Life's a zoo
Melanie Black on the joys of becoming a zoo docent.
Do’cent — a volunteer educator
Five years ago, my husband gave me a flier that he’d found in our utility bill — “Become a Zoo Docent,” it read. Be one? I didn’t even know what one was. Still, it sounded interesting. I grabbed the dictionary and the rest is history.
The first requirement was to attend the mandatory 60 hours of training at the Tulsa Zoo. We had two classes a week for 10 weeks, which included classroom sessions with zoo personnel. We went behind the scenes around the zoo — feeding sharks, meeting Aldabra tortoises up close and touring the giraffe barn, to name a few. We met several education animals that are the zoo’s emissaries at school programs. We touched exotic furs, saw the inside of a turtle’s shell, learned how to teach programs and witnessed the complexity of caring for the zoo’s animals. Ten weeks of classes sounds like a drag; it was anything but.
We selected the day we wanted to volunteer and showed up for duty. It’s true that we have to clean and feed many small creatures each day, but that’s the price of having education animals. While doing these chores, you can also snuggle with chinchillas, feed geckos, carry an owl on your finger or hold a snake. If you are not into one of these things, there is always someone else who is. The thought of handling hissing cockroaches or picking up crickets nauseates me, but I have a buddy on my day who thinks they are great. I hold the snakes for her and she catches crickets for me. In my book, that’s a fair trade.
Docent duties also include going out to present programs. I teach first-graders about reptiles and see their joy when I pull a snake from a cooler (I also see the terror in fourth-grade girls at the same moment). There are senior citizens who fall asleep during my presentation, only to be rudely awakened by the raucous screech of my parrot. Displays fall over in the middle of classes, and lizards I’m displaying poop all over my hand. Things happen to all docents sometime — they’re just part of the job.
The rewards come in many forms. It is fun to handle different animals and to learn some new facts about them. There’s the surprise on children’s faces when they hear that alligators are good parents and that elephants have four teeth. It’s neat to see an older woman stroke a feather and hear stories of the hummingbirds that live outside the senior center. I’ve calmed a lost child and held birds of prey on my gloved hand. I’ve helped walk baby flamingos and watched tigers adapt to a new exhibit. But one thing I’ve never done is regret becoming a docent. If you love animals and going out to the zoo, there is no better volunteer opportunity around.
Editor’s note: For more information about the Tulsa Zoo docent program, contact Jennifer Haase, 669-6220. Training classes begin in mid-January.