Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Cramer’

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 4 Savannah Module

by | March 22nd, 2012

Franette Armstrong's diary on her Zoo Ambassador training is part of an ongoing series.


Sarah Cramer, our teacher, is back with us after an intensive week of training up in Yosemite, so this is the first time the returning and new ZAMs were all together with her and introductions were in order. Once again I was struck by the diversity and vastness of experience ZAMs bring with them to training.

Next it was on to Ecosystem Dynamics so we could see how all the information we are gathering fits together.


Sarah Cramer, Education Specialist and ZAM Instructor.




The Big Picture

Ecosystem Dynamics is a fancy way of saying “all life is interconnected, ” and today Sarah helped us see that with a little game:  each of us was a part of the Savannah ecosystem— from a Dung Beetle to the sun and everything in between. We used one ball of yarn to show how, for example, an Eland is connected to grass (they eat it) and grass is connected to the soil which is connected to the Dung Beetle, etc. It’s all about the transfer of energy from the sun.

By the time we were done we were all woven together through our dependencies and vulnerabilities. Then, dramatically, Sarah had a few of us “disappear” from the system. What happened? You can guess: the entire Web of Life fell apart. In the real world, this is called ecosystem collapse.

We experienced how everything in an ecosystem is connected through this Web of Life exercise.















Functions are Different than Food Chains

The lecture that followed was pretty intense as we discovered the difference between habitats and range, niches and trophic levels and…well, you had to be there. Let me just say that I discovered something really major about ecology that I had never thought about before: there is a difference between where an animal is on the food chain and the functional role he might play in his ecosystem.

For example, Meerkats, by digging in the soil to make tunnels, loosen the soil so seeds can take root—that is one of their functions. But, they are also part of the food chain because while they are eating, say, a scorpion, they sometimes get eaten by a snake which in turn might get eaten by a bird and so it goes: the Circle of Life.


Keystone Animals

Another concept that was new to me was that some animals play such an important role in their ecosystems that the entire system will collapse if that single species disappears. One example is the African Elephant, which knocks down trees so that the savannahs, which support untold thousands of life forms, can survive. Without them, trees would take over and all the animals adapted to grassland living would suddenly find themselves homeless.

Elephants in Africa are Keystones, just like Grizzly Bears, Sea Otters and Prairie Dogs are here. Take them away and an entire ecosystem will collapse. Photo credit Steve Goodall


It all gets back to consequences and how we really have to understand ecosystem dynamics before we go trotting off into a rainforest and start cutting down trees for our hardwood floors. Ask the Easter Islanders about this! (Oh, I forgot…cutting down all their trees led to their own extinction.)

You can learn more about Keystone species here:







Out to the Zoo

After an hour in the classroom we were all ready to go out to the African Village so experienced docents could show us how to “interpret” the animals to the public. They used skulls and drawings and physical props to help children and adults see how the animals are unique and what we need to do to protect them and their cousins here.

Mary Ann McCleary showed us how to set up a docent station and demo'd a Vervet Monkey skull which has the teeth of an omnivore.


More Taxonomy

I must be a geek because I really enjoy the taxonomy lectures: it is so interesting to see how animals can be grouped by features we don’t even think about. And some of these groupings make for strange bedfellows.

For example, members of the Order Carnivora, which includes Lions, Meerkats and Hyenas, have whiskers, binocular color vision, 4-5 toes on each foot, a raised bone on the skull to anchor their powerful jaws (called a “sagital crest”), and scissorlike molars (called “carnassial teeth”).


This tiny Meerkat skull has the same elements as a full-scale Carnivore like a Lion.


Not all members of the class Carnivora are carnivores, however. Pandas only eat plants, but since they meet all the criterion of Carnivora, that’s where they get placed.


Vision is Destiny

The last subject today was comparing the vision of animals who have eyes that face forward (like Lions and Monkeys) to those whose eyes are on the side of their heads (like Horses and Zebra). It can all be summed up in this little ditty:





The reason is that the side-facing eyes of a cow have a blind spot in front of their noses so it would be pretty hard for them to keep their eyes on prey long enough to stalk and catch it, but they have a wide field of vision for keeping track of their herd, and finding grasses and branches to nibble as they amble along the plains. Here’s a sketch that illustrates the two types of vision:











Forward-facing eyes like ours, have binocular vision which gives us great  depth perception, but less peripheral vision, so these animals are all about what’s out front.

Our camel illustrates the problem with eyes on the side: you have to turn your head to see in front of your nose. Photo credit Steve Goodall











All this is to prepare us for Wednesday when our Keepers will discuss the Hoofstock on our African Veldt.

