Tonight has finally arrived, after three months of waiting for my Zoo Ambassador Training course to begin. Twenty-five other Oakland Zoo volunteers and I will be taking classes twice a week to learn everything needed to be docents in the Children’s Zoo. This ZAM course lasts six weeks. In January there is a ZAM course for the Savannah area followed by one for the Rainforest. I intend to take all three.
I thought you’d like to step through the training along with me to see if it is something you might want to do some day. I hope you learn a little of what we’re being taught in the process.
The Real Purpose of Zoos
This first week is introductory and volunteers who have taken the other courses don’t have to come until next week. We Newbies, though, need to learn a little bit about zoos in general and how animals are classified by scientists so we’ll have a framework to put all the new information in.
Did you know that zoos started out as private menageries — collections of animals by wealthy people with huge estates. Then these owners began opening up their land to visitors for a fee and that started it all.
Entertainment or Recreation? But early zoos…and some even today…had a very different philosophy about what they were there for. Entertainment was their chief goal, so they made bears wear tutus and elephants prance around on their back legs—basically making them be more like human performers than the natural animals they were.
In more recent decades, modern zoos came to realize that animals should be allowed to be animals and people should come to zoos for recreation—active involvement—rather than passive entertainment. Now, the “good” zoos, about 200 in the U.S., all have to meet strict accreditation standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, plus pass inspections by the USDA.
Recreation is actually a side benefit of zoos: The most important missions are conservation, education and research.
So today our zookeepers do train animals, but only for the animals’ benefit: Lions and zebras are taught to press their sides to the fence so they can be given vaccinations. Elephants know that every morning they will lift one foot at a time for their daily pedicures. Otters willingly walk into chutes so that they can be examined and treated without being scooped up and traumatized. It’s all good.
And here’s an important point: All the animals in our zoo were rescued, or born here, or obtained from another AZA-accredited zoo/responsible captive-breeding program.
Back to Biology
For most of us it has been awhile since we studied animal classification, so it was back to school for the last hour tonight.
We learned that all the animals in the zoo fall into the Kingdom Animalia because…they are animals (as opposed to plants). Within this are a bunch of classes of animals which include Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds and Mammals. Each class has defining characteristics shared by all members of that class.
For example, to be a Reptile, you need to have scales, lungs, a 3-chambered heart and lay eggs. (Take notes, there’s a quiz coming up).
Amphibians have porous skin that instantly absorbs water, air (and air pollution), chemicals, and other substances. This is a good reason not to pick up frogs. And it is a reason that frogs are the harbinger of doom for a troubled ecosystem because they will feel the pain long before we will. Unlike Reptiles, Amphibians can go through metamorphosis throughout their life cycle—so a tadpole can become a frog, but a baby snake just grows up to be an adult snake.
Arthopods such as ants, spiders, lobsters and millipedes have jointed legs, but unlike Amphibians and Reptiles, they
don’t have veins with blood in them…their insides are full of—and this was the word the teacher used—goo. Because of the jointed-leg requirement, snails, worms and starfish don’t get to be Arthropods.
That leaves Birds and Mammals, two classes of animals we all can easily identify. But what are the key ways they differ from each other? Well, birds have beaks, wings and feathers and they lay eggs. Mammals have fur or hair, mammary glands, and live births.
A little challenge for you
Our homework is to take a list of about 50 animals and classify them according to these groups—a Google exercise in the making. Want to test yourself?
1) Which of the following is a Reptile?
c) Gila Monster
d) All of the above
2) Which of the following is NOT an Arthropod?
a) Black Widow spider
b) Leaf Cutter ant
d) Horseshoe Crab
e) None of the above
3) What is a requirement of the class called Fish?
a) Lays eggs
b) Has gills
c) Is ectothermic
d) Spends its entire life cycle in the water
e) All of the above
4) Given the requirement that all mammals must have fur or hair and feed milk to their young, is a whale truly a mammal?
If you answered d, c, e, and “yes,” move to the head of the class! By the way, whales and dolphins are born with moustaches that help them locate their mothers and this lets them line up with the mammals.
Saturday. 4 1/2 hours of hands-on training out in the zoo. Can’t wait. I’ll talk to you afterward.