Posts Tagged ‘docents’

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.

CLASSROOM SESSION

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.

AVIARY STATION

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.

ZAM FUN

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!