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Stepping through ZAM: Day 6, Children’s Zoo Module

by | December 8th, 2011

Franette Armstrong diaries her progress through Zoo Ambassador Training.

Today Sarah showed us her true stripes as the Zoo’s Education Specialist: We focused on how children learn and how to interpret the world of animals for them.

The real job of kids is to learn and the way they learn is to play. There are all kinds of types of play, though, and Sarah took us through everything from the solitary play of babies to the sophisticated world of cooperative play among seven year olds.

The real job of docents in the Children’s Zoo is to encourage kids to learn about animals through play. We can do this by helping them to explore with all their senses.

Learning is child's play.


Back out to the Zoo

Most of our day was spent in the Zoo learning from the keepers and experienced docents.

First, the goats introduced themselves while Keeper Chelsea introduced us to the contact yard and took us into the kitten room to meet the three fluffballs there.

It’s nice to know that everywhere in the Zoo animals have a chance to take themselves “off exhibit” when they want a break, but it is especially important in the contact yard. This makes them happy campers when they are out among the children and the kids find a lot of joy in their friendliness. I watched one little girl circle the yard while leaning her full weight against a Nubian Goat. The patient goat managed to stand upright and went along cheerfully with this bonding experience.

Chelsea Williams shows ZAMs how contact yards work.



Next, it was down to the animal commissary where Keeper Zach took us on a tour of  Food Central—the place where everything that is fed to our residents gets brought in, prepared and disseminated to the keepers. We saw an elephant popsicle in the works, volunteers sorting crates of donated fruit so only fresh, ripe peaches will make it into the food bowls, and freezers packed with everything from whole chickens to fig newtons.

Fig newtons make great Trojan Horses, Zach said, for the vitamin pills nearly all our animals would rather not take.

It is amazing how many stores, organizations and farms donate fresh food to our animals daily. On top of that we buy over $100,000 of hay a year plus everything else—cereals, special zoo diets, meat, nuts, yogurt and other treats including insects and live fish. Every species has its own special diet and there are pages of recipes our commissary staff prepares daily.

Only people-grade food is good enough for our animals.

Role Modeling Interpretation

When we got back to the classroom we were going to learn about the art and science of interpreting exhibits to children and adults, so as a warm-up we were divided into groups so experienced docents could model how they would engage kids with various animals in the Zoo. There are four parts to the formula and, depending the age of the child, sometimes the parent is the audience as much as the kids.

The first docent in my group was Carol Kerbel at the River Otter exhibit. She used a puppet to engage a little girl with her dad and show us the four steps we will learn to cover for every animal.

Step One: Tell an interesting fact about the animal. “Hi, I’m a River Otter,” she said while making the otter puppet talk. “I live on the land and under the water. My special paws help me swim. Can you hold your hand like this? That’s right. That’s how you swim under water. And I have whiskers so I can feel my food when I’m down there.” She let the little girl pet the puppet’s whiskers.

Step Two: Tell what threatens their survival. This girl was very young so Carol said, “The water is my home so I need it to be very clean so I can live in it.” Looking at the dad, she continued. “My cousins, the sea otters are having lots trouble because their home is the ocean and it is getting dirty.”

Docent Carol Kerbel uses a puppet to get her points across.

Step Three: Tell what we can do to help. “You can help me by keeping our rivers and streams clean.” Clearly, this was a message to the dad. “Wash your car in a car wash and don’t use chemicals in your yard because all the soapy water and pesticides go into the rivers and ocean and make my house dirty.”

Step Four: Tell what the Zoo is doing to help. “We pick up our trash because everything on the ground can blow into our creek and go out to the ocean.” The little girl was entranced and asked to hug the otter puppet.

We saw versions of this four-part message at every station. A young man was taught about the size of our bats (the docent used a rope to demonstrate wingspan). We learned more about our pigs, and ended up enjoying the antics of the lemurs, who were being fed.

Interpretation is an Art

Sarah is credentialed by the National Association for Interpretation as a guide and as a trainer of other guides. She had put together a concise summary of an amazing amount of information about interpretation for the last half-hour of class.

It all boils down to making information relevant to any particular audience. That is the best way to help them learn about and remember what they’ve seen. Here’s a sample of a message that might help adults appreciate bats:








Oh no. We knew this was coming, but I didn’t expect it so soon. In addition to the normal homework that will send us into all the Zoo’s websites to gather conservation messages, we have to write the outline of our final presentations.

