Philly's new children's zoo shows off animals' abilities

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Kids who clamber around a novel playground at the Philadelphia Zoo might suddenly find themselves at eye level with a monkey. Or even with a stair-climbing goat.

It's one of many features at the new $32 million KidZooU that's designed to help youngsters develop compassion for animals and look at ordinary creatures in different ways.

The space opened this month and replaces a children's zoo that had not been significantly updated since it was established in 1957. The old exhibit — which closed late last year — did not have an indoor area, making it difficult to enjoy in bad weather.

Nearly two years in the making, KidZooU features many rare breeds of ducks, sheep, fowl and ponies among its outdoor denizens. An indoor education center includes tropical fish, butterflies, rats and an ant farm, as well as hands-on exhibits about habitat conservation and classroom space.

In addition to the traditional petting zoo, visitors can see demonstrations of the creatures' extraordinary skills. Chickens will tackle agility courses, while pigeons will show off their ability to count. Really — pigeons can count.

“It's my dream that a kid will leave here and, the next time they see a pigeon in a park, rather than chasing it and trying to kick it, they're really engaged and say, ‘Wow, that's a smart bird. I want to watch it,'” said Andrew Baker, the zoo's chief operating officer.

Visitors might look at goats in a new way, too. A 400-foot-long protected path allows the four-legged creatures to leave their enclosure by crossing a bridge above the entrance to KidZooU. The path leads to a staircase — goats love to climb — that parallels a playground climbing tower for children, giving each species a unique view of the other.

Kids could have a close encounter with small primates. The Treetop Trail, which allows monkeys and lemurs to traverse the zoo property via enclosed, suspended pathways, now ends in a giant cage that hangs next to the kids' tower.

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