Swap Shop: The Houston Zoo's best kept secret

The Houston Zoo is full of cool things to see and, in some cases, touch, but you might not know about the zoo's best-kept secret: the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.

The Houston Zoo Swap Shop facilitates curiosity among visitors to the zoo. KHOU

The Houston Zoo is full of cool things to see and, in some cases, touch, but you might not know about the zoo's best-kept secret: the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.

Swap what?

Tucked under the blue tarp between the giraffe exhibit and the petting zoo, the shop is one of the most unique parts of the zoo. Lined with shelves of bones, stones and even cones, The Swap Shop is all about getting kids engaged with nature.

“We want you to get out in nature and find cool things like rocks or maybe seashells, even acorns,” Sara Riger, one of the full-time employees, told a group of children gathered around her.

Riger is holding Charles, a San Esteban chuckwalla, next to the shop’s aquarium.

As she answers questions about the 30-year-old reptile – “Charles is an old man,” she says – Riger also explains why the group should make a return trip to the shop.

“If you go out and find some things out, say at the beach or the woods, and you find treasures. You can bring them in here and trade them for things we have in here,” she said.

Trading up

Across the room, one of those trades is underway. The shop’s other full-time employee, Suzanne Jurek, is chatting with two young siblings who brought in a bag of goodies.

“What did you bring today?” Jurek asks little Annabelle.

“A flower,” the little girl answers proudly, before pulling out a stick, a shell and a rock.

“A lot of times, people think it’s just a plain rock. It is never just a rock. There’s always something interesting about it,” says Jurek.

This particular rock, she says, is quartz and she coaches the kids to repeat the word after her.

“Quartz!” Annabelle’s little brother says.

Jurek started at the zoo back in 2003, joining the Swap Shop in 2011 and loving every minute of it.

“It’s always so inspiring to get to see when a little light bulb goes on over a kid’s head. You know that you’ve lit a spark,” she says. “If you can light a spark in them, get them interested in nature and wanting to take care of it, you’ve saved the world.”

The rules of the Swap Shop are fairly simple: children can bring up to three items they find in nature with a few exceptions.

Items you can trade

  • Clean shells
  • Clean bones (except bird bones)
  • Antlers, teeth and claws
  • Snake sheds (found in nature)
  • Rocks and minerals
  • Fossils
  • Pinecones, nuts, seeds and seed pods
  • Plant materials
  • Deceased insects, spiders and butterflies
  • Nature journals (photos, art, stories)
  • Dry sand
  • Casts of animal footprints


Items you cannot trade

  • Items from Zoo Grounds
  • Items from State & National Parks
  • Arrowheads or Native American Artifacts
  • Bird Parts (feathers, eggs, nests, etc.)
  • Intentionally Killed Vertebrates
  • Mounted Vertebrates
  • Dried Seahorses or Coral
  • Live Plants or Animals

“Robot legs”

Jurek and Riger know getting kids excited about nature means they themselves have to be excited about nature.

“Our job is to make sure that they go home thinking that that little clam shell they brought in is the coolest thing they’ve ever seen,” Riger says.

That means answering questions about the zoo creatures that visit the Swap Shop and, on occasion, those about Riger’s legs.

“They’re different, aren’t they? They look different than yours do,” she says to one boy who asked about her “robot legs.”

Riger is nearing the year anniversary of her return to the zoo after an illness landed her in the hospital. A diagnosis of sepsis resulted in the doctors amputating both her legs below the knee.

“I didn’t have any legs, so they made me these way cool legs,” she tells the boy, playfully kicking her prosthetics, which are decorated with classic Winnie the Pooh.

The 13-year zoo employee says that while she was in the hospital, all she wanted to do was return to work.

“I had one little boy who came up to me and said, ‘I wish you were a starfish, so your legs would grow back,’” Riger remembers. “It’s things like that that just make me remember why I’m here.”

Next time you visit

Since it opened in nine years ago, more than 9,000 traders have registered at the shop, bringing in tens of thousands of items to swap.

“I feel like we’re saving the world one kid at a time. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true,” says Jurek.

You can visit the Swap Shop from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

 

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