Each of us is assigned an animal in the Children’s Zoo to discuss for 2-3 minutes. Mine is the Black Tree Monitor which I now will have to pay a visit. I can’t say that I am really excited about this particular animal (why-oh-why couldn’t I have a mammal?) but maybe after I do my research and spend time with it, I will be. Maybe.

Have a great weekend,

Stepping through ZAM: Day 5, Children’s Zoo Module

by | November 23rd, 2011
All Zookeepers are comedians. Well, that might not be true, but the three we have met so far have been a lot of fun to listen to. I guess you have to have a sense of humor if you are going to follow goats or bats around all day at the Oakland Zoo.
Zoo Org Chart
Tonight we heard about how animal management at our Zoo is organized. The animals are divided into Strings and a primary zookeeper is responsible for each String. The Strings usually, but not always, correspond to where the animals live in the Zoo.
This can result in some strange collections for a zookeeper to care for. For example, tortoises are in the same String as zebras. Hornbills are cared for by the same keeper as the chimps. Lemurs go with the rabbits. Who knew?
Each String has, at the very least, a primary and a relief keeper plus a floating keeper who roams from one String to the next as needed. The elephants make up a string all by themselves and it takes four full-time keepers to manage their daily pedicures and all their other needs.
Margaret Rousser, who supervises the nine keepers related to the Children’s Zoo introduced us tonight to our River Otters and Bats.
Margaret Rousser, Zoological Manager
Our Zoo is part of the AZA Population Management Plan (PMP) for River Otters. The  two otter pups born here last spring, were the result of the AZA deciding that our otters had the right genetic strains to breed.
When Tallulah and Ahanu are at least a year old they likely will move to another AZA-accredited zoo to carry on the PMP program there. This is the way species are preserved in Zoos. There are dozens of these programs in operation throughout our Zoo.
Our River Otter pups
Did you know that animals raised by their own parents become better parents to their own offspring? Our otter pups were taken care of so well by their mom that our staff couldn’t even hold them at 12 weeks: they were just as wild as if they had been born on a riverbed somewhere. They are trainable, so that they can be cared for by our staff, but will never be tame and that’s what we all want. AZA zoos freely give each other animals so that species can be preserved.
Flying Foxes (AKA Fruit Bats)
Our Fruit Bats represent only two of over 1000 species of bats in the the world. The Malayan Flying Foxes,  our largest, have a wingspan of up to 6 feet. The Island Flying Foxes are smaller and sometimes visitors think they are babies. They aren’t, and we won’t be having any because all our bats are male.
An Island Flying Fox
Bats have fruit, heat and teddy bears to make them happy here. The toys were the creative idea of their keepers concerned that the  males were having trouble controlling themselves during mating season and this was causing injuries. When they were given stuffed toys, they all “bonded” with the bears instead of each other. We give our bats a temperature-controlled house for them to go in and out of, a huge aviary, and a balanced diet that they have to be tricked to eat. They love fruit, so we toss it in a sauce made of veggies and powdered vitamins. Fruit Bats are ideal for zoos because they are active in the daytime. Insect Bats would be pretty boring to watch because they go hunting at night and sleep all day.
Life in the Contact Yard
The animals in our contact yard (sometimes called the petting zoo) were introduced to us by Liz Abram, their keeper. It’s the only place in the Zoo where people can touch the animals, so we future docents needed some tips to pass along to the kids. It’s all about safety: don’t pet a goat’s head because he will butt you, wash your hands after petting the animals or being in the yard, don’t pick up stuff off the ground, wear shoes.
Here are just a few fun facts from Liz’s presentation:
Goats are social, Sheep are shy. Sheep can’t raise their tails, but goats can, and goats have beards which our sheep don’t. Sheep that shed are used for meat. Sheep that are used for wool don’t shed and have to be shorn. We have the shedding kind and brush them regularly. The wool that is brushed off gets used in other animal’s enclosures for sensory enrichment.
Our Pygmy Goats aren’t pregnant, they are just built that way. They have a two-chambered stomach like cows and they’re stocky because they were bred for meat.
Nubian Goats have long ears for the same reason rabbits do: to regulate their body temp. Elephant ears function the same way. So do horns on animals, surprisingly.
Long ears help keep the Nubian Goat cool.
The ears and horns are loaded with blood vessels that, being so close to the surface, allow the blood to be cooled as the ears are flapped or the horns run through a breeze.
Guinea Forest Hogs are a rare domestic breed and there are only about 200 left in the world. We have two of them.
Our puppy and kittens are new to the Zoo and in training to be Pet Ambassadors to kids who might be fearful of dogs or cats or might not have the chance to have their own pets. Our instructor, Sarah, predicts that Lily Rae, our Golden Retriever pup, will soon become kids’ most popular animal in the Zoo.
Lily Mae, Puppy Ambassador
Saving the few Lemurs that are left
All Lemurs come from Madagascar and, because of habitat destruction and hunting, are highly endangered. They have already lost 90% of their home turf.
Our Ring-Tailed Lemurs are part of the AZA’s Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSPs actively keep endangered species going in captivity with as much genetic diversity as possible.
The little Blue-Eyed Black Lemurs are the only primates besides humans that have blue eyes.
Like Elephants and Meerkats, Lemurs live in matriarchal societies. The young males are kicked out of their family group when they are old enough to mate to prevent inbreeding.
This Ring-Tailed Lemur backs down a tree like it’s a fire pole.

