Posts Tagged ‘docents’

Forty Candles Burning Bright for the Docents’ Big Party

by | April 24th, 2014



Back in the Day

Back in the Day. Oakland Zoo now maintains a “protected contact” system in animal management.

Do you know who’s turning 40 at Oakland Zoo this year? No, it’s not Osh the elephant or Benghazi the giraffe. (Those guys are mere babies by comparison.) I’ll give you a clue. This creature has more than 160 legs and can be found roaming wild on nearly every pathway in the Zoo. Give up? It’s the Oakland Zoo Docent Council. And on April 27th, they’ll be celebrating a whopping forty years of serving the public here at the Zoo.

It was back in 1973 when Zoological Society Executive Director Flora Aasen suggested that the Zoo recruit volunteers to serve as docents to help educate and assist zoo visitors. From that idea, the first docent training class was established and held at the Zoo (which consisted of a mere ten people!) In the forty years since, as the Zoo has undergone tremendous growth, we’ve trained and graduated hundreds of passionate individuals into the program. During that same period, there’s been a wealth of noteworthy docent accomplishments, including the introduction of the Zoomobile, ZooSchool, and Wildlife Theater programs; the leading of untold thousands of guided cart tours, walking tours, and Animal Encounters; the creation of talking storybook boxes and docent bio-fact stations; the initiation of numerous events such as the public lecture series, Animal Fund Boutique, Animal Amore tours, Celebrating Elephants Day, and many others as well as the hosting of Jane Goodall’s National ChimpanZoo Conference . In addition, the docents have sold thousands of Oakland Zoo memberships, increasing the number from 600 to an impressive 26,000; supported and fundraised for causes like Quarters for Conservation, Budongo Snare Removal and Uganda lion conservation, and personally donated an astounding $200,000 to help in the construction of the Education Center, the Children’s Zoo and the new veterinary hospital. Through their tireless efforts, the docents have advocated for animal conservation by helping to improve animal care here, and helped elevate Oakland Zoo to compete with the best zoos in the world. Not bad for a bunch of volunteers. And in 2012, the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents listed the Oakland Zoo Docent Council in the top ten of the longest running programs of its kind in the US.

Doing What They Do Best

Doing What They Do Best

On Sunday April 27th, the docents will gather at the Zoo to celebrate these and many other accomplishments– and just as important, to look ahead to what is sure to be an even brighter future. Honored guests include a distinguished array of heavyweights including docent co-founders JoAnne Harley and Pam Raven Brett, former education directors Arlyn Christopherson and Anne Warner , as well as video participation by Oakland Zoo President and CEO Dr. Joel Parrott. This celebration comes at a time when Oakland Zoo stands poised to embark on its ambitious California Trail project, heralding a new era of wildlife education and conservation in the Bay Area. With forty years of momentum, the Oakland Zoo Docents are certainly ready to be a part of it. This anniversary celebrates a great future as well as a proud past, and promises to be a most momentous occasion!

Zoo Docents: Developing the next generation of inspiration

by | October 11th, 2013
Docent with Animal Skull

Docent with Animal Skull

These days, forty years is a long time for something to last—unless it’s made out of cast iron or granite. But that’s almost how long we’ve had our docent program here at Oakland Zoo. I was still in high school back in 1974 when the first docents headed out into the Zoo, ready to greet the public. Since then, the Zoo has grown tremendously and we’ve seen more than 400 enthusiastic men and women join our team of volunteer educators over the years. Right now, we’ve got almost 90 on board. And I can’t imagine this place running without them.

Inspiring a Young Zoo Visitor

Inspiring a Young Zoo Visitor

But what exactly does a docent do, you might ask. Docents, in the same way that ambassadors represent foreign nations, are the vital link between the public and various educational and scientific institutions. Often operating with limited funding, many of these organizations couldn’t function properly without a team of these volunteers. You see them at museums, science centers, historical sites and, of course, zoos. They handle a variety of tasks, including leading tours, answering questions, and assisting people in need of help. But some of their contributions are a bit more ethereal. They inspire. They enlighten. They connect people with things they may not have been exposed to before. You might say docents help create the next generation of supporters and in some cases, future employees.

So what does it take to be a part of such a team? How do you become a docent here at Oakland Zoo? If you’re outgoing, enjoy working with the public and have a love of animals, you might be just what Oakland Zoo is looking for. But like anything else worth doing, it takes commitment and a bit of work.

