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Monday, April 13, 2015

Zoo Review: Greensboro Science Center

Much like my recent trip to Elmwood Park Zoo, my visit to Greensboro Science Center was on the whim, made while traveling to a nearby larger zoo (in this case, the North Carolina Zoo).  I like to plan things out, so it was strange that I did something that I don't believe I've ever done before - see a billboard on the side of the road and decide to check a place out.

For those who might think it strange to add a Science Center to a review of zoos and aquariums, I'll explain (as I found out when I arrived and got a map) that the facility features an indoor science museum, as well as an outdoor zoological park, the Animal Discovery area.  The zoo is a rather small one, and the animals in it seem to be selected to highlight animal diversity (well, mammal diversity, really...).  A meandering series of paths takes the visitor past a pool of Nile crocodiles, a walk-through yard of red-necked wallabies, a petting zoo, and mesh-enclosed enclosures for various small mammals, such as fossa, porcupine, coati, and meerkat.  Primates are represented with black howler monkeys, Javan gibbons, and three species of lemur.  There is also a small mammal and reptile house.  Tucked away across a creek, off in the woods, are the two largest enclosures - one for tigers, the other a mixed-species habitat for giant anteaters and maned wolves.

More animals can be found in the museum's main building, from which visitors enter the zoo itself.  The small Herpetarium displays various reptiles and amphibians, including hellbenders, alligator snapping turtles, rhinoceros iguanas, and Gila monsters.  Not all of the displays in the museum feature animals (live ones, at any rate).  There is also a dinosaur hall, a skeleton hall, a health hall, a gem and mineral hall, a weather gallery, and a planetarium.   One of the star attractions of the building is a model Tyrannosaurus Rex, which will roar at visitors. These exhibits are all highly interactive and give children (and adults) lots of chances to learn through doing.  Attached to the Herpetarium, for instance, is are small Herpetology and Aquatic Discovery labs, where kids can touch biofacts and interact with live animals (under the supervision of staff and docents). 

It was just my luck that, not too long after I left, the center opened up a third animal area to the facility.  The Carolina SciQuarium is a new, LEED certified aquatic animal facility (though, like many aquariums these days, mammals still manage to hog the spotlight).  Since it opened up after I visited there isn't much I can say about it, except that all of the pictures look pretty impressive.  Animals of note housed here include African penguins, fishing cats, green anaconda, Asian small-clawed otters, green moray eels, and various sharks and rays.  The aquarium is Phase I of a three part master plan that will also see the renovation of the museum and the series of new exhibits at the zoo focusing on endangered species.

The problem with trying to do multiple things at once (or being multiple things at once) is that it can be very hard to do any of them especially well.  When I visited Greensboro Science Center, however, I was impressed at how well they seemed to combine their roles of zoo, science museum, and - presumably now - aquarium.  It would have been easy for one role to overshadow the other.  It could have just been a building with a few animal exhibits stuffed in, the care of the animals given no more thought than to attract visitors or fill a space.  Likewise, the science museum component could have been a mere afterthought to the zoo, a few cheap interactives and graphics that failed to relate to the animals.  Instead, the museum and zoo did a good job complementing each other and building off of each other to encourage learning and exploration of the natural world.

In the past, there has been too little cooperation between zoos and natural history museums (except the later using the former as sources of skeletons and specimens when the animals die).  This Greensboro approach isn't for everywhere, and it does have drawbacks - both the zoo, the aquarium, and the museum are smaller and less specialized than they would be if they were independent of each other; also, if I was a zoo director, I would probably want all my funds going towards animal programs - but it does provide an interesting view on what happens if a facility takes a more holistic approach to education about the natural world.

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