Posts Tagged ‘Volunteering’

Stepping through ZAM: Day 6, Children’s Zoo Module

by | December 8th, 2011

Franette Armstrong diaries her progress through Zoo Ambassador Training.

Today Sarah showed us her true stripes as the Zoo’s Education Specialist: We focused on how children learn and how to interpret the world of animals for them.

The real job of kids is to learn and the way they learn is to play. There are all kinds of types of play, though, and Sarah took us through everything from the solitary play of babies to the sophisticated world of cooperative play among seven year olds.

The real job of docents in the Children’s Zoo is to encourage kids to learn about animals through play. We can do this by helping them to explore with all their senses.

Learning is child's play.


Back out to the Zoo

Most of our day was spent in the Zoo learning from the keepers and experienced docents.

First, the goats introduced themselves while Keeper Chelsea introduced us to the contact yard and took us into the kitten room to meet the three fluffballs there.

It’s nice to know that everywhere in the Zoo animals have a chance to take themselves “off exhibit” when they want a break, but it is especially important in the contact yard. This makes them happy campers when they are out among the children and the kids find a lot of joy in their friendliness. I watched one little girl circle the yard while leaning her full weight against a Nubian Goat. The patient goat managed to stand upright and went along cheerfully with this bonding experience.

Chelsea Williams shows ZAMs how contact yards work.



Next, it was down to the animal commissary where Keeper Zach took us on a tour of  Food Central—the place where everything that is fed to our residents gets brought in, prepared and disseminated to the keepers. We saw an elephant popsicle in the works, volunteers sorting crates of donated fruit so only fresh, ripe peaches will make it into the food bowls, and freezers packed with everything from whole chickens to fig newtons.

Fig newtons make great Trojan Horses, Zach said, for the vitamin pills nearly all our animals would rather not take.

It is amazing how many stores, organizations and farms donate fresh food to our animals daily. On top of that we buy over $100,000 of hay a year plus everything else—cereals, special zoo diets, meat, nuts, yogurt and other treats including insects and live fish. Every species has its own special diet and there are pages of recipes our commissary staff prepares daily.

Only people-grade food is good enough for our animals.

Role Modeling Interpretation

When we got back to the classroom we were going to learn about the art and science of interpreting exhibits to children and adults, so as a warm-up we were divided into groups so experienced docents could model how they would engage kids with various animals in the Zoo. There are four parts to the formula and, depending the age of the child, sometimes the parent is the audience as much as the kids.

The first docent in my group was Carol Kerbel at the River Otter exhibit. She used a puppet to engage a little girl with her dad and show us the four steps we will learn to cover for every animal.

Step One: Tell an interesting fact about the animal. “Hi, I’m a River Otter,” she said while making the otter puppet talk. “I live on the land and under the water. My special paws help me swim. Can you hold your hand like this? That’s right. That’s how you swim under water. And I have whiskers so I can feel my food when I’m down there.” She let the little girl pet the puppet’s whiskers.

Step Two: Tell what threatens their survival. This girl was very young so Carol said, “The water is my home so I need it to be very clean so I can live in it.” Looking at the dad, she continued. “My cousins, the sea otters are having lots trouble because their home is the ocean and it is getting dirty.”

Docent Carol Kerbel uses a puppet to get her points across.

Step Three: Tell what we can do to help. “You can help me by keeping our rivers and streams clean.” Clearly, this was a message to the dad. “Wash your car in a car wash and don’t use chemicals in your yard because all the soapy water and pesticides go into the rivers and ocean and make my house dirty.”

Step Four: Tell what the Zoo is doing to help. “We pick up our trash because everything on the ground can blow into our creek and go out to the ocean.” The little girl was entranced and asked to hug the otter puppet.

We saw versions of this four-part message at every station. A young man was taught about the size of our bats (the docent used a rope to demonstrate wingspan). We learned more about our pigs, and ended up enjoying the antics of the lemurs, who were being fed.

Interpretation is an Art

Sarah is credentialed by the National Association for Interpretation as a guide and as a trainer of other guides. She had put together a concise summary of an amazing amount of information about interpretation for the last half-hour of class.

It all boils down to making information relevant to any particular audience. That is the best way to help them learn about and remember what they’ve seen. Here’s a sample of a message that might help adults appreciate bats:








Oh no. We knew this was coming, but I didn’t expect it so soon. In addition to the normal homework that will send us into all the Zoo’s websites to gather conservation messages, we have to write the outline of our final presentations.

