Botanic Gardens Conservation International
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Plant education in zoos

Volume 1 Number 2 - October 2004

BGCI members and supporters

Plants and animals are inextricably linked.  Plants provide animals with food, medicine and shelter, while animals assist plants in pollination, germination and moving from one place to another!  Encouraging visitors to zoos and gardens to make these links is essential.  They can learn about the importance of ecosystems, their fragility and how they themselves are connected to the global ecosystem.  Increasingly zoos are recognising the importance of developing education programmes that embrace both animals and plants.  The following case studies provide us with a sample of the programmes on offer.

Building an interest in plants and animals

Belo Horizonte Zoo and Botanic Foundation is located in the state capital of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Its educational purpose is based on the understanding that environmental education is a continuous process.  It is not the Foundation’s intention for visitors to become ‘experts’ in plants or animals. It believes that information and experience can lead to satisfaction, curiosity and a feeling of wanting to know more about the world in which we live.

Weekend visitors to the zoo and botanic gardens do not necessarily want to learn something about animals or plants. They come to admire, observe and entertain themselves. Through observation, questions, reflexions and theories can be elaborated and developed by visitors according to their intellectual level. The Zoo and Botanic Foundation builds on this to promote a greater interest in plants, animals and the inter-relationship among them and human-beings.

The Foundation interacts with its visitors in different ways.  There are signs containing information about plants and animals, educational activities, plays, talks about the life and curiosities of plants and animals and exhibitions highlighting the relationship between humans and nature.  The social role of the zoo and botanic gardens cannot be underestimated.  Visiting the Foundation, as well as similar institutions, is a starting point for future learning.  There is much to do to make these places better used as environmental and cultural educational spaces. They are an extremely important part of education and are essential in forming individuals who recognize themselves as an important piece of the global ecological jigsaw.

Liliane Evangelista, Fundacao Zoo-Botanico de Belo Horizonte, Av. Otacilio Negrao de Lima 8000, 31.365-450 BELO HORIZONTE-MG, Brazil. 

The REAL Reason to Visit the Zoo

Got pandas?  Got Koalas?  Got giraffes?  You better have plenty of bamboo, eucalyptus, and acacia!

Most people expect the World Famous San Diego Zoo to have a world-class collection of exotic animal species, but visitors are often delighted by our equally impressive exotic plant collection.

The botanical collection’s purpose is multifaceted.  Plants are used as functional landscaping, providing a beautiful, natural setting for our animal exhibits, which then opens a window to the habitat of the world.  The plants are an important renewable food source for many of the zoo’s herbivorous species.  Horticulture staff harvest bamboo, acacia, fichus, hibiscus and banana just to name a few browse plants.  These materials help provide high quality nutrition which is vital for animal health.  Plant material is also harvested for our Animal Enrichment program.  Banana stalks become a play tool for an elephant, timber bamboo might be a ‘puzzle feeder’ used to hide treats for a panda.

Connecting people to wildlife and conservation is a vitally important mission of the Zoological Society of San Diego.  With all the zoo’s unusual uses for plants, and the extensive collection, the zoo is a paradise of educational resources.

In the past five years, the Education Department in concert with the Horticulture Department has created several ‘teaching gardens’-- a large butterfly garden and a childrens’ vegetable garden complete with a  pond.  These gardens have been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as School Yard Wildlife Habitats.  Monarch butterflies often stop by on their migrating and a pair of wood ducks were found in the pond this past spring!  The gardens are used for educational programs for kids as young as three through adult participants.  Spending time in the gardens help children learn to nurture and respect life.  Gardening helps kids make the connection to their own food through hands-on experience.  Learning about animal diets comes alive in a garden setting.  The beauty of these gardens provides welcome stress-relief for our employees.

Plants are vital to the survival of species.  Learning about the mysteries of the plant world opens the eyes of our zoo visitors to the amazing diversity of life on planet Earth.

Laurie Furry, Education Specialist, San Diego Zoo, P.O. Box 120551, San Diego, CA 92112-0551.

ZooBot Adventures: a Unique Collaboration

Tucson residents were having a tough time deciding between summer camp at the Zoo or the Botanical Gardens. Now they can do both! Kids discover the connections between plants and animals at ZooBot Camp. This five-day adventure offers an in-depth exploration of animals and plants that revolves around FUN! Participants spend the mornings at the Zoo immersed in behind-the-scenes adventures, art projects, science experiments and more. Then they head to the Tucson Botanical Gardens for afternoons of botanical discovery. Kids bring a sack lunch each day, but snacks that reinforce the day’s theme are provided.

Children are dropped off at the Zoo in the morning and picked up at the Botanical Gardens in the afternoon.  Reid Park Zoo provides transportation between locations, while the Botanical Gardens provides registration support. Members of each institution typically fill the sold-out camps each year. The revenue for the camp is shared and each institution plans its own activities and budget. This mutually beneficial arrangement has been in place for several years and improves with each season! Although both institutions offer individual full-day camps, this programs remains the most popular selection and sells out early.

Vivian VanPeenen, Curator of Education, Reid Park Zoo, 1100 S. Randolph Way, Tucson, AZ 85716.  Tel: (520) 791-3204 x 12.

Highlighting the links between plants and animals

Newquay Zoo is located in the UK’s West Country which boasts a heritage of historic gardens, maritime connections and plant hunters.  This horticultural link and the presence of the Eden Project nearby brings many visitors (especially older visitors with an interest in gardening) to Cornwall.  For this reason, the zoo has developed talks and signage that highlight the links between the animal collection and plants. 

