The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Big Read Goes to the Zoo

February 6, 2008
Omaha, Nebraska

As the mother of an aspiring zoologist, I spend more time in zoos than most children do.

My 9-year-old son never races through a zoo. He actually looks at every animal and even reads the plaque about every animal. He can explain interesting facts to anyone who will listen, such as: why snakes are not poisonous, why gorillas are not monkeys, or why bats are mammals. He wishes he could attend school at the zoo.

In Nebraska, some students actually do attend school at the zoo, thanks to the innovative leadership of Elizabeth Mulkerrin, the Education Director of Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo. In addition to boasting the world's largest indoor rainforest, indoor desert, and nocturnal exhibit, the Omaha Zoo can now enjoy another claim: it is the first zoo to partner with a library and sponsor a Big Read. Elizabeth and her partners at the Omaha Public Library -- Sarah English and Linda Trout -- have created a successful and unique collaboration that I hope other cities might pursue.

Celebrating Jack London's The Call of the Wild, the Omaha Big Read launched its kick-off on January 4, 2008, featuring Iditarod competitor Matt Anderson, talking before an audience of more than 225 adults and children at the Zoo's auditorium. Their program of events includes book clubs, story-time with dogs, and film showings. The grand finale will be the Zoo's annual "Read Around the World" on March 15. I was invited to help lead a teacher's workshop -- the first time that science teachers joined English teachers and librarians at one of the Zoo's regularly scheduled educator workshops.

For me, this workshop spoke to an issue often on my mind: that English and science are more connected than curriculum sometimes reflects. After all, does it really matter that snakes are venomous, not poisonous? Does it matter that a gorilla is not a monkey? Absolutely. Because science, like poetry, teaches us to be precise in our choice of words. I fear the current decline in reading will cause Americans to lose the ability to use language conscientiously, and with it, our ability to articulate our thoughts clearly.

Such a decline also impedes our ability to describe the world around us vividly, so we are reduced to exclaiming, "Look at that green snake!," instead of "Look at that beautiful Emerald Tree Boa." Certainly the snake is still itself, whether identified by its given species name or not. But if we cannot name the things around us -- flowers, birds, animals, trees -- we are impoverished. And I wonder -- to what extent is one's view of the animal kingdom analogous to one's view of people? If we consider apes and monkeys interchangeable, might we be more inclined to stereotype human beings? Is the failure to notice an Egyptian Fruit Bat's five fingers comparable to the way we walk past those we don't understand?

Bats -- like wolves -- have received a bad reputation from literature and film. Fear is sometimes based on misunderstanding, and novels don't claim to teach science. In this way, a conversation can begin by asking what any particular literary work implies about the natural world, about ecology and conservation. In the workshop, we learned that the reintroduction of wolves in Wyoming has led to a healthy resurgence of rainbow trout. Who would have thought the trout would return with the wolves? But scientists have noticed that -- without the fear of a wolf attack -- caribou were taking their time to drink, thereby defecating in the clean water rainbow trout need to survive. This, my son would remind me, is a good example of the circle of life.

Jack London was also misunderstood, criticized both during his life and after for merely writing "dog stories." Of course he did write several popular dog tales, but he also told other partly autobiographical stories?of his travels across America as a hobo (The Road), of his experiences living as a homeless man in the streets of England (The People of the Abyss), of his fight for success in the literary world (Martin Eden). He endured more physical ailments than I can name, and he kept writing despite hundreds of rejection slips before his 1903 success with The Call of the Wild. Like his canine protagonist, Jack London was a survivor. And since he educated himself at the Oakland Public Library, it seems especially fitting that a zoo and a library would unite to celebrate reading and science, community and conservation. As London himself said in a 1900 letter: "Never a night (whether I have gone out or not), but the last several hours are spent in bed with my books. All things interest me -- the world is so very good."

My son's love for animals and zoos has taken me down an exciting road of discovery that I would never have traveled otherwise. I hope other parents and children might experience a similar pleasure together through The Big Read -- and through the other books, animals, and humans they'll meet along the way.