- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

TOLEDO, Ohio

The walk-in freezer at the Toledo Zoo’s Arctic exhibit is stocked with fish and frozen treats for the polar bears — chunks of ice embedded with whole fish and pigs’ ears.

It smells as bad as it sounds.

Impressive stuff, however, to 12-year-old Blake Grendel of Riverview, Mich.

“That was really cool,” he said during an hourlong tour behind the scenes.

Zoos are allowing visitors to see and do things that have been off-limits until a few years ago. Visitors can help wash an elephant with a scrub brush at the Oregon Zoo and hide toys in the animal enclosures at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The tours and hands-on programs, many of which carry an extra fee, are designed to encourage visitors to learn about each zoo’s mission of conservation and education.

“We need to help more people fall in love with wild things and wild places,” said Michael I. Crowther, president of the Indianapolis Zoo. “We try to provide more intimate experiences. That’s where real change can occur.”

A dolphin pavilion that opened last year in Indianapolis allows visitors to do more than walk under the water as the dolphins swim above. They can get in the water with a trainer and touch and feed the dolphins for 30 minutes.

The program, which includes a class on the animals, costs $175 for non-zoo members.

Most tours and programs aren’t that pricey. Some are just a few dollars, and others are about $40, about the cost of a theme-park ticket.

Zoo operators say they don’t make much money on the tours. That isn’t the goal.

“If we couldn’t charge money for behind-the-scenes tours, we’d still do it because the educational value is so powerful,” said Tony J. Vecchio, director of the Oregon Zoo.

Visitors to the zoo in Portland can watch an elephant paint with its trunk, feed a sea lion and learn how to take pictures of butterflies.

Keepers lead many of the tours, a chore they used to dread.

“That was our territory,” Mr. Vecchio said. “Now they have to interact with the guests. It’s part of the job.”

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