By Olivia Hansen May | Featured in the March 2016 Issue | All photos courtesy of Millbrook School
About a mile off Route 44 in Millbrook is Millbrook School, a co-educational boarding school that is home to 300 adolescent humans – and red pandas, ring-tailed lemurs, golden lion tamarins, and the red wolf. On one side of Millbrook School Road lies the habitat of the human species in the form of dormitories and classrooms, where students live and learn. On the other side is the Trevor Zoo, where these same students engage in hands-on care and conservation of 80 species and more than 180 exotic and indigenous, and sometimes endangered, animals.
Spreading over six shady and meandering acres, the AZA-accredited Trevor Zoo is the only zoo in the country located at a high school. This provides Millbrook students a rare and wonderful learning experience.
The Trevor Zoo was founded in 1936 by Frank Trevor, Millbrook School’s first biology teacher. Trevor also possessed a passion for sharing his love of wildlife with all people, especially children. Eighty years later, his vision is still going strong. Work in the zoo is a core part of the Millbrook School curriculum and its community service requirement.
All students must contribute time and services in the zoo in their third form (freshman) year. In addition, some students, affectionately known as zooies, take their zoo involvement to the next level by joining the Zoo Squad to further their knowledge and engagement with the animals during their time at Millbrook.
It’s not only Millbrook students who have the opportunity to visit the zoo and learn from the animals. For visitors from the community, the zoo makes for an intimate, informative, and engaging excursion. Students and staff alike are keen to share their knowledge and are always enthusiastically open to questions from zoo guests.
Dr. Alan Tousignant
As a student at Millbrook I recently sat down with Dr. Alan Tousignant, director of the Trevor Zoo, to talk about the zoo’s work and its importance to the school’s students and the local area.
What are you most proud of at the zoo?
I think our biggest and best achievement is the work that we do with our students every week. We work with over 75 students every day as part of their community service within the Millbrook School community. Most of those students work in caring for animals and learning about wildlife and conservation.
We also work with three to ten students every afternoon in an activity called Zoo Squad, which is an alternative to playing on team sports. That work allows us to do bigger projects, things that take longer than the community service period allows for. We’ve been working with students since 1936, so that’s a lot of alumni and current students that have been able to work with animals.
What makes this zoo unique?
We are the only AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited zoo that is owned and operated by a private boarding school. The opportunities we provide to our students for hands-on learning and care for wildlife is extraordinary because of the supervision that we can give. It’s a boarding school, so pardon the pun, but we have a captive audience.
Many of our students are here all of the time, which is very different than most zoos’ volunteer programs where the students are coming in and out for relatively short periods of time each week. That model is very similar to our summer volunteer program, where we work with students from the general community. But during the school year we are able to see our students every day and often two to three times a day. So, the supervision is fantastic, and that allows us to have extensive training for those students who are working with the animals.
How does having a zoo on campus enhance the education of the students?
From my perspective, probably the biggest factor that we can shed light on is the natural world and the need for conservation. To be able to conserve the natural world, you need to understand it. One of the things that Frank Trevor recognized is that animals are much more engaging than a textbook – now that’s not to say that you don’t get great information from a textbook or videos.
When you’re looking at an animal, and that living being is staring back at you, there’s a connection there that is buried deep within our brains that is linked to our evolu- tion. We’re in a relationship with the natural world whether or not we like it or believe it. In- teracting with another living being provides an avenue for a more in-depth understanding of that living being and, potentially, ourselves.
What are the zoo’s plans for the future?
Well that’s an interesting question because this is our 80th anniversary. It’s also our accreditation year. With those two events it will be kind of a big celebration in the summer.
We’ve been accredited since 1989, and every five years the zoo has to go through the process again. To prepare for that there are lots of short-term plans to make sure everything is up to snuff.
The biggest project on the immediate horizon is the renovation of the Mill. The Mill is the oldest building on campus and a very integral part of the school’s history. It’s been in disuse for several years now, and the renovation of that will begin in the spring. That will be a welcome center for the zoo and will accommodate a small green store. We have lots and lots of people that ask if we have a gift shop. We are hoping to have a very conservation-oriented set of store items. The new welcome center will also allow us to help members of the public understand the link between the school and zoo. Most visitors don’t know why we have a zoo or why the zoo is run by a school.
What do you think the students get out of the interaction with animals? What do they learn?
It’s actually quite variable. Some students form a deep relationship with a particular animal, they just love that animal. For example, we had an older lemur for a long time, who has since passed away. It was a male lemur named Patches. There were certain students that absolutely loved that animal. So that became a very personal connection for them with Patches.
Other students are much more varied, they’re just interested in all of the animals and try to absorb as much as they can. In fact, we have other students for whom less direct animal interaction is more interesting. They’re learning a lot about the graphics and making engaging graphics for the visitors to see, or they’re interested in the cameras and technology behind the live broadcast of animals that we post on the zoo’s website.
Do you have any anecdotes from students in the past?
You know, it’s actually funny … Jono Meigs, the previous director, and I have always said we are going to write a book about all the various things that we’ve seen over the years. Some of them are just hilarious. For instance, a lot of work with students is teaching them skills and basic chores that they might not have done in the past. Sometimes watching a person learn how to use a shovel or a broom for the first time can be amusing for us older folks.
But there’s also, of course, lots and lots of animal-based stories of students having that first connection. Snakes are a good example. We have lots of students and people in general that come to the zoo that are afraid of snakes. But then they learn what a snake is, what it’s doing, and how it’s trying to, I always say, make a living. Once they learn that, they can become more comfortable. So things like that can be really exciting for us to see. A student who comes in with a deep-seated fear of snakes, then after a while is holding a snake, is really proud of that moment.
We also have number of alumni who have gone on to veterinary school and have become veterinarians or work in zoos or conservation. And when those alums come back, it’s always very rewarding for them to say, and they quite often do, that they got their passion for this kind of work at the Trevor Zoo. It’s where they got started, and it’s why they continue the work. That’s very gratifying as well as exciting for thinking about the future of our program.
Why do you do this? Why did you become a zoo person?
I think we all get in the business because we love animals and love working with them. For me, it’s been a very interesting transition from animal care and husbandry to administrative work and planning the vision for the zoo.
What you begin to see is that if you do that job right, you’re creating even greater opportunity than in the past for the visitors and students. Our students are even more enriched by their zoo experience because we’re trying to teach them more. We’re trying to increasingly involve them in what the zoo is doing on all levels. They don’t just learn how to take care of a particular animal. They understand why we perform that care in a particular way. They learn the connection between animal care, its role in the natural world, and why conservation is so important. And if we do our job right, I think we’re going to graduate some really good conservation-minded people – and boy do we need it! •
The Trevor Zoo is located at Millbrook School, 131 Millbrook School Road in Millbrook, NY. It is open year-round, seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is $5 per adult; $3 for children and senior citizens. Contact the zoo for group tours, school trips, and birthday parties. For more information, including teacher guides and live video feeds to animal areas, visit www.millbrook.org/TrevorZoo or call (845) 677-3704.