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Do entertain the animals: 5 ways to be a better human at the zoo

By Laura McClure on May 1, 2017 in Interviews


Your job: Be interesting. Researcher and author Laurel Braitman explains.

Most humans at a zoo or aquarium are really predictable. We go up to the glass and wave, or pull out our phones and take a picture, and then wander off to the next display. You, however, can stand out from the crowd in several safe and fun ways — simply by being less boring to the creatures on the other side of the glass. Note: these tricks seem to work best for smart, social and curious creatures like primates, elephants, parrots, penguins, otters, dolphins and whales. [When in doubt, ask a zookeeper first! And always follow the rules of the zoo.]


1. Wear a costume (or something shiny, or just a funny hat).
A docent at the Bronx Zoo in New York is convinced that the gorillas’ favorite day is Halloween, because hundreds of people visit wearing costumes and this seems to bring all the apes to the glass to marvel at the sights. But you don’t have to be in full costume — even a weird hat or a shiny outfit can inspire another animal to come check you out.


2. Bring a baby or a small child.
This is probably the biggest no-fail tip. I’m not sure why so many animals are interested in little kids, but it’s probably because their movements are more surprising and they’re more likely to be playful. Some baby gorillas can play peekaboo, and I’ve had penguins swim along when I run back and forth with toddlers and the birds in interspecies races. Sometimes, of course, the animals are interested simply because a baby looks like a good snack.

3. Slip a harmonica or a kazoo into your bag.
It’s incredible how many animals enjoy music. I often bring musicians to play for captive animals — Black Prairie playing for wolves at a sanctuary in Washington State or Grass Widow playing surf rock for a group of Boston zoo gorillas. But you don’t need a full band. Even a harmonica or some respectful percussion might intrigue an animal who otherwise doesn’t get to hear much besides intercom announcements or the din of the public.

4. Act like a circus performer (even a bad one).
The easiest way to be interesting is to be willing to look silly in public. It’s very effective. Turn cartwheels or do headstands in front of animals, juggle brightly colored objects (like citrus fruit), somersault across the floor, take off your shoes and wiggle your bare toes (gorillas in particular seem to like this one), or pull things out of your bag, one by one, with a flourish. Any movement outside the norm for visitors is likely to perk up the animals, and if it startles them, it’s not the end of the world. Most of the time they can simply wander away.

5. Hold up picture books or back issues of National Geographic or, if it’s not too loud or annoying, show them videos on your phone.
Many zoos actually keep televisions on hand to play videos for their animals. One mandrill in Boston was thought to enjoy Disney animated features like 101 Dalmatians. In the San Francisco Zoo, they wheel a TV in front of the tigers to give them something to watch. I’ve seen parrots enjoy watching documentaries about other parrots. Captive chimpanzees flip through magazines and gaze at the pictures. So feel free to hold something you’re reading or watching up to the glass and see if anyone on the other side shares your views. [Read more about animals here.]

Art credit: TED-Ed Lesson: The three different ways mammals give birthAuthor bio: Laurel Braitman is an author, historian and anthropologist of science. She holds a PhD in science, technology and society from MIT. The paperback edition of Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman is available now. 

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Tags: Animals, Science, Zoos