Docent Training Class

Docent Training Class

It all starts with the application process, which can be initiated through Oakland Zoo’s website. Once your application has been accepted and a background check is complete, you attend an orientation before you begin the training. Our comprehensive 15-week docent training class provides prospective docents with a solid background that includes an overview of the Zoo’s animal collection, conservation efforts, zoology and taxonomy, customer service and interpretive training. The training is a collaborative effort between education department staff, zookeepers and veteran docents. In those 15 weeks, you’ll get classroom instruction, special lectures, as well as homework assignments, quizzes, and presentations. There’s even a mentoring program to provide one-on-one assistance.


Once you’ve passed the final exam and graduated, you’ll officially be an Oakland Zoo docent. After that, you need to fulfill a minimum requirement of 70 public hours of service per year as well as earning 4 credits of continuing education by attending lectures, classes, etc. But since our docents find the work so rewarding, most of them enjoy contributing even more time to the Zoo.

Zoo Docents on a Conservation Mission

by | November 29th, 2011

Talking Tiger

Sometime around September of 2010, the docents at the Oakland Zoo began to work on an idea they’d had for quite a while. They were looking for an organized, yet simple way to speak about the subject of conservation. They wanted to have at their disposal short messages about individual species that they could share with the public when they were out in the Zoo. The Volunteer Programs Manager, Lisa O’Dwyer, suggested they form a group to get the job done. So, they created the Docent Conservation Committee.

Using the IUCN and the Oakland Zoo website as primary sources for information, they began to investigate the various issues that affect the species that are represented here at the Zoo. Some of these issues were obvious and easy to understand, such as how deforestation from slash and burn agriculture in the rain forest reduces the amount of space available for wildlife. Other issues were more obscure. For instance, not many people knew that recycling your old cell phones can help wild chimp and gorilla populations. (The mineral coltan, which is found in tropical soils, is one of the raw materials for the electrical components of cell phones; the less of this material to be mined, the less these habitats are disturbed.)

Young Chimpanzee

So with all the necessary information at hand, several of the docents sat down and began working on the conservation messages, eventually creating the first group of thirty, which the Zoo docents have already begun to use. In each case, the idea was to bring to the public’s attention the issues most affecting the species’ survival, many of whom are facing threats from human encroachment. Some of the messages speak of animal welfare: non-animal circus patronage, alternative medicine, and the exotic pet trade. Others deal with species that aren’t endangered themselves, but are closely related to those that are. For example, talking about the habitat needs of African lions helps the public understand the issues that face local predators such as pumas. In the same way, discussing the conservation issues that are faced by vultures throughout the world help people understand the plight of the highly endangered California condor.

Endangered Sun Bear

But how do you get past the talking phase? How do you get the public to act? Scientists and activist organizations have been talking about conservation for so long: Save the Whales, Save the Redwoods, Save the Baby Seals. The calls for help seem to come from every quarter; it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, even apathetic. People often think, “What can I possibly do? What difference can one person make?” But as history has shown, sometimes the biggest changes have started in the smallest ways. Docents, as grassroots ambassadors for the Zoo, are particularly well-suited for this type of campaign. For example, by suggesting to Zoo visitors that purchasing a handcrafted gift in the Zoo gift shop can help support indigenous people from the rain forest who might otherwise turn to poaching to feed their families, docents are able to help people take those important first steps. In doing so, visitors can leave the Zoo feeling that they’re doing something to help, even in a small way.

Making a Connection

The Docent Conservation Committee is still in its infancy; there’s plenty of room to grow and evolve. But so far, it’s been able to make progress in the field of wildlife conservation right here at the Oakland Zoo. So the next time you visit the Zoo, take a moment to speak to the docents. They’d love to chat with you, and you may find that it’s easier to start saving the world than you thought!

To learn more about conservation efforts you can help, Click Here.


Up Close and Personal with Biofacts

by | December 16th, 2010

Kids Love Skulls!

My name is Loretta Breuning, and I’m a docent at the Oakland Zoo. My favorite place in the zoo is the cart full of primate skulls. Kids run over when they see the skulls, and that makes it fun to be a docent. I like to talk to the kids about adaptations, like the baboon’s big nose that’s good at smelling predators. But most of all, I like to hear their questions.

“Is it real?” is usually the first thing they ask. In a world full of Photoshop and Reality TV, people care about what’s real. I explain that the resin models are cast from real skulls. But kids get so excited about the real ones that I give everyone a turn to touch them with one finger. I am impressed with how grateful and polite the kids are as they take turns touching.

Every few minutes, someone asks “How did he die?” or “How did you get this?” Kids are obviously thinking about the stewardship of the animals. I reassure them that zoo animals get the best medical care and live to a very old age, but when we can’t save them, we save their bones to honor them and their species in the future.

