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.
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.