When Great Bear Wilderness at Brookfield Zoo opens officially on May 8, visitors will note much more than bears and bison – they’ll be confronted with poetry. The verses are part of a broader collaboration between the zoo and local libraries to spread the message and engage people in the zoo’s mission of spreading the gospel of conservation and celebration of the natural world.

Through a $1 million grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Brookfield Zoo is one of five zoos in the U.S. picked to be part of a program called Language of Conservation, which uses poetry to heighten awareness of environmental issues.

Other zoos participating in the program are in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Little Rock and Jacksonville.

It was inspired by the 2004 collaboration of Poet’s House and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which developed the first Language of Conservation exhibit in Central Park Zoo.

Poet Sandra Alcosser, who has been tapped as poet-in-residence for Brookfield Zoo for the project, took verses that communicated the message of conservation from famous poems throughout the centuries.

The verses were etched on pavers, glass panels, benches and other items as a way of reinforcing and uplifting the experience of seeing animals in the zoo.

“They found that people not only read the poetry, but they walked away with a deeper appreciation for conservation and nature,” said Casey Schulke, interpretive programs coordinator at Brookfield Zoo.

Alcosser selected about 200 poems and a team of people at Brookfield Zoo scoured them for verses, many of which will become a permanent part of the Great Bear Wilderness exhibit, Schulke said.

“Almost all of ours is permanent,” said Schulke, who added that she envisions the use of poetry to eventually expand outside of the Great Bear Wilderness exhibit into other areas of the zoological park and even outside the zoo gates.

Part of that effort has been to partner with both the Brookfield and Riverside public libraries, which will offer programs that focus on nature and conservation this summer and beyond. In addition, Brookfield Zoo will install an exhibit in each library, connecting them with the zoo’s initiative.

Each library has been given an animal around which to develop poetry-related programming and tie into the conservation theme. In Brookfield’s case, it’s the bison; in Riverside’s the polar bear.

Schulke said that Brookfield Public Library will receive a billboard that can be used to post its own poetry events. Kimberly Litland, director of the Brookfield Public Library, said that the library will also exhibit a “gym shoe garden.” Flowers grown in the garden will eventually be transplanted at the zoo, she said.

The exhibit will be mounted in the Youth Services area of the library, Litland said.

The Brookfield Library has also partnered with the Chamber of Commerce’s farmers’ market to present organic growing/planting education programs this summer at the library as part of its summer reading program.

The exhibit at the Riverside Public Library will be a bit more elaborate, according to Schulke. The library will serve as the canvas for a mini-Language of Conservation installation, with poems scattered throughout the two floors along with an exhibit in the great room focusing on polar bears and climate change. The exhibit will even feature a fiberglass polar bear statue like ones seen at the zoo.

The zoo is also working on collaboration between the library and the Frederick Law Olmsted Society for a kindergarten through eighth-grade poetry contest. The winner of the contest will have his or her poem painted on a rain barrel donated by the Riverside Chamber of Commerce. The rain barrel will then become part of the permanent exhibit at Great Bear Wilderness at Brookfield Zoo.

“We hope to decorate other rain barrels in the future and have them donated to local businesses,” Schulke said.

Poets House has also agreed to donate $500 to the Riverside Public Library to purchase poetry books for their collection. In exchange, Riverside Library has agreed to present conservation-related programming for the next three years, said Janice Fisher, director of the Riverside Public Library.

The library exhibits will begin taking shape in April, said Schulke. Meanwhile, the Language of Conservation exhibit at Great Bear Wilderness is almost complete as the zoo anticipates its May 8 opening.

However, the zoo is planning a special event on Saturday, May 22, featuring readings by Alcosser and poet Joseph Bruchac, who is the poet-in-residence at the Little Rock Zoo. The poets will also do readings at both the Brookfield and Riverside libraries that afternoon.