Kindergartners take a walk on the wild side

On a “scale” of one to 10, lizards and snakes are a 10, according to Chaparral Elementary School kindergartner William Roby Unkovich.

One of 85 Chaparral students who took part in a kindergarten-wide trip to the Los Angeles Zoo on Monday, April 29, William was delighted to stop by the Living Amphibians, Invertebrates and Reptiles habitat, better known as the LAIR.

Noah Smelser and James Butz, 2 other aficionados of cold-blooded critters, also savored the sight of animals basking and paddling in the LAIR, which opened its doors just last year.

“There’s 5 of those!” Noah said, counting up the Iranian Harlequin Newts arranged on rocks in one water-filled tank.

“He’s camouflage,” James noted of a Southwest Speckled Rattlesnake, which was nearly indistinguishable from the gravel on which he was coiled.

It was a day of firsts for the local students. William said he had never been to the zoo, while his classmate Bruno Portillo said he’d never ridden a school bus before

“It was bumpy,” he said of the ride from Claremont to Griffith Park, which is also home to the Los Angeles Observatory, the train-themed Travel Town Museum and the Autry National Center of the American West.

If the kids thought their bus ride was bumpy, it’s nothing compared to the adventure Noah’s grandfather Lou Rojo had when he embarked for the zoo and various other destinations as a kid.

 “They didn’t make you wear seatbelts in those days, and every bump it felt like you bounced about a foot above the window,” he said. 

Mr. Rojo, who joined his daughter Audrey Smelser in chaperoning Noah, was just one of many chaperones escorting the classes of Annette Reed, Cyndi Simpson, Julie Upshaw and Kristen VanKouwenbert. Teams of one to 3 adults split off with groups of 3 or 4 kids, a sage move considering that traveling through a zoo with 5- and 6-year-olds can be a bit like herding cats.

“There are 20 kids in my grandkid’s class and 16 parents present,” Mr. Rojo said. “How’s that for parental involvement?”

It was a busy day at the zoo, making it easy for a child to get lost amid crowds of schoolchildren from across the county. The LA Zoo is a perennially popular field trip because it caters to kids’ love of animals and it’s cheap. The delegation’s admission, $3 per student and $5 for the chaperones, was paid for by the Chaparral Parent Faculty Association, which also sprang for the bus rental.

Two phenomena made the trip’s timing ideal—the perfect 80-degree weather and the very recent arrival of a 2-week-old giraffe. Jesse Fisher cited the giraffes as her favorite zoo attraction, which was unsurprising considering that she was dressed for the occasion in giraffe-print shorts and a shirt emblazoned with whimsical giraffes, as well as coordinating spotted bow.

“Awww!” she said at the sight of the 6-foot-tall baby.

The children’s visit, which spanned 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., went by in a happy blur of animal impressions. Noah and James were able to brush some friendly goats in the petting zoo; spot the designated sentry perched high on a rock and looking out for predators in the meerkat exhibit; and scramble through a cave made atmospheric by dangling stalactites colored lights.

“Who goes there?” James called out to the figures of cave explorers, and then suggested to Noah that they pretend they were looking for dinosaur bones.

“Ahhhhh! I’m getting superwet,” Noah said as he and his friend paused near the spray of a waterfall.

It is this kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes Ms. VanKouwenberg enjoy teaching kindergartners.

“Everything’s fresh to them,” she said.

Ms. VanKouwenberg was delighted to see her students take a day off from a school year itinerary that, while it won’t include the rigorous state testing that characterizes today’s elementary school experience until 2nd grade, is jam-packed with learning.

“It’s not just Play-Doh and eating paste anymore,” Ms. Van Kouwenberg said. “We’ve got a list of standards of what the kids need to learn in writing, math, reading, writing, science and social studies.”

Luckily, children that age have a genuine desire to be at school, she said.

“They love school and they love their teacher. They want to please you,” she said.

The Los Angeles Zoo (5333 Zoo Drive in Los Angeles) is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Sunday, and is only closed at Christmas. Admission is $17; $14 for seniors; $12 for children ages 12 and younger; and free for kids under 2. Parking is free.

While at the zoo, be sure to stop by the Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carousel next to the Treetops Terrace. It features 64 hand-carved wooden figures. Rides are $3, with proceeds used to fund programs at the zoo.

For information, call (323) 644-4200 or visit

—Sarah Torribio


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