To merge with another tribe, male Lemurs have to move in on another male’s turf and they do this by conducting Stink Wars—an amusing but peaceful way of establishing dominance. They have musty scent glands on their wrists that they rub against their tails and then they flash their tails at each other to see who has the strongest smell. The winner gets the females and a chance to breed. I’m guessing the loser is grossed out and takes a hike.

The island country of Madagascar has one of the most diverse animal populations on earth, yet species are disappearing every day. If you’d like to learn more about Lemurs and the other animals being pushed off the planet by population explosion and tree-cutting, start here.
You can help rainforest animals by using only paper and wood with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification which assures it came from a sustainable forest. The Oakland Zoo uses FSC wood or wood substitutes whenever possible.
Tonight’s homework is to explore what pets are and aren’t—300 words minimum. Better get started. While I’m doing that, you can be thinking: What is a pet?
Talk to you Saturday,

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 4, Children’s Zoo Module

by | November 14th, 2011

Franette Armstrong is writing about her experiences taking the Zoo Ambassador's courses.


Boy, today was jam-packed. Safety in the Oakland Zoo. Pond turtles, Children’s Zoo tour, Mammal taxonomy. My head is spinning.

Keeping Zoo visitors safe and animals calm is the first responsibility of every volunteer and staffer, whether on duty or off. Lost kids, climbing kids, dangerous behavior, possible evacuations …it’s all part of being a Docent. The Zoo needs eyes and ears everywhere.

We role-played and got tips on situations that might occur in the Children’s Zoo. We will all carry radios whenever we are on duty, so we learned how to work them and practiced radio protocol.

Western Pond Turtles—Zoo Research in Progress
Next, Kristin Mealiffe , one of our zookeepers, joined us to describe a project the Zoo is conducting with Sonoma State University to reverse the decline of these turtles in California.

SSU collects eggs, hatches them, and then sends them to the nursery we’ve set up in the Children’s Zoo.  Here they can grow in ideal conditions until they are big enough not to be eaten by non-native bullfrogs and bass.

Tipping the scale at less than 3 ounces, Dilbert promotes Western Pond Turtle survival.

Our baby turtles will be released into a healthy lake in Northern California wearing microchips so we can track their progress. Hopefully, all will grow to their full size (10-12 inches) and bring many more like themselves into the world. So far we’ve released eighty and you can see some neat photos of this here.

This project will benefit not only our State, but Washington and Oregon where they have lost all or most of their Pond turtles to water contamination, the pet trade and non-native predators.

Out to the Zoo for Hard-won Advice
Nobody knows how to be a docent like those who have done it for years. Today we had the benefit of several who took us around the different exhibits and taught us how to talk about them to children.

An experienced Zoo Docent gives us advice on handling safety issues that can come up.

One of the key features of a good Docent is the ability to answer questions simply, briefly and with a focus. For example, if we are asked about the Panamanian Golden Frogs, which are nearly extinct outside zoos, we can tell them:

  1. 1)    An interesting fact (they are the mascot of an entire country)
  2. 2)    What threatens them (chemicals in their streams is one problem)
  3. 3)    What zoos are doing to help (breeding projects)
  4. 4)    What we can do in our local area (keep our water clean so our frogs don’t go the way of Panama’s).