A lot of kids have something to teach me. One day, I was amazed to hear the words “that’s the spinal cord attachment” coming from a kid who was shorter than the cart. His mother told me he learned it on a KQED science show.

I used to ask well-informed kids if they watch Animal Planet. But a few kids told me, “No, I read books.” Now I’ve learned my lesson and I presume kids read books.

Parents often have something to teach me, too. One mother pointed to a tiny hole in the jaw of a skull and said, “That’s where the dentist injects anesthesia.” She was a dental assistant and told me that the little holes are where the nerves go. I had always wondered about those holes, and I gladly pass on the knowledge.

Some kids have so many questions that I want to suggest resources to enjoy at home. If it’s bones they like, I send them to eskeletons which has beautiful images of each mammal’s skeleton. If you like to watch gibbons swing, you will love the close-ups of their wrists and shoulders.

If a kid wants to know more about what’s inside the skull, I will tell them about brainmuseum. It shows dozens of different mammal brains- photos of real ones, flashing one after another; (click on “brain evolution” on the left bar).

A day at the zoo always raises big questions about life. One day, I heard a three-year old girl saying “But Mommy, how did they get the skin off?” They were standing in front of sarcosuchas (the big skeleton of a crocodile ancestor in the Children’s Zoo).  That’s not an easy question to answer. I think people love to come to the Zoo because it helps us think about the nature of life. If you’re interested in becoming a docent or a Zoo Ambassador, you can get more information here.

Calling All Ambassadors!

by | August 5th, 2010

What is it that walks upright on two legs, possesses a profound understanding of other species, and loves to vocalize? I’ll give you another clue. It rhymes with SPAM. Give up? It’s a ZAM, or Zoo Ambassador– the Oakland Zoo’s latest secret weapon in its quest to educate the public about its furry and feathered residents. A popular new trend at zoos nationwide, the ZAM program provides a “fast-track” option for becoming a docent, allowing them to be trained and get out in the field much sooner than ever before.

Docents, as you probably know, are the volunteer “teachers” that interface with the public at museums, zoos and aquariums, libraries, and other institutions. They provide assistance and additional information, helping to make the visitors’ experience more rewarding. If you ever have a question or need to know more about an exhibit than the signage provides, docents are a great resource.


In the past, the training program for Oakland Zoo docents involved a 15-week time commitment. And it was offered only once a year. But in an effort to streamline the process and adapt to people’s busy schedules, we decided to divide the training into three 5-week modules. These modules cover the three major areas of the Zoo: the African Savanna, the Rain Forest and the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo. Prospective ZAMs need only to complete one module to be ready for the field. After they become a ZAM, they can go on to complete the other modules (in whichever order they choose) thus qualifying them to work in any part of the Zoo. In fact, most ZAMs do exactly that, going on to complete all three modules to become full-fledged docents. As a result of its success, the ZAM program has replaced the traditional docent training altogether.

But we did more than just slice up the pie. The ZAM program, which began at the Oakland Zoo four years ago, puts more emphasis on customer service than the prior training did. It’s become increasingly evident that there’s more to zoo education than simply talking about the animals. Since these volunteers are the “Face of the Zoo,” and very often the public’s only contact with Zoo staff, it’s vital that ZAMs be well trained in dealing with a variety of situations with the public. During their training, prospective ZAMs gain further insight by learning directly from veteran docents. After graduation, they are each assigned an official docent mentor, who continues to work closely with them, helping them transition from the training mode to actual service.


So what’s it like to be a ZAM? To satisfy the 5 hour per month time commitment, ZAMs can opt to do “stations” (utilizing a push-cart full of animal artifacts at the elephant exhibit, for example) or they can roam throughout their assigned area of the Zoo, talking to people at a variety of different exhibits. To lead tours or handle animals however, ZAMs need to wait until they’ve achieved full docent status. Yet, that still leaves plenty of opportunity to educate and inspire zoo visitors. And, every day is different here at the Oakland Zoo; there’s always something engaging going on.


Where do most ZAMs and docents come from? They don’t just fall out of the sky. According to Volunteer Programs Manager Lisa O’Dwyer, the Oakland Zoo’s website is instrumental in attracting prospective volunteers. By clicking on “Support the Zoo” and then “Volunteer Opportunities” on the home page, you’ll find the ZAM and Docent webpage to help get you get started. So if you’ve got a passion for animals and love interacting with the public, consider joining the Oakland Zoo team by becoming a Zoo Ambassador this year!