Each of us is assigned an animal in the Children’s Zoo to discuss for 2-3 minutes. Mine is the Black Tree Monitor which I now will have to pay a visit. I can’t say that I am really excited about this particular animal (why-oh-why couldn’t I have a mammal?) but maybe after I do my research and spend time with it, I will be. Maybe.

Have a great weekend,

Going Batty in Australia – Part 1

by | November 4th, 2011

Buttercup in the seated position

Last Monday I began my trip from the Oakland Zoo to Atherton, Queensland, Australia to volunteer for three weeks at the Toga Bat Hospital.  From the moment I arrived (on Wednesday, because of the long travel time and the time difference) it was straight down to business.  My first duty as a volunteer was to feed a fun little Yellow-Bellied Sheathtail Bat (Saccolaimus flaviventris) named “Buttercup”.  Buttercup is one of approx. 100 bats that reside permanently at the hospital.  Injured as a juvenile far away from the bat hospital, the people who found her thought she was a fruit bat out of her normal range and so fed her fruit until she ended up at the bat hospital.  Because she was never fed a proper diet of insects she needs help eating her daily diet of mealworms.  What makes her funny is she likes to eat in very ungainly positions such as seated on her

Buttercup "standing"rear on the feeder’s leg, “standing” with her feet barely touching the feeder’s leg, and the slightly more natural position of upside-down against her feeder’s chest.

She may take a mealworm in one position but want to finish it in another.  Sometimes she needs to be rotated between the positions.  We try to get about 20 mealworms dipped in supplements into her while juggling her between the three different postures.  It was quite the introduction to my life for the next three weeks as I sat there in the sundress that I had just changed into in Cairns because of the intense heat and humidity feeding a bat, sitting her upright on my lap.  It was the first of many fantastic experiences that I would have.

Upside down Buttercup

I am extremely happy to be here due to the generosity of Elaine and Warren Lash who established a yearly fund to send an Oakland Zoo staff member to participate directly in a conservation project.  Without their contribution, I would not have been able to partake in this incredible experience.


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.

Happy Red Panda Day

by | November 19th, 2010

The holidays are likely on your mind right now, but did you know that a major holiday was just celebrated this past weekend? Just after Halloween and before Thanksgiving falls International Red Panda Day, which the Oakland Zoo celebrated in style with the help of our good friends from the Red Panda Network.

What’s a red panda, you ask? These small, raccoon-like mammals live in the forests surrounding the Himalayas, in China, India and Nepal, and are also known as the “firefox”. They subsist almost entirely on bamboo, eating up to 200,000 bamboo leaves in one day! Besides being charismatic and biologically unique, the red panda can also lay claim to being the original panda. The word “panda” is derived from the Nepalese word “poonya”, which means “eater of bamboo” and refers to the red panda. When scientists discovered the larger, black and white, bamboo-eating animal in the mountains of China, they assumed the two animals to be related, and dubbed the now more famous one the Giant Panda. Now, however, we know that red pandas and giant pandas aren’t closely related at all. In fact, though red pandas share similarities with raccoons, weasels and bears, they have been classified in their own family, Ailuridae, biologically distinct and unique from other species.

TWG Hannah Horowitz shows her red panda spirit!

The actual number of red pandas in the wild is unknown. Like many animals, they face threats from habitat loss and climate change which damages the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Though their range is geographically large, in practice the pandas are restricted to small patches of forests which support the bamboo plants they so rely on. And yet, while their larger namesake has become a symbol for conservation worldwide, few people have even heard of a red panda, let alone know about the challenges they face. The Red Panda Network, which is dedicated to preserving the species through education, research and conservation in Nepal, decided to raise awareness by holding the 1st annual International Red Panda Day on November 13, with the help of zoos, schools and clubs across the country. When they asked if we’d be willing to join in to teach people about this amazing animal, we readily agreed!

And so, this past Saturday, November 13, we celebrated this special species. The Teen Wild Guides operated tables with red panda facts and activities. Visitors spent the day coloring red panda masks, making red panda origami, and having their faces painted. All activities were free, with donations accepted. When all was said and done, we raised $215 to be donated to the Red Panda Network, which they’ll use to further their excellent conservation work with local people in Nepal.

A young visitor shows off his red panda mask.

An event like Red Panda Day is a great chance to reflect on the little things we can all do to benefit conservation. Here at the zoo, our conservation programs run the gamut from fundraising to composting, but nothing is more important than education. Just by learning about a new animal or habitat, we have taken the first step to making a difference for them. As the great Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum said; “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.” And so, to everyone who came out to the zoo on Red Panda day, colored a mask, and maybe dropped a dollar or two in our donation box, our sincere thanks for doing your part, and for helping us support a hardworking organization. Now we all know which panda truly reigns supreme!

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.