Assuming your high school was like most, there were a couple of kids in your class who behaved like animals: detention denizens who stole the sub’s Thermos and sprayed graffiti on the side of the library. But imagine how cool it would’ve been to go to school with real animals—the furry, feathery, finny kinds. One group of kids in the Hudson Valley does exactly that.
If you want proof, set aside half a day to go to Millbrook in Dutchess County. It’s worth it for the drive alone. Verdant, gentle hills seem to undulate as you pass, their split-rail fences serving as charming reminders you’re in horse country (well, as do the horses).
Eventually, you’ll reach the Millbrook School, a private high school founded in 1931. Head for the Trevor Zoo, which is located right on its grounds and open to the public, and suddenly you’re not in horse country anymore. Instead, you’re greeted by marmosets, red wolves, and more—80 species in all.
Obviously, it’s rare for a school to have its own zoo—in fact, Millbrook is the only one in U.S. that does. The unique facility started with one man, Frank Trevor, who joined the school’s faculty in 1936 as its first biology teacher. The country was still mired in the Great Depression, and amusements were few and far between. Soon, swallowing goldfish would become a fad among brash young adults.
Trevor, however, had a very different relationship to other creatures. “He was an animal lover, and had all kinds of them,” says Alan Tousignant, director of Trevor Zoo. “He brought many of them with him [to Millbrook]—snakes, hawks, all sorts of animals.”
Initially, Trevor kept his menagerie in his classroom as well as in his apartment at the school (Millbrook is both a boarding and day school). But as Tousignant observes, “animals add up and they can smell.” So the headmaster suggested setting up a zoo across the street from the main campus.
“Trevor had lots of different species [at the zoo] that today we consider too dangerous or too challenging to exhibit and house,” shares Tousignant. They included a lion and a cheetah that had retired from the movie industry. These days, the zoo keeps only animals that are safe and can be well cared for.
In fact, the zoo is so conscientious that it’s accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Along with other members, the Trevor Zoo participates in its Species Survival Plan, a program that monitors and manages captive animal populations to maintain species diversity and prevent extinction.
It’s a guilt-free experience, then, to explore the zoo’s 6 acres. In the Tropical Building, there was some recent drama with the galagos, commonly known as bush babies. One of them had been separated from his mother and father: “The parents tend to get a hostile toward their offspring if they don’t leave home fast enough,” Tousignant explains. (An object lesson, perhaps, for those of us whose adult children still live in the basement.) Reptiles and other creatures requiring warm temperatures also reside in the building. There are some lemurs that stare at visitors with piercing yellow eyes from behind the glass of their enclosure. Periodically they shriek.
About 70 students work at the zoo daily to take care of the animals and help with exhibit design.
On a recent visit, Lily, a Millbrook School senior (who since graduated), was exiting a space adjacent to the lemur lair. She is studying the nimble and energetic animals. “I’m playing different kinds of music to the lemurs. And then I’m measuring the levels of cortisol [a stress hormone] in their stool to see if the music makes them calmer,” she explains.
There’s no doubt the zoo is a unique educational resource for students. About 70 of them work there daily, performing tasks such as maintenance, animal care, and exhibit design. “The zoo is sometimes what attracts students to this school,” says Tousignant (they hail from across the county and the world). Their participation is a substantial help to the facility’s six full-time faculty and consulting veterinarians. The animal docs do their work in the infirmary building, which also boasts exhibits of fish, turtles, and primates. Next door is a well-equipped medical center. Though specialists are called in as necessary, Trevor workers are able to handle many of the animals’ healthcare needs.
Outside the building, a tall, fenced-in area is occupied by a pair of owls. “They can’t fly anymore,” says Tousignant. The zoo does take in some rescue animals, he explains, but only if there is room for them and the staff is confident they can keep them healthy and comfortable.
There are plenty of other outdoor areas to visit as well: The grounds are divied up to feature wildlife from six regions of the planet. Stop by the Australia/New Zealand enclosure, for instance, and you’ll encounter bearded dragons and wallabies. In the Asia wing, the big attractions are red pandas, one of the 10 endangered species at the zoo.
You may not see every creature indicated on the handout map, but that’s actually a good thing, at least for their welfare. “All of our animals have the ability to leave the exhibit if they want,” Tousignant explains. “The emus can go in the barn if they don’t like you looking at them. They can walk away, and that’s very important.”
Fortunately, he adds, “our animals seem naturally curious, and are pretty interested in checking out the visitors. That’s probably because we are a zoo on the smaller side.” Some 40,000 visitors pass through annually, he shares. “It sounds like a big number, but it translates to maybe a hundred people throughout a busy day, sometimes a couple hundred,” he says.
If you’re among them, be sure to swing by the Meigs Education Center. There, you can learn more about everything you’ve seen during your visit, and also put coins in the slots of the “conservation tree” to vote for your favorite endangered animal. (The red pandas usually win.)
After that it’s time to be honest with yourself. Admit it, part of the fun of visiting places like this is perusing the gift shop. Trevor’s is adjacent to the welcome center; if you didn’t succumb upon entry, stop by as you leave for zoo-related merch, souvenirs and snacks.
The babbling brook you pass on the way back to your car leads to a waterfall, where the zoo’s river otters play. Missed them this visit? Plan another, now that you’ve experienced this irresistible animal attraction.
Open daily, reservations required; visit millbrook.org/trevor-zoo-home for hours, fees, and more information.
Related: 10 Hudson Valley Farms, Sanctuaries, and Zoos to Visit Animals