The Zoo's 'Lorax' saves orangutans

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Shameiz Johnson, 6; Brandon Copeland, 7; and Marques Sanford, 7, poke their faces out from the cutouts at a "Trail of the Lorax" station at the Philadelphia Zoo. The exhibit, which opens March 31, educates visitors on conservation and saving wildlife, especially the endangered orangutan. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

 

By Matt Huston

INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

For all its bright colors and Dr. Seussian quirks, The Lorax was never just a children's story. The Philadelphia Zoo's new exhibit, "Trail of the Lorax," shows just how much the cautionary tale still resonates today, decades after its 1971 publication.

Like Theodor Seuss Geisel's work, the zoo presents a place that is exciting and accessible to children. But wrapped into the interactive stops on this trail - which the yellow-bearded Lorax has "left behind" for children - is an urgent message about endangered orangutans and the damage caused to their habitat by deforestation.

The trail, which opens on Saturday and runs through Oct. 31, is part of the zoo's larger effort to help preserve Sumatran orangutans - fewer than 7,000 are left in the wild.

"The story that we wanted to tell is a story that Dr. Seuss told years ago," said Amy Shearer, the zoo's chief marketing officer.

In that story, the Lorax - who is voiced by Danny DeVito in the feature film released this month - tries to defend a forest of "truffula" trees from an industrialist bent on processing them into "thneeds." The land becomes polluted and its creatures disappear.

For the zoo, the book was an easy analogy for orangutans, whose existence has been threatened by rain forests cleared for palm-oil production.

"With orangutans, palm oil is like our 21st-century 'thneed'," said Kristen Lewis-Waldron, the zoo's director of education.

But not all palm oil is made using such damaging practices. In teaching young people about these famous apes, "The Trail of the Lorax" encourages the use of sustainable palm-oil products.

The message that the Lorax helps spread, Lewis-Waldron said, is that "what we do here, in everyday life, does impact animals on the other side of the world."

The educational trail includes eight stops throughout the zoo, as well as the "Lorax Loft," a tree-fortlike hub that evokes the real orangutan dwellings. It's one of several points that make use of 3-D glasses: Images of primates and orangutan-friendly goods pop off the signs.

The stops address children in true Dr. Seuss fashion: "Sustainable palm oil/Saves forests and trees/So next time you shop/look for products like these."

Elsewhere on the trail, a zoo staffer in a Lorax-orange sweater with overlong sleeves tells visitors about the orangutans' seven-foot arm-span and tree-swinging lifestyle. At another station, children learn about the apes' superior flexibility, and visitors are invited to stretch their arms like an orangutan.

There's a short film, which features the stars of the recent Lorax movie. "It's not too late to take action," actor Zac Efron tells the viewers.

Children can drop off "Leaves of Gratitude" - letters of thanks to companies that have committed to using sustainable palm oil.

And the trail doesn't stop at the zoo. At unless.philadelphiazoo.org, visitors can take an "orangutan oath" and share the ways in which they are spreading the word.

Importantly, the zoo's three orangutans make an appearance, too. Inside the Peco Primate Reserve, the ape family spends plenty of time swinging rope-to-rope as fascinated children look on. With the help of the Lorax, the orangutans may be inspiring their audience in a whole new way.

Contact Matt Huston at 215-854-5289 or mhuston@philly.com.