by Jodi Benjamin
A bald eagle spent the night in the attic; a black-necked swan made itself at home in the kitchen; and a baby skunk named Brie is temporarily living in the parlor. No, it’s not another sequel of Dr. Doolittle. It’s just another day in the life of Laurie Smith Wood, director of education at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown.
In some ways, Wood’s unconventional career path seems like a natural outgrowth of her upbringing. As a child in Collingswood, NJ, Wood watched as her mother nurtured songbirds for release into the wild, and her father trained squirrels in the neighborhood to perform tricks.
Unsurprisingly, Wood developed a love for animals, but she never intended to incorporate caring for them into a career. (When asked her age she said she was “old enough to have this much experience.”) After studying art history in college and teaching art appreciation at a community college, the area resident envisioned a career for herself in a museum. In pursuit of that goal, she entered a master’s program in museum education at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
When it came time for a summer internship, however, Wood realized that the skills she was acquiring in visitor development and informal learning were applicable to a variety of public educational settings. So, she opted to spend her summer outdoors in an internship at the Philadelphia Zoo.
The internship turned into a full-time position when the zoo hired Wood to work on a grant-funded project aimed at creating new approaches for engaging visitors. During the ensuing four years at the Philadelphia Zoo, Wood not only learned an enormous amount, but she also met her husband, Dave — the zoo’s curator of mammals — and began charting her new career path.
After her stint in Philadelphia, Wood headed south and became director of education – and eventually marketing as well – at the Palm Beach Zoo. It was in Florida where Wood and her husband began temporarily housing animals that required extra care in their home. For example, there was Ripley, the baby bearcat that needed nighttime attention, and Thoth, the sacred ibis, whose fish gruel left a stench that permeated the house. There were snakes and mole rats — in cages of course — that also took up temporary residence there.
The couple’s animal adventures continued years later when Wood’s husband became curator of the Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke, Virginia. During that time, Wood helped her husband transport Korean rat snakes to the zoo by keeping them warm under her coat. On another occasion, she actually performed CPR on a snow leopard cub. The couple also nurtured two baby red wolves, Jimmy and Irene, from birth to eight weeks old.
Eventually, Wood and her husband returned to the Philadelphia area, where she became director of education at the Elmwood Park Zoo in November, 2007, and he became the zoo’s general curator. Passionate about teaching in informal learning environments, Wood directs every facet of Elmwood’s educational programming onsite at the zoo and offsite through the “Zoo-on-Wheels.” The zoo offers educational programs for a variety of audiences, such as school groups, Scout troops, senior citizens and the general public.
“We don’t let people get away without us teaching them something,” Wood jokes.
Particularly fascinating to Wood is the powerful effect that her animal education programs have had on children and adults with special needs. Through a grant from the Child Development Foundation, Wood and her staff are able to bring programs to special needs children in the Norristown School District every other week.
“We have seen a huge impact on memory, cognitive ability and critical thinking,” she said. “And by the end of the year, kids with tactile aversion are touching the animals.”
Wood recounts that during a school visit in New Jersey, she noticed teachers becoming emotional when a boy on the autism spectrum screamed the word “snake” in response to this visiting reptile. She later learned why. “Snake” was the first word that the boy had ever spoken at school.
Wood and her staff also take the Zoo-on-Wheels to assisted living facilities, where they witness how elderly residents with dementia are positively affected by touching animals. The Flemish Giant, a large breed of rabbit, is a particularly popular visitor because its thick, velvety fur makes it especially pleasing to touch.
Although Wood is an educator at heart, her job at the Elmwood Park Zoo has also transformed her into somewhat of a local celebrity. She is on the sidelines at all Temple University home football games with Stella, the zoo’s great horned owl, which has become Temple’s first live mascot. She has also made television appearances with animals on shows like “Animal Planet,” “Maury” (formerly known as “The Maury Povich Show”) and “Good Day Philadelphia.”
On one occasion, Wood recalls, she brought reindeer to the set of “Good Day Philadelphia.” “Walking down Market Street with reindeer; now that stops traffic,” she said.
After raising baby red wolves, strolling down the street with reindeer and caring for a skunk in her parlor, Wood certainly seems to have ventured far from her days as an art history student and art appreciation teacher. But, as she explained, “I always loved the teaching end, and having the animals as part of my life has made it so much richer.”