Kids seem to be hard-wired to love animals; it generally doesn’t take much of a nudge to encourage them to take a lifelong interest, and a visit to a good zoo is often the catalyst. Now, I know that some folks disapprove of the whole concept of zoos on principle (never mind the fact that most modern zoological parks are clean, humane, well-run educational institutions that simulate natural habitat and foster species preservation, rather than the nasty animal prisons of yesteryear). This article isn’t for them; it’s meant for all of you who cherish childhood memories of visits to zoos and who want your own kids to have a similar experience.
The touchstone for zoos in the Hudson Valley is obviously what is now officially known as the Wildlife Conservation Society, but still familiar to most of us – in spite of multiple futile attempts at name changes over the years – as the Bronx Zoo. My own mother’s favorite way of embarrassing me to my friends was to relate the tale of my ill-considered decision to ignore the “Do Not Feed the Giraffes” sign there, quickly followed by the discovery that a giraffe’s tongue is purplish-black, bumpy, about a foot-and-a-half long and covered with saliva of the most revoltingly mucilaginous consistency imaginable. And one of Mom’s eternal regrets was not having had a camera in hand to record the look of horror on my face upon having my palm licked by said slobbery tongue. (Luckily, most zoos today no longer offer coin-operated animal chow dispensers.)
In spite of this particular minor childhood trauma, my nostalgia for the place persists, and I try to take my own son there every few years. But last Easter vacation, after sitting in a long line of cars for a very long time, we were turned away because the parking lots were completely filled. It’s not such a long drive for a nice day at the zoo, but way too long to turn around and head home again unsatisfied.
Millbrook, on the other hand, is only about 25 miles from either the Mid-Hudson or the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, which is to say about a 45-minute drive from eastern Ulster County. And Millbrook is the home of a little-known local treasure: the Trevor Zoo, located at the Millbrook School, a coeducational independent high school. In fact, it’s the only zoo in America that’s located on a high school campus, and learning to take care of the animals there is part of the curriculum.
How good could a high school zoo be? Way better than you might imagine. This is no mere petting zoo or science lab menagerie. Established in 1936 by Frank Trevor, the Millbrook School’s first biology teacher, it’s one of 216 zoos in the US accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, covers six acres, operates its own veterinary clinic and involves students in environmental advocacy through its Conservation Action Center. The Trevor Zoo houses more than 180 animals both exotic and indigenous, representing 80 different species.
This is an institution that takes animal protection seriously. Seven of the species on view are endangered: the Lake Victoria cichlid, a colorful African fish that fascinates biologists on account of its propensity to evolve and diversify very rapidly; two lemurs from Madagascar, the black-and-white ruffed and ring-tailed varieties; the almost-terminally-cute red panda from the Himalayas; the white-naped crane, native to Mongolia, China and Siberia; a gorgeously maned New World monkey, the golden lion tamarin; and one North American native, the red wolf. That’s not to mention a host of other critters that will enthrall kids and parents alike: playful river otters, bobcats, five different types of owls, chinchillas, emus and rheas, a slow loris, tortoises big enough to ride upon (though you may not), a butterfly garden, coatimundis, boa constrictors and pythons and even a mob (the official word for such a conglomeration) of wallabies from Down Under. It’s diverse, high-quality collection, well worth a couple of hours’ exploration.
The Trevor Zoo is open from 8:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year – even holidays. Admission is a very reasonable $5 for adults, $3 for children and seniors. Visit the website at www.millbrook.org/podium/default.aspx?t=35004 for info about group rates and season passes. The Zoo is located at 131 Millbrook School Road, a mile-and-a-half north of Route 44, six miles east of the village of Millbrook and four miles west of Amenia.