‘Zoo to You’ brings exotic animals to schools

Mesa Elementary a third-grader Destiny Williams looks at a leopard gecko Tuesday at the school during a visit by representatives of Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Zoo. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

A periodic meow and a range of other noises, including human-like greetings and high-pitched squeaks, emanated from the cloth-covered cage. Its inhabitant — a black-feathered bird called a hill mynah — is a skilled mimicker.

Native to Asia, the mynah once shared a home with cats, according to Richard Harris, a Rio Grande Zoo volunteer who brings animals to school children through a Phelps Dodge Mining Company sponsored program called “Zoo to You.”

Harris and fellow volunteer Bob Rider spent Tuesday at Mesa Elementary school showing off two birds, three reptiles, and three mammals — the mynah the most vocal of the bunch.

Eric Vanderdussen, 9, sat perched on his feet and craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the animals.

“I really liked the bird that looked like a penguin,” said Vanderdussen of the mynah, his classmates guffawing and belly laughing as the bird issued meows and whistles.

Also in exhibit were a rust-colored corn snake, a dwarf hedgehog, a box turtle, a gray chinchilla, a slinky ferret, a leopard gecko from Afghanistan, and a brightly colored lorikeet (larger than the parakeet).

Harris includes animals native to a variety of regions in the presentation that includes an informative litany of fast facts with an underlying message. “We teach children that all the animals on the earth were given to us by our ancestors. Now, they are the stewards. My generation did things like create synthetic material — instead of animal fur, we can use fake fur. I ask students to think about what they can do the safeguard the animals,” he said.

With a colorful animal vest pulled over his shoulders and a hedgehog calmly perched in his palm, it is hard to believe Harris was once a nuclear weapons maintenance man. The former Air Force member and nurse said retirement bored him.

“We love to see the smiles on the kids faces,” said his partner Rider, also a retired military man.

Harris said he spends about 48 weeks a year on the road — the last van the duo drove racked up 198,000 miles. He makes his services available to schools upon request.

“We bring the zoo to kids who may not have an opportunity to go to a zoo,” Harris, an Albuquerque resident, said.

Third-grade Mesa teacher Callene Zapalac said the program will prepare students for Science Week activities in November.

“We try to find cool things for the kids to do,” said Zapalac, a Science Week committee member who organized the visit.
Zapalac said feels interactive learning are more effective than lectures.

Students lingered in lines at the end of Tuesday’s presentation, scrutinizing the animals and touching zoo artifacts displayed on a table — which included a lion’s pelt, a rhino’s horn, and the bone of a giraffe’s neck.

“The giraffe bone looks like an angel,” said third-grader Alyssa Villanueva, very pleased with all aspects of “Zoo to You.”