With 735 acres, Forest Park in Springfield is one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. And in addition to hosting sport fields, winding trails, and Bright Nights, Forest Park is also home to its very own zoo!

Since 1894, the Zoo at Forest Park has housed a variety of exotic and native animals, including bobcats, snowy owls, and even Max the Camel.

Connecting Point’s Brian Sullivan spent the day with the Zoo’s educators as they hosted a zoo camp for youngsters and shares this next story.

Read the full transcript:

Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: On a cold, blustery winter’s day, it’s easy to pass by the Zoo at Forest Park without giving it a second look — or a first look, for that matter. Aside from the howls coming from a couple of timberwolves inside, the zoo keeps a relatively low profile during the off-season winter months. In fact, it took me five or six bike rides through the park, before I realized that the zoo was even here.

Anyone who’s been to Forest Park countless times and not realized that there’s a zoo here should know that they’re not alone. But, while it may not have been in this exact location the whole time, there has always been a zoo here since 1894.

For what it’s worth, the zoo only takes up a little more than four acres inside a park that’s nearly 800 acres, making it somewhat easy to overlook. But what they have done with this little plot of land has been impressive.

Caroline Cay Adams, The Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center: We sit on a very small sect of property, but we use it very well. We have over 225 native, exotic, and former pets that live here at the zoo, and they come from, mainly at this point, wildlife rehabilitators across the country. So, we work with wildlife rehabbers that find an animal in the wild that’s injured either temporarily or permanently, and something happens to them that makes it so that they can’t go back to the wild and live as a wild species. So, then they need a permanent home and they come here to the zoo.

Brian Sullivan: Whatever peace and quiet existed in those early morning hours quickly evaporated with the arrival of the zoo campers. We just happened to stop in during school break, which is one of the three weeks during the school year that the zoo hosts a day camp for local youth. From what we saw, it’s a program that seems to be beneficial on several levels: for the kids, the animals, the zoo, and the parents whose kids are putting in some hard work — and learning in the process.

Sophia Delegato, The Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center: It is not only beneficial for the animals, who get to hang out with new faces, but it’s beneficial for the kids as well. They get to have new experiences that they may not be able to outside of zoo camp. I did not grow up on a farm with goats, and donkeys, and pigs, and sheeps, and llamas, and alpacas. While some kids may get those opportunities, not all kids do. So, they get to interact with birds, they get to interact with farm animals, they get to interact with reptiles. My favorite is when you see kids come out of their shell who did not like certain animals, and they get to learn kind of how cool all animals can be here.

Brian Sullivan: What often occurs is that several of these children will end up becoming return campers, which may possibly lead to them becoming volunteers or going into their educator training programs. And since education is one of the key tenets of this organization, that circle of life is exactly what they’re hoping for.

Sarah Tsitso, The Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center: When we run a zoo camp, we’re doing so with the baseline of this isn’t just about give the kids some crafts and put a movie on while their parents are at work. This is about teaching all youth about the importance of nature and their place in the ecosystem. Humans often, you know, forget that we have taken up the space of wildlife and that wildlife are then driven into more populated areas. That’s why you see them out on the roads. That’s why they’re being injured. That’s why they’re being pushed out of their homes and are orphaned. We are at the root of a lot of that. And so for us, it’s very important for us to teach these kids that they have a job to do in the world as they grow. And it’s to recognize their place in the world, and the importance of biodiversity, and how we all have to do our part to make sure we’re protecting native wildlife.

Brian Sullivan: Of course, it takes a special kind of instructor to not only corral all of the youngsters, but to keep them interested and wanting to learn. For instructor Sophia Delegato, doing so has been a bit of a childhood dream come true.

Sophia Delegato: If I had a zoo camp in my hometown, I would have came to every single week. I’ve always loved animals, and now I get to be the one inspiring kids to also love animals. So, it’s really nice to get to be here and get to do this with the kids.