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Poetry Project Inspires Connection to Nature at Brookfield Zoo’s Great Bear Wilderness
Zoo Partners with Poets House to Deepen Conservation Awareness

The Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, is partnering with Poets House, the national literary center and poetry library headquartered in New York, to help zoo guests deepen their awareness about conservation through poetry. The project, called The Language of Conservation, will be highlighted during a celebration at the zoo’s new Great Bear Wilderness exhibit on Saturday, May 22.

At the zoo’s 7.5-acre Great Bear Wilderness exhibit, 38 featured poems are artistically installed in a variety of media, such as carved in wood, sandblasted in rockwork, stenciled on acrylic, painted on sidewalks, and digitally printed on translucent Plexiglas. A line of poetry, a stanza, or an entire verse blend into the exhibit’s naturalistic landscape and offer readers a deeper insight into animals, Brookfield Zoo, and conservation.

The opening ceremony, which begins at 10:00 a.m. in the underwater viewing gallery at Great Bear Wilderness, will feature comments by CZS staff, as well as poetry readings by Sandra Alcosser, Brookfield Zoo’s poet-in-residence, and Joseph Bruchac, a poet and children’s book author.

Following the opening ceremony, guests can embark on a tour of the poetry installation led by Casey Schulke, the project’s coordinator, at 11:00 a.m. During the ½-hour walking tour, zoogoers will learn the inspiration behind the individual poem selections and how each poem complements the exhibit and the Society’s mission of connecting people with wildlife and nature.

Afterwards, there will be a joint poetry reading by Alcosser and Bruchac at Riverside Public Library at 1:00 p.m. Back at the zoo at 3:00 p.m., Bruchac will read poetry, engage audience members in a discussion about poetry, and perform traditional and contemporary Abenaki flute music. The evening prior, on Friday, May 21, Alcosser will lead a special poetry reading and discussion for Brookfield Public Library patrons at 6:30 p.m. A question and answer session will follow, as will a reception.

The Language of Conservation, an initiative between Poets House and a consortium of five zoos and libraries in Chicago, New Orleans, Little Rock, Jacksonville, and Milwaukee, is a two-year project being funded by a $1 million National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“Here at Brookfield Zoo, we believe shaping strong conservation leaders requires a multifaceted and inspirational approach,” said Dan Wharton, Ph.D., senior vice president of conservation science for the Chicago Zoological Society and co-creator of The Language of Conservation. “Through our partners at Poets House and poet-in-residence Sandra Alcosser, we are helping our guests reflect on the environment and wildlife conservation on a deeper, more emotional level. In fact, we think The Language of Conservation is a shared dialogue that communicates the essence of wildlife and nature to scientists, conservationists, poets, and everyone in between.”

Alcosser, a professor at San Diego State University and Montana’s first poet laureate, collaborated with Society staff, including exhibit designers, and with wildlife biologists to select the 38-piece conservation canon. This body of poetry enhances the storyline of Great Bear Wilderness and embodies the Society’s mission of inspiring conservation leaders by connecting people with wildlife and nature.

This partnership between poetry and science began as a successful program developed by Poets House and the Wildlife Conservation Society, incorporating poetry into wildlife exhibits at Central Park Zoo in New York City. Through that project, Wildlife Conservation Society researchers discovered that the use of poetry installations made zoo visitors dramatically more aware of the impact humans have on ecosystems.

“Poetry calls into question what it means to be human. It expands the imagination of a culture and suggests ways to become more humane and deeply engaged with the world,” said Alcosser, who curated the six-acre, installation at Central Park Zoo in collaboration with Wharton.

Zoos and aquariums represent some of the most popular cultural institutions in cities across the United States, attracting more than 150 million visitors each year. During recent decades, they have become one of the most important forces in environmental education, conservation of biodiversity, animal welfare, and global sustainability.

The Language of Conservation leadership team includes Lee Briccetti, Poets House executive director, and the original Central Park Zoo partners: John Fraser, conservation psychologist and New York director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, and Wharton.

About Brookfield Zoo’s Poet-in-Residence Sandra Alcosser
Sandra Alcosser has published seven books of poetry, including A Fish to Feed All Hunger and Except by Nature, which have been selected for the National Poetry Series, the Academy of American Poets James Laughlin Award, the Larry Levis Award, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Poetry, and the William Stafford Award from Pacific Northwest Booksellers. She is the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) first Conservation Poet for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Poets House, New York, as well as Montana’s first poet laureate and recipient of the Merriam Award for Distinguished Contribution to Montana Literature. She founded and directs the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at San Diego State University each fall and has been a writer-in-residence in Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Central Park in New York. She received two individual artist fellowships from NEA, and her poems have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.