More precious than gold in Panama, these little frogs are getting a second life in zoo breeding projects.










Using this formula will help me format the tons of information we are getting on every animal. Of course, with older kids and adults who are really interested, we can tell them as much as we know.

Funding a New Zoo isn’t Child’s Play
To appreciate the splendor of our current Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, during lunch we got a brief slideshow showing how far we’ve come. The new kid’s Zoo opened in 2005 after the old baby zoo was demolished. It took three years and cost nearly $12 million, paid for by citizens who passed a bond measure, charitable foundation grants, and by individual donors like you and me—all for the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of kids who visit every year.

Mammals at Last

Finally we are going to learn about the mammals in the Children’s Zoo and, of course, that starts with taxonomy.

Sarah zoomed through a mind-bending lecture on how mammals are divided up into classes based on their reproductive methods, forms of locomotion and other characteristics. It is very complex, let me just say that, but some fascinating facts emerged:

20% of all mammals are bats!

Bats are the only mammals that fly. And they really do fly. Even though they have to take off by letting go and dropping, they can reverse course and fly upstream, unlike gliding animals such as Flying Squirrels. Their wings are membranes stretched between their finger bones like the webbing in duck feet. Our bats, which are Fruit Bats,  don’t use echolation (sounds to detect prey) because their food doesn’t move.

Some mammals lay eggs but most give live birth to young which are more independent (a goat) or totally helpless (a human or kangaroo baby). There are only 3 egg-laying mammals including the duckbilled platypus.

The largest class of mammals, Carnivoras, are not all true carnivores. Some, like bears, eat both meat and plants—they are called omnivores. Some, like pandas, are herbivores and eat only plants, and some, such as tigers and lions—who are true carnivores—eat only meat and get plants as a side dish if they are in the dinner animal’s stomach.

Locomotion is Destiny

Humans and kangaroos walk on their full feet by rolling their foot from heel to the toe. This makes them the slowest animals, but they have the best balance. Kangaroos have to hop with both feet to move around so they really need that extra edge. Their tails help, too.

Dogs and Cats walk on their toes, so they are faster than humans because less paw contacts the ground. Don’t try to outrun a cheetah.

Goats, horses and hippos wall on their toenails. Their hooves are not their toes, which are bones up inside. They walk like a ballerina en pointe. This can make them very fast if they are like one-toed horses and two-toed gazelles, or very slow if they are four-toed hippos.

The pygmy goat walks on its toenails like all hooved animals.

Goats and Bighorn Sheep can skitter across rocks because they either have hair between the toes of their  cloven hooves, or a spongey place there. The two toes help grip the rocks like fingers. There’s a great photo of this here.

One good thing about the homework is that it raises so many questions I can’t stop researching once I get it done. Shocking to the core is my discovery that whales and dolphins are descended from the earliest hoofed animals and their nearest living relative is  the hippo!

Believe me, this is just a tiny sampler of what we learned today. On Wednesday we’ll learn about the mammals in our Children’s Zoo and next Saturday meet them in person.

Spoiler Alert: Day 3 Quiz Answer. Stop reading if you haven’t been to that blog yet.

Snakes can open their mouths so wide because of the quadrate bones at the back of their jaws and their split mandibles which have ligaments that stretch to allow a pig-sized entrée to enter a python’s mouth.

That’s all for this week. See you Wednesday,



Stepping Through Zam: Day 3, Children’s Zoo Module

by | November 1st, 2011

Franette Armstrong chronicles her progress through Zoo Ambassador Training (ZAM).


I confess. I expected tonight’s topic, reptiles and amphibians, to be about as interesting as the seatbelt lecture on planes. They just never have been my thing, so Sarah’s got her work cut out for her just keeping me awake!

Sarah's all revved up to teach even doubters like the author.

First up was a review of Taxonomy and filling out a chart with the distinctive features of each of the six groups of reptiles/amphibians. For example, frogs and toads start out with gills like fish and then develop lungs when they change from tadpoles to frogs. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Tortoises live mostly on land while turtles live mostly in water. But that’s just an American concept. Everywhere else, turtles are turtles wherever they live except in England where they call water turtles “terrapins.”
Sarah made us all laugh when she said that turtles’ backbones are fused to their shells so those cartoon turtles that jump out of their shells and run off in T-shirts and boxer shorts ain’t happenin’.

