Posts Tagged ‘Volunteering’

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!

Preparing for the Trip of a Lifetime

by | June 9th, 2010

Where did you go on vacation when you were a teen? To visit relatives? Sleep away camp? For the past 10 years, the Oakland Zoo has broken new ground with our teen travel program. Each summer, teen volunteers sign up to be part of one of our epic adventures, to destinations like Peru, Uganda and Thailand, where they have the opportunity to meet conservation professionals working in their home countries to preserve some of our most endangered species. For most, it is the first time away from home, out of the country, truly out of their element. Which begs the question- just how do you prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime? For our intrepid group of teens traveling to Guatemala this summer, the process has been a long time in the making.

Entrance to the ARCAS facility in Peten. Photo courtesy of ARCAS.

In the Petén region of Guatemala, in the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, lie the grand Mayan city of Tikal, Lake Petén Itza, and the ARCAS animal rehab facility. Begun in 1989 by a group of Guatemalan citizens, ARCAS aims to preserve Guatemala’s natural heritage through education, rehabilitation, and research. The Petén rescue center has grown to be one of the largest facilities of its kind, housing and re-releasing species from spider monkeys to parrots to coatimundis. Since then, they have also added a sea turtle hatchery on the Pacific Coast, and education programs in Guatemala City. A longtime partner of the Oakland Zoo, ARCAS agreed to let this summer’s teen trip visit their facilities, giving teens the chance to participate first-hand in the conservation work they do. The group will do everything from cleaning cages, preparing diets, looking for nesting leatherback turtles, restoring trails, and whatever else comes up- all alongside the wonderful local staff at ARCAS.

Such an opportunity is one that most people will never get to experience in their lifetime, and our teens know it! Choosing to go on a trip with the Zoo requires a big commitment to ensure teens are educated and aware representatives of the Oakland Zoo. And so, since December, they’ve been preparing furiously to get ready. They’ve attended monthly meetings, gone on field trips, written reports on animal and plant species native to Guatemala, and have been working with the staff of KQED’s QUEST to learn how to use cameras and software to create videos of their journey.

Jennifer Ginsburg, Kenny Cavey, and Kristin Kerbavaz create an all-natural lemur treat.

Most recently, we spent a day working on enrichment. If you’ve been to the Zoo, or read back through these blogs, you know how important enrichment is for the animals in our care. In 2003, a different group of teens went to ARCAS, where they saw basic enclosures with limited enrichment for the animals. Their project for the week was to create enrichment, along with a book of ideas to use for the future. However, when our vet tech Kody Hilton made a return visit in 2009, she discovered that they weren’t using it. The reason? At the Oakland Zoo, we rely on a variety of recycled and re-used items for enrichment. At ARCAS, where the animals are being prepared for a life back in the wild, they don’t want their patients to associate human trash with food.

The lemurs enjoy a tree made by the teens.

A quandary? Maybe not! On May 22, this year’s group worked in the lemur exhibit before heading out around the Zoo to gather a variety of natural items, with the goal of creating some all-natural lemur enrichment. They came back with husks, leaves, flowers, sticks, pinecones and bark. Working in groups, they created enrichment items for the lemurs which we supplemented with their afternoon diet. When they were finished, we put the items in the exhibit and watched to see what would happen. The result? A success! The teens and all the visitors in the Zoo were able to see the lemurs enjoying their new enrichment made from all natural materials. We now hope to replicate the project in 6 weeks when we arrive at ARCAS.

As we now move into the last phase of preparation and start packing, renewing our passports and getting those all-important shots, it’s impossible to know just what our journey has in store for us. One thing is certain though; whatever comes our way, we’ll be prepared.

Dr. Goodall, I Presume?

by | April 13th, 2010

What if I told you that there is one person who brings more star-struck expressions to the faces of our teen volunteers than any other? Who might you guess it would be? What if I told you that this person is not an actor or musician, and has never graced the cover of “US Weekly”? That in fact, this person is 76 years old and has been known to carry a stuffed animal everywhere? Doesn’t sound like a teen idol to you? Well, expectations are often defied when you’re Dr. Jane Goodall.

Dr. Jane with a few of the Oakland Zoo's Teen Wild Guides

As Dr. Jane’s groundbreaking study of the chimpanzees at Gombe celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it’s a good time to reflect on the legacy her work has created. Her contributions to science cannot be understated- what began as a study to learn about chimps as a means of learning about ourselves, has evolved into one of the longest and most complex animal studies ever undertaken. From Dr. Jane we have learned some of the most basic things we now know about chimpanzees- that they hunt for monkeys, live in complex family groups, and of course, make and use tools. To this day, scientific data is recorded at Gombe that continues to deepen our understanding of chimps and their relation to us.

But I might argue that Dr. Jane’s greatest legacy is reflected on the faces of those teens I know personally who look up to her like no other. Dr. Jane is a legend to them. They see her as an icon, but also not so very different from them. Dr. Jane herself was 26 years old with a secretarial degree when she traveled to Tanzania to begin her study and was able to change our most basic assumptions about chimps and the animal world. As today’s teens stand ready to take on the world, what might they accomplish?

TWG Arianne Olarig with Mr. H, Dr. Jane's constant companion

Dr. Jane has always recognized the power of youth to change the world, which led her to found Roots & Shoots, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Founded on the core values of knowledge, compassion and action, members of Roots & Shoots design their own projects to assist animals, the environment and the human community. The creativity of youth results in a stunning variety of projects all over the world. Here at the zoo, our Teen Wild Guides can claim to be one of the largest independent Roots & Shoots groups in the United States, with projects like the Asian Animal Festival, animal enrichment, and countless hours of visitor education under their belts. At a recent Wildlife Conservation Network Expo, they were recognized by their idol, when Dr. Jane Goodall herself asked them to stand and be applauded by an audience that had gathered to hear her speak.

And so, as we look back in this momentous year for Goodall, Gombe and the chimps, I raise my glass to Dr. Jane, along with all the future Dr. Janes that she inspires each and every day.

An Urban Layover for Birds: MLK Jr. Shoreline

by | March 22nd, 2010

Squeezed between the Oakland International Airport and the Coliseum lies one of the best kept secrets of the bay – the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline Park , a birding hot spot. I had no idea.

Luckily, my eyes were opened this week on a guided hike with Golden Gate Audubon Society volunteer Cindy Margulis. What previously seemed like a pleasant marshy area to me was transformed into a beautiful and fascinating oasis for local wildlife.