Nature Studies

By Barbara Hall — February 26, 2007 5 min read
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Millbrook School in upstate New York has all the usual classes one might expect at a high-caliber private high school. Take a closer look at the contents of those courses, though, and you’ll spot an unusual commonality. Stop by a photography class and you’ll see shots of lemurs, pandas, and wolves. Pop into an English class, and you’ll hear a discussion of The Life of Pi, a novel populated thickly with zoo animals. Even in dance class routines, you may recognize the motions of birds and lizards.

Danny McColgan offers a bowl of food to Fang, an endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur. The 15-year-old is among the school’s 40 or so “zooies”—students who volunteer to care for the animals every day, learning about their habits and biology along the way.

Step outside onto the campus’s lush grounds, and you’ll find all the traditional prep-school activities: students asprawl with textbooks on the lawn, pickup games of lacrosse, and competitive tennis. But peer into the nearby treeline and you’ll spot a suspended walkway for watching forest-canopy critters in their natural habitat. Look across the pond of waterfowl and you might glimpse a student feeding one of the seven endangered species that live on campus.

Millbrook is a school with a zoo in its center. Or maybe it’s more accurately described as a zoo surrounded by a school. Either way, it’s an unusual symbiosis—by all accounts, there are few schools in the nation with an accredited zoo on campus, and fewer still where animals permeate the curriculum so deeply.

“Aside from the obvious scientific benefit of having 100 animal species on campus for research and study,” says headmaster Drew Casertano, “the zoo has also been a source of inspiration for student writers, dancers, photographers, environmental artists, and more. The list has been as long as the imaginations and curiosity of our students and faculty.”

It’s a temperate October morning, and the early sun washes the boarding school’s neoclassical white buildings in light. Classes are just getting under way for many of Millbrook’s 250 students, but science teacher and conservation education director Jane Meigs has been up for hours. She’s thinking ahead to the freshman English class she’ll be visiting to talk about environmental themes in literature. And then there’s a meeting of Millbrook’s Environmental Council.

But first, she’s fine-tuning her environmental science lesson to take full advantage of the day’s good weather—maybe a walk through the forest canopy, or over to the zoo to get up close and personal with a North American bobcat.

It probably won’t be the only class visit Trevor Zoo will get today.

Under the guidance of Millbrook Science Chairman Barry Rosenbaum, physics students often turn to the animals as living, breathing embodiments of such principles as lift and aerodynamics.

Millbrook School environmental science teacher Jane Meigs takes her students into Trevor Zoo for a species identification lesson.

“Chemistry is a bit more of a challenge,” Rosenbaum notes, “but we’re working on it.”

Dance director Laurie Freedman once asked her choreography students to dream up a routine to be called “Enchanted Island.” After closely studying the zoo’s lizards and birds, the students designed custom-made skateboards and specialized piping that enabled them to simulate lizard and bird motions on stage.

Even Bill Hardy, Millbrook’s arts chairman, got into the act, setting the theatrical presentation to music based on sounds from the zoo’s inhabitants.

None of this would have surprised Millbrook’s founder. The school predates the zoo by only a few years, and according to school archives, the two have grown intertwined over the years. Millbrook, named for the nearby town, was established in 1931 by Edward Pulling, a teacher at Massachusetts’ Groton School who decided that the school “shall be located in the country, in a thoroughly healthy position with Nature at its back door.”

Six years later, a stranger named Frank Trevor pulled up unannounced with a truck full of animals. Confronted with this “garrulous young man who poured forth the story of his life and revealed his amazing knowledge of birds, beasts and fishes,” Pulling wrote, “I found myself overpowered by his contagious enthusiasm.” Trevor became Millbrook’s first biology teacher, and the six-acre zoo’s namesake.

Those original animals, including Empress the golden eagle, Horatio the otter, and Lolita the leopard, have since been joined and supplanted by other, even more exotic species, including the current endangered residents: red pandas, a black-and-white ruffed lemur, a red wolf, a golden lion tamarin, and others.

Given how many of Millbrook’s classes incorporate the zoo animals, it’s no surprise that several prominent environmental scientists and advocates are alumni of the school.

Thomas E. Lovejoy, who graduated in 1959, went on to coin the term “biological diversity.” He also founded the public television series Nature, and has served as the executive vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. Oakleigh Thorne II, an ecologist and 1947 Millbrook alum, is an educator and founder of the Thorne Ecological Institute in Colorado. Environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is also a graduate.

Trevor Zoo director Jonathan Meigs, above right, examines a fox. “They’re doing things the right way,” says Garrison Smith, a teacher at Con-necticut’s Kent School who regularly takes his students to visit the zoo.

“It’s a really cool place to be,” says A.J. Links, a senior in Jane Meigs’ environmental science class. “The zoo plays an integral part in my everyday life,” seconds Chris Bennett, a junior from Far Hills, New Jersey, who performed zoo research as part of his general biology course.

The Trevor Zoo’s curricular impact also extends beyond the Millbrook grounds.

“We look at the zoo as an important local resource,” says Michelle Smith, a kindergarten teacher at nearby public Amenia Elementary, who makes the zoo a field trip destination. “We try to talk about animals in class before we go—how important it is to save the animals.”

Garrison Smith, who teaches science to juniors and seniors at the Kent School, an independent school in Kent, Connecticut, reports that he and his students make regular pilgrimages to Trevor.

“They’re doing things the right way,” he says of the Trevor staff, adding that they’ve helped him link the zoo’s animals to units on animal behavior and ecology.

“We’re trying to supplement what they’re doing,” says Trevor director Jonathan Meigs, a 1965 Millbrook graduate and Jane Meigs’ husband. “We try to get people—children—to think.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Nature Studies


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