The reason snakes can open their mouths so wide is that they have a double-hinged jaw and a split in the center of their bottom jaw, so the whole contraption just expands when needed to swallow prey wider than they are. The lower jaw moves forward as the prey comes in and then moves backward to drag it down their throats. This action repeats until the whole thing is swallowed, then the jaw just clicks back into its normal position.

Here we see the split in the front and the double hinge in the back.

Did you know that snakes don’t have ear holes? Unlike lizards which do, snakes only “hear” vibration, not sound. Another interesting fact is that snakes have an organ in their mouths that lets them sample the air with their tongues to “smell” food and prey.

Next up was Adam Fink, the keeper of our reptile, amphibian and insect residents. Adam’s been a zookeeper here for nearly a decade and has taken care of nearly every animal in the Zoo.

Adam Fink describes himself as “The Keeper of All Things Weird and Creepy."



He might not look it, but let me tell you, Adam’s one funny fellow and you have to write really fast to keep up with him. He zipped through a slideshow of everything he has here except insects. Here are a  few highlights:

Alligators, only show their upper teeth when their mouths are closed. The males do a glitzy water dance to attract mates and ours do it even though we have no females.  You can watch  a fun video of it here.

Our 5 Aldabra tortoises weigh in at up to 300 pounds and the oldest is 120 years, we think. One is a little under the weather, so Adam makes her fruit smoothies served on a bed of lettuce. Lucky tortoise!

Chuckwalla Lizards have internal air sacs they can puff up so that when they escape into rock crevices, predators can’t get them out. Neither can Adam, so they just stay in there until they calm down.

The difference between venomous and poisonous is the difference in how poison is used by the animal. Venomous snakes have fangs that inject toxins into would-be predators. Poisonous frogs excrete toxins through their skin, so predators have to bite them or pick them up to get affected.

There are only two types of venomous lizards and our Gila Monsters are one type.

Our Sonoran Desert Toads, on the other hand, are poisonous. They secrete an hallucinogen from glands behind their that is strong enough to kill a dog but usually not a human, so native Americans used this toxin as a ritual “mood enhancer.”

The Poison Dart Frogs aren’t poisonous in captivity because they don’t get eat kinds of ants and bugs that make their poison.



Of the three ways snakes can kill prey, boas first bite down, wrap their body around their prey,  and then they squeeze so hard it stops the dinner-animal’s heart. Nice. But I guess this is no worse than killing their food with venom or beating it to death with a thrashing as other snakes do.

The Emerald Tree Boas have about the longest teeth of any nonvenomous snake. They give live birth to red babies that gradually turn green as they grow up. The green dots on this baby will gradually expand to turn him green all over.

Our Colombian Red-Tailed boa is over 9 feet long and weighs 48 pounds, so you can imagine how hard this gal can squeeze.

All snakes are carnivores: they only want meat. But that led to the question: Exactly what is meat? Are bugs meat? Are fish? Well, the answer is, any living thing that’s not a plant is an animal and all animals are meat. Simple.

We can keep the snakes and frogs together because snakes don’t bother with those little creatures. They want their meat served warm, so cold-blooded frogs and toads just don’t do it for them.

Only male frogs croak. Did you know that? They do it to call their mates.

That’s just a sampling of the dozens of animals facts we learned about in Adam’s Flash Tour. I admit, this was really fascinating and I can even see myself someday giving tours of our RAD (Reptile, Amphibian Discovery) Room.

Tonight’s homework is a fill-in-the-blanks quiz that will send us diving into all the handouts we have for each animal and their classification systems. Want to try one?

Q: Snakes can swallow prey larger than their own heads by the ­­­­­_____________bones which let their jaws open vertically and their ­­­­­­­­____________   _____________ which let them stretch their jaws horizontally. (We need the technical names here)

Answer in my next post. See you Saturday,

Stepping Through ZAM: Day Two, Children’s Zoo Module

by | October 26th, 2011

Franette Armstrong is journaling her trip through Zoo Ambassador Training.


It’s 8:30am Saturday morning. I’m a half-hour early and sitting here on a bench taking in the incredible quiet of our Oakland Zoo on this beautiful morning. There’s a “don’t bother me I’m eating” feeling in the air—a sense of animal energy—but all I hear are birds chirping. Zookeepers and volunteers are no-doubt busy behind the scenes, but I can’t see them, either.

