America's Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College: Up-Close Animal Encounters for LA Kids

This may come as a surprise, but LA has more than one zoo. You probably know the one in Griffith Park. And if you haven’t been to the one in San Diego, it's doubtless on your SoCal wish list. You may even have made the trip up to the see the one in Santa Barbara. All great zoos. But have you ever wondered where the people who work at these zoos learn their trade? And, if so, have you considered that the college offering a degree in zoo skills might be right in our backyard – with a teaching zoo open to the public and much cheaper admission than any other SoCal zoo?

America's Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College (sometimes called the Moorpark Teaching Zoo) is quite a bit smaller than the LA Zoo (it's only five acres), but to many parents that's a good thing. Smaller means harder to get lost, less walking, and kids can get a whole lot closer to the animals. Granted, this is not a zoo with space for animals to roam freely, like they do in San Diego, but it is a home to roughly 150 rescued animals: pet lions that have been discovered in abandoned apartments (for real!), injured coyotes, eagles that can't fly, and lemurs that have been rejected by other zoos. Moorpark's animals could not survive life in the wild, but the students at the Teaching Zoo diligently show them a good time, learning their trade by feeding the animals ideal diets (boy do these critters have shiny fur!), giving them daily doses of exercise, and - the best part - leading them in entertaining enrichment.

Photo by Janeene Nagaoka

I confess that I thought enrichment was something we paid to give our kids after school, but it turns out that animals in captivity crave it, too. So each animal at the Moorpark Zoo gets daily activities - whether it's scavenger hunts for snacks, painting with the primates, or football with the water buffalo (for real). The students learn; the animals have fun, and visitors get to watch it all.

The beauty of having a staff of young people all studying exotic animal care and management is that all the people who works at this zoo are genuinely eager to share their knowledge of and affection for the animals. We learn a bunch about different species, animal care, and the environment every time we visit the Moorpark Zoo.

Another benefit of the college program is that the students, who plan to someday work in facilities like the San Diego Zoo, lead educational wildlife shows like those at larger zoos and aquariums (12n, 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm ). The amphitheaters here are small, though, leading to lots of close-up opportunities. Saturdays and Sundays at 3:30pm, children can witness a carnivore feeding, which may involve anything from a mountain lion, grey wolf, or hyena, to a coyote, alligator, or tiger. Students lead a discussion about the animal's diet and its behavior in the wild.

Photo by Janeene Nagaoka

Note that not all animals are accessible at all times, since the well-being of the animals and the course work of the students always take priority over visitors. But this, of course, is reflected in the low admission (adults $8, children $6). Also, the zoo has no restaurant facilities - but picnic tables are plentiful. These seem mostly to be used for birthday parties, which can be arranged on weekends before the facility opens to the public, or during public hours. Parties start at $200 for 40 people. Shows for schools and other groups can also sometimes be arranged during the week.

We really love the Teaching Zoo's summer camp, which lets kids get up close and personal with the critters for a week - culminating in a show of their own (no lion in the kid-run shows!). These camps are usually a great deal, too.

All told, America's Teaching Zoo is perfectly suited to an afternoon outing (weekends only). If Moorpark sounds far away to you, why not make a whole day of it: start with a morning picking fruit and veggies at Underwood Farms (only 10 minutes away), then stow the produce in a cooler and go check out the zoo. Before heading home, stop for the phenomenal selection of out-of-this-world grilled cheese sandwiches at Custom Melt, right next to the highway. Creature comforts all around.

Note that the zoo is only open weekends and does not take credit cards.

Originally published October 4, 2013