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!