know what they can do, that they can help. Even though they-’re kids, they can still help out in the world.”