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Zoo's distance education program crosses geographic borders

Published 5/2/2012


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Brad Nading/Telegram Whitney Buchman, right, talks about a chinchilla on April 5 during a distance learning session with a classroom of students from North Platte, Neb., in the Finnup Center for Education at Lee Richardson Zoo.

Brad Nading/Telegram Whitney Buchman, right, talks about a chinchilla on April 5 during a distance learning session with a classroom of students from North Platte, Neb., in the Finnup Center for Education at Lee Richardson Zoo.

No matter if he's volunteering, working or at home, Whitney Buchman is surrounded by animals.

Buchman is the manager of distance learning and technology at the Lee Richardson Zoo. A self-avowed "military brat," Buchman grew up in Mississippi, Washington, D.C., Germany and Nebraska. After finishing college at Iowa State, Buchman worked a few years at the Kangaroo Conservation Center in Georgia before coming to work as a relief zookeeper at the Lee Richardson Zoo in April 2009.

Two years later, Buchman began to miss the education aspect of zookeeping and applied to his current position. For Buchman, the position combined his love of technology and education.

As part of his position, Buchman teaches people from across the nation and sometimes overseas about animals. In a given week, Buchman might give three to eight 45-minute presentations to groups aging from pre-kindergarten to residents of senior homes. He works in a small studio decked with several computers, a green screen, and an HD motion-tracking camera. Last year, he gave 197 programs, which served 8,089 people.

At 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, one of the screens lights up a room full of third-grade students from Nebraska.

"What are we here today for?" Buchman asked the students.

"Animals!" the children excitedly replied.

Buchman immediately engaged the class by telling them he went to high school very near where they live. After explaining the focus of the program would be animal adaptation, Buchman gets a glove and handles his first animal star — a short-eared owl that zoo staff lovingly named "Shorty."

Shorty came, like many of the zoo's educational raptors, from a rehabilitation program. A quick glance at Shorty wouldn't reveal any problems, but on closer inspection there is clearly something wrong. Shorty is blind in one eye and only has one wing, causing the owl that originally arrived at the zoo in 1999 to lose his balance easily. As Buchman discussed Shorty's adaptations that made him suited to his grassland habitat, the owl kept his gaze fixed on his handler.

"Owls are some of the most silent flyers in nature," Buchman said, describing the specifics of owl feathers.

The kids nervously laughed when Buchman said that owls can see UV light to better see the urine of their prey. He said that a urinating mouse can cause a flash in the owl's vision that allows them to soundlessly snatch up their meal. Unlike other nocturnal owls, Shorty is a diurnal creature, meaning he is awake during the day.

The second animal for the program was a California King Snake, named because of its desired appetite of fellow snakes. For this animal, Buchman outlined how the snake senses its environment and how it has a natural resistance to venom from hunting rattlesnakes.

Buchman used the rattlesnake subject to segue into telling children to alert an adult if they ever find a snake. He said that rattlesnakes used to signal a warning by rattling, but now do so less to hide themselves better from predators. That increased obscurity can be dangerous for people who stumble upon a rattlesnake without realizing it.

The final animal was a chinchilla that previously was rolling around the studio in a plastic ball. The plastic ball activity is part of the zoo's aim to enrich animals by focusing on their mental health and personality rather than the old method of simply keeping them in cages.

After children incorrectly identified the chinchilla as an armadillo and an anaconda, Buchman talked about the South American Atacama Desert that the chinchilla calls home. Increased mining for bauxite, a main ingredient of aluminium, has damaged the chinchilla's natural habitat, causing some species to become endangered or extinct. He worked in the angle of conservation by encouraging children to recycle aluminium so people don't have to mine so much bauxite and harm the chinchillas' homes.

He told the children that chinchillas are crepuscular, or awake during dawn and dusk. According to Buchman, crepuscular is one of his favorite words.

As the program reached its end, Buchman answered any lingering questions and said goodbye to the children. Another program complete.

Lee Richardson Zoo Director Kathy Sexson said that the distance learning program, which began in 1997, allows the zoo to reach communities around the world with few limitations. The programs were free until 2010, when the zoo began to charge $100 for a session. Sexson said the decision came about because the zoo was servicing people outside of its tax base. Funds from the programs allow the distance learning program to replace equipment as needed or assist with other educational programs at the zoo.

Sexson said that a lot of the communities serviced by the program do not have zoos or nature centers nearby to learn about animals. The program also saves school districts time and money by eliminating the need for setting up the logistics for a field trip, which can include transportation costs and additional supervision.

"It fills a niche for them," Sexson said. "It's giving them that basis for nature."

Sexson said that without many other zoos engaging in programs like this, the Lee Richardson Zoo puts Garden City on the map and helps the community be recognized.

"We've taken this program and run with it," Sexson said.

Buchman said that his time working with animals gives him a different perspective about life in many different ways. He said that people have a lot of the same reactionary traits as animals, stating that a person cornered either physically or mentally may lash out in the same way you would expect an animal to react.

He said his work creates a sort of relativist mind-set, allowing him to translate the unspoken language of animal behavior into ways that allows him to form successful bonds with the animals he works with. Training is his favorite part of working with animals because he said it provides him with the most and best interaction.

"I like building that bond," Buchman said.

Buchman is co-president of the Finney County Humane Society. Along with his wife, Mary Buchman, they own two dogs and three cats, opening their home when they can to foster animals in need of a temporary place to live.

The Lee Richardson Zoo

Address: 312 E. Finnup Drive

Phone: 276-1250

History: Opened in 1927 and AZA accredited in 1986

Full time employees: 25

Volunteers: 25 to 30

Seasonal help: 12 additional staff

Hours of operation: April 1 to Sept. 4: 8 a.m. to gate closing at 6:30 p.m. Guests can remain until 7 p.m. Sept. 5 to March 31: 8 a.m. to gate closing at 4:30 p.m. Guests can remain until 5 p.m.

Admission: Walking through Lee Richardson Zoo is free of charge. A day pass to drive through the zoo costs $10. The zoo does not charge for drive-throughs until 10 a.m.

A membership to the zoo costs $30 individually and $50 for a family annually.

Mission Statement: To instill appreciation and encourage stewardship of the Earth's natural treasures through the exhibition, conservation and interpretation of wildlife.

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