The Teachable Moment (Humans Are Apes, Too!)

On a recent zoo visit, my children and I spent a long time observing and admiring the gibbons. As I coaxed them away (my children, not the gibbons), my daughter said, “I love watching the monkeys.”

“I think gibbons are a kind of ape,” I said, looking around hopefully for some signage to clear up the question. At first I didn’t see anything, but as we rounded the corner of the enclosure, look what I found:

Zoo exhibit label: "Monkey or Ape?"

Way to catch that teachable moment, zoo!

We looked at the sign together. All in all, I give this one a thumbs up, especially for its integration of images and text. I might make a few minor changes, such as

  • including a parenthetical definition of brachiation (If a spellchecker doesn’t recognize a word in the label, that’s a good hint many visitors will not either.)
  • substituting the word “movement” for “locomotion” (“Locomotion” is more scientific and more scientific-sounding, but they are close enough in meaning that the more common word is a better choice.)
  • finding some other way to explain the phrase “complex family vocalizations” (I’m not offering up another suggestion here, because I don’t know what the phrase means.)

A flip label over the answer, “Gibbons are Small Apes,” might have attracted a few more people over to the sign, and also invited people to try to figure out the answer on their own from the clues on the sign.

Despite these minor suggestions for improvement, I liked this sign, especially because it answered a question I had. It gave us the right information at the right time.

As we walked away, my son pointed out that because apes had no tails, you could see their butts. Since I thought the zoo had missed an opportunity to explain that humans are also apes, I grabbed the teachable moment and replied, “So, you can tell humans are apes. We have no tails, and you can see our butts.”

“Eww, Mom,” he replied.

Huh. I was sure anything with the word “butt” in it would appeal to him. Which just goes to show, no matter how well you think you know your audience, you can still get it wrong.

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