If you look to the right side of the path leading to Big Cat Falls, where snow leopards and jaguars make their home, you'll see the work.

The dark brown mulch around the plants and the metal sculpture of a white-backed vulture may not seem like a big deal to most people. But to the students responsible for the effort, it was a victory.

The teenagers are special-education students from Moorestown High School, and their work is part of the five-week Workplace Wonderment program at the Philadelphia Zoo, where they are learning job skills.

"What's so cool about the zoo is that it's a microcosm of our world. They get a wide variety of exposure," said Margie Bard, coordinator of the program for Moorestown High, where she is a special-education paraprofessional.

The 10 students are learning about guest relations, gardening, the children's zoo, education, and the zoo store by job-shadowing employees, said Kristen Lewis-Waldron, director of public programs for the zoo.

"It was designed specifically for the students to give them a taste of how the zoo operates with real-life experiences," she said.

Bard said Lewis-Waldron had been instrumental in helping with the specifics when Bard applied for a $1,000 grant from the Moorestown Education Foundation.

Aaron Monihan of Moorestown and Chris Hondros of Delran are special-education students who spent May 8 learning garden services at the zoo. The first thing they were shown was how to handle tools properly before they spread mulch at the new $20 million building for big cats.

"I think the female lion found it very curious as to what we were doing here," said Monihan, 17. "I seem to favor working with animals over most humans."

Monihan was the catalyst for the program when he mentioned he'd like to work with animals, Bard said.

The zoo environment has helped the students with confidence and social skills in addition to labor skills, Bard said. Working with a guidance counselor, a special-education teacher, and a few other paraprofessionals, each group of students has one adult with them at all times. The students' disabilities include autism, and some are slow learners, she said.

"For these kids to have this experience is wonderful, and we have high expectations for them. This is a challenging environment with all that stimuli coming at you. They are definitely out of their comfort zone," Bard said as a royal-blue peacock with iridescent green in its tail feathers strutted past.

At Washington Township High School, special-education students are also taken on the road to learn job skills they'll need after graduation, as mandated by the federal government.

The 14 students in the school's preemployment mentoring program head off each week to township locations such as New Seasons, an assisted-living facility; Kennedy Memorial Hospital-University Medical Center; and Wal-Mart.

They learn a variety of job skills, such as food service, laundering and shelf-stocking. Sheryl Barnett, supervisor for special education at Washington Township High, agreed with Bard about the importance of taking students out of the classroom and teaching them hands-on skills.

"Their needs are much greater than average students," Barnett said. "They're good workers, and the potential is there."

At Lindenwold High School, special-ed students not only learn job skills on-site but are also taught how to use public transportation to get there.

"We do 90 outings a year," said Susan Beal, director of special services for the district. "They learn basic academics integrated with job, life and fitness skills."

Animals, she said, are effective in helping them learn. One of the group's favorite places to work is the Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees.

"I think the integrity of the animals is so important, and it helps to break down barriers," Beal said. "They gain the trust of the animals, and that gives them confidence."