Suddenly I realize that as a volunteer I’ll have many chances to feel this uniquely companionable quiet. Breathing space.

Today we are going to be divided into groups to tour the zoo all morning so I’ll get back to you after we do that.


How not to get lost in the Zoo

Our instructor, Sarah Cramer, started us with a “Wayfinding in the Zoo” chalk talk that began to made sense of what has seemed a maze to me on prior visits.

The Zoo is a circle: walk up and you find the elephants, walk down and you get to the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo and Education Center. There’s a central cross-path and the same rules apply. The Children’s Zoo is in its own circle. Sounds easy enough.

As docents we’ll be expected to give directions from anywhere to anywhere: to all the restrooms and amenities, strollers and entries, rides and parking lots, so it’ll be map-study time for me.

Where else can you hear directions like ‘go up past the gibbons and hang a right at the macaws’?

Appreciating how far we’ve come…

After nearly three hours of touring the exhibits we returned to the Education Center for our bag lunches and an Oakland Zoo history slideshow.

Did you know that every single exhibit and enclosure has been renovated or rebuilt since 1985, when Dr. Joel Parrott became executive director here? Dr. Parrott had been the Zoo’s vet with a unique understanding of what animals need to thrive and a vision for what the Zoo could become.

Now, all the animals live in size-appropriate areas that give them vertical as well as horizontal mobility on all the surfaces they love. Elephants get to swim, gibbons get to zoom through tree tops, meerkats live in a rock village while reptiles bake in sunny terrariums. Except for those in controlled environments, our animals get to move between indoor and outdoor quarters—so they can decide when they need a little privacy or extra warmth.






Here’s a wonderful BBC video of an elephant and her calf swimming in the wild.

Another big change has been away from “free contact” to “protected contact” in our management of large or potentially aggressive animals. Our zookeepers now always keep a wall or fence between themselves and animals like the lions and chimps—for their own safety as well as the animals’. With this method no animal will ever have to be punished for harmful behavior.

And speaking of zookeepers, unlike the old days when some zoos promoted janitors into zookeeping roles, our Zoo today hires only the best and brightest of the highly-trained animal management experts out there. There are very few spots open nationally each year and only the most qualified get hired.

Zookeepers must have a 4-year degree in a related field and hands on experience. Our Zoo actually teaches intern and apprentice programs for would-be zookeepers.

An exciting future we’ll be part of
In addition to adding new animals and enclosures, the Zoo is working on plans for a 20-acre California Trails Exhibit to feature animals that have been extirpated from our state through habitat destruction and hunting. Visitors will step back to a time when wolves, grizzlies, elk and others roamed the East Bay hills. This exhibit will be reached by gondolas large enough to hold families and strollers.

The new Veterinary Medical Hospital, slated to open in 2012  will have an immediate impact on animal health. We’ll have a quarantine area big enough even for bison, something we lack right now. With new state-of-the-art equipment right here, we won’t have to transport animals out of the zoo for diagnosis anymore, saving time and reducing stress on a sick or injured animal.

Volunteers and Docents make a difference
Docents contribute well over 5500 hours per year interacting with zoo visitors and many more hours behind the scenes, we learned from Loretta McRae who’s president of the board of the 78-member Docent Council.

The 50,000 hours a year volunteers contribute to all aspects of the Zoo equates to over $600,000 annually in salaries that would have to be paid without their help.

In getting to know some of my fellow ZAMs today, I learned that we have among us a champion bread baker, two actors, a nurse, a biology teacher…our backgrounds are as different as our reasons for being in the class.

No homework tonight. Next stop, reptiles and amphibians.






Stepping Through ZAM: Day 1, Children’s Zoo Module

by | October 13th, 2011



Franette Armstrong, volunteer and soon-to-be-docent, is journaling her progress through Zoo Ambassador Training


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.

Newbies and experienced volunteers are taking our class along with docents back for more training.


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.

Docents in training at Oakland Zoo

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.

It's all about taking notes to remember all these facts.

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

Have you petted a Millipede? Feels like one of those tightly coiled cords we attach to pencils. They have four legs on each segment of the coil.

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.


This sleepy little guy is a Madagascan hedgehog called a Tenrec, and a perfect example of his class: Mammals.


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?

a) Turtle

b) Snake

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

c) Earthworm

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.

Next up:

Saturday. 4 1/2 hours of hands-on training out in the zoo. Can’t wait. I’ll talk to you afterward.