Apr 15 2010

Poetry drives home message at zoo

50 pieces going up to get patrons to think about nature, their role in it

Conservation was a foreign concept when notable 19th-century author Hans Christian Andersen wrote: “Just living is not enough, said the butterfly. One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.”

The Little Rock Zoo is hoping such poetry posted around the park will inspire patrons to think of their place in the world alongside nature.

The Little Rock Zoo is one of five around the country chosen to participate in a $1 million federal grant program aimed at promoting conservation through poetry.

“The goal of the installation is to make you think a little bit more about the place of humanity in nature,” said Susan Altrui, a spokesman for the zoo. “The impact that we have on our environment and the natural world is something we should all consider.”

The zoo’s share of the grant was $31,000, which covers the cost of the signs and their installation around the park. The other zoos are in Chicago, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Jacksonville, Fla.

Little Rock Zoo employees have been working to install excerpts of nature-inspired poems around the park and plan to have all 50 pieces up by Saturday morning.

The program is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Science - created by the federal Museum and Library Services Act of 1996 - in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Library System, the Poets House nonprofit group, the Little Rock Zoo and the Institute for Learning Innovation, Altrui said.

The five zoos were chosen by the Institute for Learning Innovation - a nonprofit group that seeks to support museums, libraries and other learning institutions - and the Poet’s House - a national poetry library and literary center - to mimic a program started at New York City’s Central Park Zoo last year, she said.

“They saw a lot of success with it. It was done with the same organizations. They saw quite a shift in attitude before and after in how people viewed conservation,” Altrui said. “The installation was making them think more. It was making them understand the connection between animals, wildlife and humanity’s place in the world and in nature.”

The Institute for Learning Innovation has already randomly surveyed zoo visitors and will conduct another survey sometime after the program is in full swing to measure attitudes toward conservation and whether the project had any impact on Little Rock Zoo visitors, Altrui said.

“The [follow-up] survey will gauge whether or not this has had any effect on attitudes and whether or not someone has learned,” Altrui said. “If we’re not doing something that encourages learning, then why are we spending the money on it. Having that measurement tool is important when you have a federal grant. We want that measurement tool also to make sure that what we’re doing is effective. ”

A grand-opening ceremony will serve as a highlight of the zoo’s Earth Day celebration, which begins Friday at 9 a.m. and runs through closing time Saturday. The grand opening of the Language of Conservation poetry installation begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Civitan Pavilion.

Among the speakers will be Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and poet Joseph Bruchac, who wrote some of the poetry featured around the park, Altrui said. A full list of the zoo’s Earth Day Party for the Planet events, is available at

J.J. Muehlhausen, project director, said she has been on pins and needles waiting for the final pieces to be installed. Among them, a large print poem that will greet visitors at the arch over the zoo’s entryway.

Her favorite poem has already been installed above the entrance to the park’s Cafe Africa. It’s a simple piece by W.S. Merwin that reads:

“On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.”

“I think that even when we leave this world there will still be trees on this world,” she said. “The first job that God gave us as humans after he created us was to take care of the flora and fauna - the plants and animals - of this world. That was our No. 1 job assignment.”

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