A trip to the Houston Zoo drives home the importance on recycling and conservation. Learn why animals become endangered and what a zoo and YOU can do to help. Find out how you and your kids can help protect animals and their environment in the wild.

Houston Zoo gorilla Exhibit

The Gorilla exhibit encourages visitors to recycle their old cell phones! Photo Credit: Lauren Strait

Conservation at the Houston Zoo

There is a famous poem I read recently about how a soul isn’t truly awakened until someone experiences the love of an animal.

Of course we can all read books to our kids about all the animals that exist in the world. Lions, tigers, bears – you know all the ones that they might not encounter in their own backyard. But there is something magical that happens when you get to experience those animals from a storybook right in front of your eyes during a visit to a zoo or aquarium.

Whether it’s through the glass, high in the treetops or underwater, children get to see just how incredible the animal kingdom really is all while beginning to develop an appreciation for conservation to last a lifetime.

Passion for animals

My deep passion for animals and conservation naturally rubbed off on my 8-year-old twin boys. It’s been really exciting to see that special twinkle in their eyes as we uncover unique and exciting experiences with every zoo and aquarium we visit. It’s been extremely exciting at this age in their lives, as they are like little sponges waiting to be educated. One of our favorite things we do as a family is to seek out information throughout the zoo about ways we can do our part to protect animals and their environment in the wild.

Since we moved to Houston just a few short months ago, we have been very impressed with the educational opportunities that are peppered throughout the Houston Zoo. They do an impressive job of painting a visual picture of how our daily decisions impact conservation and our environment in both negative and positive ways.

Three Animal Ambassadors of Conservation at the Houston Zoo

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Orangutans

Orangutans first pulled at my heartstrings when I was an employee of the Phoenix Zoo. Bess, the female orangutan who lived with her mother Duchess and sire, Michael, had just given birth to her first child, Kasih. I couldn’t believe I had such overwhelming emotions of love for this new baby girl. It was almost the same feeling you would have if your own sister or friend had given birth. The baby fever hits you smack in the face.

When I found out they had orangutans at the Houston Zoo, I immediately put a giant star on my map, as this was one animal I didn’t want to miss.

Palm Oil

While we were greeted by the most beautiful red-headed family I had ever seen, what I was about to read about their natural habitat would change me forever. I knew orangutans were on the endangered species list, but I was shocked when my son read a display near the orangutan habitat that orangutan populations have declined by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years. He went on to read the reason was due to deforestation and the harvesting of a natural resource called palm oil.

“Palm oil?” I repeated back to my son.  Yes he said. “It says here that palm oil is found in everyday items like soap, shampoo and even some of the snacks we eat,” he said.

WOW! I read it again to myself silently and thought, man, I bet we can name off at least ten items in our home that have palm oil in them. Palm oil is such a popular ingredient because it can be processed and blended to produce a vast range of products with different characteristics. The good news is that a growing group of producers are working to reduce unsustainable palm oil to protect the land and the animals that live there.

An organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) helps farmers and other people who are involved in making/using palm oil. The RSPO continues to improve and suggest environmentally friendly strategies to help guide how palm oil can be grown and produced to ensure that rainforests and the animals that live in them will be around for a long time. We look forward to checking out the RSPO website and using our knowledge the next time we go grocery shopping.

Gorillas

I could go on and on all day about all of the primates in the natural world, but one thing about gorillas that fascinates me is their dominating stature. It’s like they were born knowing that they are truly kings of the jungle, yet their soft eyes just melt your heart. The boys and I loved being able to view the gorillas from both the indoor and outdoor habitat areas. The habitat is home to eight gorillas who were hand selected to make the move to Houston as part of the Species Survival Plan, a cooperation between the AZA accredited zoos and aquariums to properly manage endangered species populations.

In the wild, gorillas live deep in the rainforests of Africa. One of the main resources found there is metal material that is used in all of our cell phones. Mining for materials is an incredibly disruptive process to the land, creating mass deforestation and devastating affects to the habitats of gorillas.

Recycling matters

The Houston Zoo did a tremendous job displaying what exactly a mound of recycled cell phones look like with the sculpture that sits inside the indoor viewing area of the gorilla habitat. When you have a mound of cell phones in front of you in the shape of a gorilla, it really makes you stop and think about how much bigger this mound really is in our landfills, and gets your mind brainstorming ways to help.

Luckily we didn’t have to brainstorm long, for the next display talked about The Houston Zoo’s program called Action for Apes. It challenges schools and community organizations to collect as many recycled cell phones as they can by Ape-ril, which are then given to a company called EcoCell that uses the recycled metal material to make new phones instead of the material that is mined in the Rainforest. We are excited to know that the next time we visit the zoo, we will be packing our old phones with us to donate to a great cause.

Houston Zoo elephants

Lauren’s twins posing in front of the Asian Elephants at the Houston Zoo. Photo Credit: Lauren Strait

Sea Turtles

It was very fitting to end our day learning about an animal who lives in our very own backyard.  With Houston only an hour away from the Gulf of Mexico, there is an abundance of wildlife who call the beaches, bayous and bay water home.

While we boasted on the colors, shapes and patterns of the sea turtles that we met, it was alarming to learn that all seven species of sea turtles are endangered. The biggest problem they have is swimming in polluted waters and mistaking trash for food. The boys came up upon a display with an aquarium of real life jellyfish swimming around next to a water tank of plastic bags. We were asked if we could see the difference between the two tanks. It was quite a shock that even to the human eye, it was hard to determine which was which. We could definitely see how easy it would be for a sea turtle to mistake a plastic bag in the water for their favorite jellyfish meal.

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Getting twin boys to take a photo can be tough, but we managed to squeeze on in with this giraffe statue. Photo Credit: Lauren Strait

A Life Without Zoos

As I sit and reflect on our experiences at the zoos and aquariums we have visited over the years, I can say with confidence that my children would not be as passionate about conservation and animal welfare is it wasn’t for accredited zoological institutions like the Houston Zoo. They go above any beyond the quality care of each individual animal and instill life-long lessons through extensive education displays for each and every guest to experience. I truly believe that taking a little bit of extra time every time you visit a zoo or aquarium to learn a new tip about your kiddo’s favorite animal, you will continue to inspire them, encourage them to be conscious of their carbon footprint and to help save animals for future generations.

If you are looking to visit Houston and attractions like the Houston Zoo on a budget, Big Family TravelingMom Heidi Gollub has travel tips and tricks that can help.

With twin boys in tow, Lauren Strait is the fun, witty mom “tour guide” helping parents make the most of every animal encounter while visiting a zoo or aquarium. She combines her passion for animals and conservation with an insider’s knowledge having worked at the Phoenix Zoo for many years to deliver unique content for TravelingMom. When not exploring a wild kingdom, Lauren juggles family life and entrepreneurship as an owner of a public relations firm serving small and large clients throughout the Southwest and uncovering compelling stories for Houston Family Magazine. She’s also put her degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism to good use by blogging and writing for multiple local, regional and national publications for more than a decade.