We are fortunate to have an informal working partnership called EPIC (Education Providers in Cornwall) which links the education officers in museums, galleries, gardens, heritage sites, zoos and wildlife organisations in Cornwall. Through meetings and email groups, EPIC helps to promote events and joint projects, share training and provides a good source of specialist information as required.

As a result, Newquay’s formal and informal education programme now includes many themes that highlight the links between plants and animals:

  • Homeopathy, herbal remedies and ‘bush medicine’ practiced by people and animals linked to our Wildlife Hospital and herb baskets;
  • Native species and wild areas of the zoo for birds, bats and beetles;
  • Bio - geographic regions or zones of animals with relevant plantings;
  • Similar adaptations e.g. spines and poisons between porcupines and cacti, arrow poison frogs and toxic plant sap
  • Invaders from overseas: introduced animals whether African Land Snails or Japanese Knotweed
  • Evolution and survival, looking at extinct, endangered and surviving ‘living fossils’ within the plant and animal world (i.e. the ‘Jurassic Bark’ effect of how to make tree ferns and cockroaches exciting by mentioning dinosaurs)
  • The shared history element: explorers, plant hunters and multicultural aspects of different societies (folklore, medicine etc.)
  • Threatened habitats, their wildlife and plants such as the rainforest area in our atmospheric Tropical House

Mark Norris, Head of Education, Newquay Zoo, Trenance Gardens, Newquay, Cornwall, TR7 2TW, UK.  Tel: 01637 873342.  Fax: 01637 851318.

Using Plants to Engage the Senses

Dudley Zoological Gardens, established in 1937, surrounds the ruins of Dudley Castle founded in 1070.  Over the years, the Zoo has undergone many changes.  The majority of the grounds were laid out as informal gardens and animal enclosure borders, along with the existing native woodland and well-established trees on site.  In 2004 an area in the Castle outer defences, previously the ‘Pets Corner’ of the Zoo, was cleared and planted out as a Sensory Garden. The aim is to provide an enjoyable experience for visitors of all ages and abilities, highlighting the diversity of plants, their importance to people and wildlife, and their uses over the years.

The garden is situated in an area with a good view of the Castle keep, the defensive bank, and some animal exhibits.  It has a range of raised beds, including alpines and heathers, mixed herbaceous area, Japanese acer border, and herbs. Species are chosen to provide stimulation of the senses of touch, smell, and sight.  Hearing is stimulated through wind-chimes, native birds, a small water feature and wind moving through plants.  The opportunity to taste plant derived products is currently being investigated and some sculptures that people can touch will be added to the experience. 

The sensory garden will enable visitors to learn about composting and recycling and how to encourage insect life in the garden. Interpretation panels will provide information, and it is planned to include the area in the Zoo’s newly developed public talks programmes.

Stephen Woollard, Head of Education, Dudley Zoological Gardens, 2 The Broadway, Dudley DY1 4QB.  Tel: (01384) 215 317.


Talking Plants

During the summer of 2003, Chester Zoo, UK, held a series of talks entitled ‘Talking Plants’. The talks took place at various points around the Zoo at specific times and were meant to be both entertaining and informative for visitors.

The interrelationship between animals and plants was, maybe, an obvious topic but the talks covered a variety of issues.  Conservation of water was tackled by explaining how the water from the elephant pool is recycled using a reedbed. The life history of the Brazil nut tree was used to explain the intricacies of life in the rainforest as well as highlight the Forestry Stewardship Campaign (FSC). Topics such as genetically modified foods and the conservation of wild strains of plants were incorporated into talks looking at the many uses of plants (ancient and modern).  Even the past exploitation of plant material was covered during a talk entitled ‘Plant Hunting’.

Many of these topics were also covered in the 2004 talks. However, one completely new talk entitled ‘Alien Invasion’ looked at the problems associated with invasive plants and animals.

Liz Marrs, Presenter, Chester Zoo, Upton-by-Chester, Chester CH2 1LH.  Tel: 01244 380 280.  Fax: 01244 371 273.


Les plantes et les animaux sont inextricablement liés. Les plantes fournissent aux animaux leur nourriture, leur médecine, leur abri, tandis que les animaux aident les plantes à la pollinisation, la germination, et le déplacement d’un endroit à un autre ! Encourager les visiteurs des zoos et des jardins à faire ces liens est essentiel. Ils peuvent ainsi acquérir des informations sur l’importance des écosystèmes, leur fragilité et comment eux-même sont intégrés à l’écosystème global. De plus en plus, les zoos reconnaissent l’importance de développer des programmes éducatifs qui lient ensemble les plantes et les animaux. Les exemples suivants nous fournissent un échantillon des programmes proposés.


Plantas y animales están estrechamente interconectados. Las plantas aportan a los animales alimento, medicina y refugio, mientras que los animales contribuyen a la polinización, germinación y al desplazamiento de las plantas de un lugar a otro! Promover esta interconexión entre los visitantes es esencial. Pueden aprender acerca de la importancia de los ecosistemas, su fragilidad y cómo ellos mismos están conectados a este ecosistema planetario. El reconocimiento de los zoológicos para incorporar programas educativos que involucren tanto a plantas como animales va en aumento. Los siguientes estudios de caso son un ejemplo de los programas que ofrecen.