Until then,








Stepping Through ZAM: Days 10-12, Children’s Zoo Module

by | January 23rd, 2012

This is Franette Armstrong's last post of her Zoo Ambassador Training to become a docent in the Children's Zoo.



Day Ten found twenty-some very nervous ZAMs in search of an exit…because today is Presentation Day and none of us wants to go first.

But it wasn’t so bad. We each gave our 3-minute presentation of an assigned animal, then a class member was chosen to offer some comments, followed by constructive suggestions from Sarah Cramer, our teacher, or by an experienced docent. We all escaped with egos intact.

Sarah Cramer, ZAM Trainer extraordinaire.

To celebrate, we had a wonderful potluck lunch where visible relief was as plentiful as the food. Many of the keepers and docents came to take part in this festive occasion: We are getting to know one another and becoming part of the “Zoo family.”

Unfortunately, we were also given our final exams to take home and answer using our notes and printed handouts (but no phone calls to each other). We have until next Friday morning to go to a website and post our answers on line before Sarah gets to work that day. Snooze, you lose.


Day Eleven: Stay Home and Work on Our Exams

I can’t share the test with you because Sarah might stop speaking to me, but it was only 3-4 pages of multiple-choice questions. Not too hard and actually kind of fun because it’s forcing me to re-read my notes and all the “Blue Sheets.” It’s a great chance to reacquaint myself with the many animals we have studied in the past five weeks and I needed this brush-up.

If you’d like to see some of the Blue Sheets, which provide comprehensive information written by our Zookeepers about the animals in the Zoo, go to and click on the tab that says “Animals.” They are there by taxonomic groups: Mammals, Reptiles, etc.


Day Twelve: Zoo Trivia and Graduation

Part of of our final exam was to study all the information about the Zoo itself so we can answer any question a visitor might ask. Where are restrooms? The strollers? When are the otters fed? Where can I get a band-aid? Where’s my child????

We formed small groups and competed against each other for Trivia points with Sarah awarding bonus points as the mood struck her and competition becoming more intense and more hilarious as the morning went on.

A group shows its stuff in ZAM Trivia.


When Good Visitors Act Badly

The next activity: role playing what to do (and not do) if a visitor ever misbehaves, not that any ever will :-)

The docents and Sarah got together and performed skits of potential situations we might encounter and our groups had to show different ways we would get the situation under control. We were falling down laughing at how good the docents were at deflecting everything we did so they could continue acting out. I certainly hope I never encounter visitors like them!

The whole point was to review all the ancillary aspects of being a docent: radio operation, lost-child procedures, controlling visitor behavior that’s unsafe or upsets the animals, plus Zoo rules and how to enforce them.


Graduation Isn’t the End

Finally, it was graduation time. We got our certificates and were each assigned a docent mentor to meet with several times over the next few weeks so we can prove we are ready to be turned loose in the Children’s Zoo. They will help us with behind-the-scenes mechanics, such as where to find the biofacts and puppets, and how to do a radio check, and they have a long list they have to go through to make sure every base is covered.

These are a few items on the checklist we have to pass:

~Demonstrate a working knowledge of animal facts for the majority animals in the Children’s Zoo.

~Provide appropriate answers to sensitive or difficult questions.

~Present information that is educational, entertaining, comprehensible and age-appropriate.

~Demonstrate working knowledge of radio protocols (such as lost child and emergency procedures).

And 16 more!

When they sign us off, we get our t-shirts and name badges and are free to move about the Children’s Zoo. Whew.


Will we be Docents after all this?

Not quite! Once we have graduated from all three modules and passed the Docent mentoring in each part of the Zoo, we then can take a test on all of it and if we pass, we enter the elite corps called Docent Council—currently 77 members strong. What does this get us? Well, the chance to do even more for the Zoo such as learn to drive the electric carts and do cart tours, perform in the Wildlife Theater, take positions on the Docent Board, and go on all kinds of interesting field trips to animal research projects in the Bay Area.

Becoming a Docent is a Very Big Deal. This one module required 39 hours of classroom and in-zoo instruction plus homework, plus docent mentoring. Some of our Docents have been with the Zoo over 20 years and volunteer their expertise several days a week—not to mention all that they do to help train us ZAMs. When you see a Docent or ZAM walking around the Zoo, tip your hat and realize that they are highly trained by the best, and highly committed to helping you appreciate everything our Zoo has to offer.

Do our animals deserve anything less?


More ZAM Training Coming Up

In January the Savannah Module will begin and I am already signed up. Stay tuned as we learn about zebra and elk, giraffes and lions…all the charismatic animals of the African plains. Can’t wait!

Until then, hope to see you in the Children’s Zoo.




Read about previous ZAM Training here: