Posts Tagged ‘zoos’

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 8, Savannah Module

by | May 3rd, 2012

Franette Armstrong is sharing her journey through Zoo Ambassador Training in this blog series.




A backstage tour of the Elephant barns is a privilege only a few volunteers ever get and our entire ZAM class got it today. It was a thrill.

I mentioned last time that Colleen Kinzley, Director of Animal Care, Conservation, and Research, was a major force in changing the way Elephants are treated in zoos. That’s because she was the second in the country to begin using a management technique called Protected Contact. We saw this in operation today.

Keeper Jeff Kinzley gives this foot on this Elephant a pedicure every single workday. We have four full-time Elephant Keepers and four Elephants, so each Keeper does the same foot on each Elephant daily to be sure there are no cracks, thorns or other problems. The feet need to hold up 4-5 tons of Elephant.




Trainers Have Choices

But let’s go back: today about half the zoos and all the circuses use Free Contact as a way of training and disciplining animals. With this method the trainer attempts to control the Elephant by inspiring fear with physical threats and aversion training techniques.

Want an elephant to lift her foot? Well, just jab her on her ankle with a pointed steel stick. She’ll jerk her foot away from the jab in self defense.

OR, you can simply invite the elephant to lift her foot by making it worth her while. With techniques like target training, the elephant associates making a certain move with getting a reward—food or attention—and so she wants to do it.

Keeper Gina Kinzley is taking our Elephant through a series of exercises for mental stimulation and to practice moves that might be needed for her medical care, like showing her foot. All she had to say was “switch” to get the other foot up. Note the strong barriers between her and the Elephant.)


Now imagine you’re an elephant and you have to do a bunch of things every day. If you are in a zoo, you need to go in and out of your barn, get your feet cared for, have a bath, get mineral oil rubbed on your skin and maybe have your ears, eyes or teeth checked. If you’re in a circus, you’re going to have to walk on your back legs, balance on a ball, let some woman ride on your back.

All these things, every day, can either be pleasant or unpleasant. You can either get rewarded for doing them, or punished if you don’t. Now ask yourself, in which of these conditions would you like to live your very long life?

That’s why, in 1992, Colleen instituted Protected Contact at the Oakland Zoo, making our Zoo the second in the nation to try it. It’s been working for 20

Cheri Matthews, a long-time Animal Management volunteer, helps with another Elephant's training by delivering the treats on cue as Gina explains the process

years and now, finally, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is mandating that all accredited zoos begin using these techniques by September of 2014. From the Elephants’ point of view, it can’t happen soon enough.


What are some of the hallmarks of Protected Contact?

First, there is an Elephant-proof barrier between the Keepers and the Elephants at all times or,  out in the exhibit, the Keepers maintain a distance of at least 20 feet. Our barriers are as high as the Elephants’ shoulders. Bathing and other longer procedures are done in a chute so the Keepers can move around the animal while staying protected.


“I’m done? Don’t be done!” This Elephant enjoyed her training exercises so much she didn’t want them to end.


Keepers use padded “target poles” and verbal cues to direct the Elephants to move. So, if they need to look at an Elephant’s eye, they might hold the pole near the side of the Elephant’s face so she can touch the pole. She’s rewarded with a whistle “bridge” and a little treat while the examination is conducted. Remember, the Keeper stays on the other of the fence.

Elephants get to decide what they do and when. Since the Keepers only ask them to do what’s in their best interest and  make it worth their while with treats, they generally decide to go along with the program. In fact, while I was watching one Elephant go through some mental stimulation activities, the others waltzed up and nudged into the space, wanting attention too.


Elephants are are never chained unless they are having a complicated medical procedure. In circuses and amusement parks, Elephants are tethered by chains around their legs nearly 100% of the time they aren’t performing. Imagine spending most of your life never being able to walk more than a few feet in any direction. Imagine how that would affect your health and mental attitude.

At the end of the day our Elephants return to their barns for a snack and 3-5 hours of taking the weight off. Jeff Kinzley shows us all the features of the new HUGE barn that is now the night-time home of our male Elephant.

This is the new barn for our male Elephant that's nearly 1200 square feet. There are three large skylights, and two steel doors, one hydraulic, the other manual. The floor is about four feet of sand, with one corner of the stall sloped to about six feet. Sand is much easier on their feet, and having a slope makes it easier for an elephant to get up and down.















Why don’t all trainers use Protected Contact?

Well, for one thing, it takes time and Elephants are expensive to feed. So if you want to make a profit off them, you’re not going to mess around with humane training techniques. And if you want to make sure (or try to make sure) that your performers and trainers can work closely with the Elephants, you might think they need to be afraid of you.

In fact, keepers, trainers and circus performers are killed every year by Elephants during Free Contact. Sometimes it’s just pure rage and revenge and sometimes it’s an accident. In either case, the Elephant is usually the one that is punished.

If you need proof of what an angry Elephant can do, watch this shocking video we were assigned in class, but warning: it is  disturbing and very sad.


What Can We Do?

One way to stop the for-profit entertainment industry from abusing animals is to stop buying tickets to circuses and places where people can ride on Elephants all day long. We can go to events like Cirque du Soleil and the Pickle Family Circus which don’t rely on animals for entertainment. And we can teach our friends and family that it’s not OK to bully wild animals into performing. Maybe by the time they grow up, this will all be history. Greece recently banned animals from circuses, so there’s hope for the Western World.

The Zoo supports PAWS which helps animals in the entertainment industry. Both Colleen and Dr. Parrot, Executive Director of the Oakland Zoo, have testified in front of Congress to try to stop the abuses animals suffer as performers. Right now there’s a bill in front of Congress to stop the abuse of traveling animals. To learn how you can help get this important legislation passed, please go to

The Oakland Zoo’s Elephant care program has won the endorsement of PETA.


I’m so proud to be working in a Zoo that has such a long history of using civilized animal management techniques. And it’s not just with the Elephants, but with all our potentially dangerous animals. Keepers do bond with all their charges, but they never forget that they are working with wild animals—and they really don’t want to change them. They are perfect just as they are.


Next week, Birds and Reptiles on the African savannah.

Until then,


Volunteering, Zoo Ambassador Training, elephant, elephant barn, protected contact, target training, Colleen Kinzley, Jeff Kinzley, Gina Kinzley

Stepping through ZAM: Day 7, Children’s Zoo Module

by | December 23rd, 2011

Franette Armstrong takes us through Zoo Ambassador training with her.


Bipolar. That’s how I felt after tonight’s presentation by Amy Gotliffe, our Director of Conservation.

On the one hand, we heard heart-breaking stories of what is happening to animals everywhere.

On the other hand, we heard heartwarming stories about what our Zoo is doing to protect and preserve animals and their habitats.

Amy Gotliffe, Director of Conservation



Which would you like first? The good news or bad? I’ll give you the bad first so we can end on an upbeat note:

One in five animals is in danger of extinction. That’s 20%, right? We are losing animals faster than their species can evolve to adapt to the changes humans have made to the planet in the last 35 years.

Illegal killing and collection of animals for Asian medicine, bushmeat and the pet trade is a huge cause of animal death and suffering. Sun bears are placed in “crush cages” so their bile can be extracted. Chimps are trapped in snares where their limbs are torn off, and everything from parrots to monkeys to lions are captured to sell to  stores, auctions, and over the internet.

I was shocked to learn that the money made off the black market for pets is second only to the drug trade. In Central America up to 80% of the tropical birds captured and exported die before they reach their destination,  but there’s still enough profit left to make the pet trade a major cause of animal endangerment.

Fashion is another killer of wild animals and a high-profit industry that supplies the endless market for ivory, leather, snakeskin, fur coats and other status symbols.

Amy suggested that we not lecture our friends who have these items, but we shouldn’t compliment them, either. There’s nothing beautiful about killing animals for vanity.

Western appetite for seafood is devastating our oceans.


We have to ask ourselves where we Westerners fit into the economics of all this. Amy pointed out that seafood is our version of  bushmeat and we are wiping out entire species of fish like Chilean sea bass and King crab by unsustainable fishing and fish farming.

If we accept as pets animals like Amazon parrots, Gila Monsters, and even ocelots and tigers, which either come directly from the wild or were bred from parents that did, how can we criticize Africans for selling their own wildlife?  Every time a wild animal is bought as a pet, a slot opens up for another one to be captured and killed in transit or sold.
I told you this was depressing.

Habitat loss is another reason species are disappearing daily. Entire forests are being cleared so that we can mine the Coltan mineral used in our cellphones and electronics. As a result, the Mountain Gorilla population in the Congo has gone from 258 five years ago to 130 at last count. This mining is just as bad for people: it has brought slavery and violence to the Congo.

Habitats are being destroyed every day to give us lumber, paper, palm oil, precious metals… things we use without giving it a thought. People need to feed their families, though, so many of our projects abroad are to help locals develop alternatives to killing their wildlife.

Air pollution, water pollution, careless introduction of
nonnative plants and animals, all are taking their toll on
animals as diverse as polar bears and frogs.

Our own wild animals here in the Bay Area—bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions—are losing out like grizzlies, elk, and wolves did a century ago. We want to build on their land,
hike on their hills and then when they are forced to meet us face to face, we want them killed. More often than not, they are killed because of property damage, not because of threats to human safety.  As Amy said, we are hardly role models for the rest of the world when our needs conflict with animals’.

That brings me to the good part

Whew! Thought I’d never get to this but our Oakland Zoo is involved in dozens of projects here and around the world to stop this steady death spiral. I’ll just name a few we learned about tonight:

The Budongo Snare Removal Project is supported solely by the Zoo to help chimps in Uganda who are being swept up accidentally in snares left for animals that are wanted for food. This project has turned former hunters into conservationists and is a model for programs in other countries.

One of many types of snares that are capturing and maiming wild animals.

The Zoo supports with staff and supplies the Kibale Fuel Wood Project to offer residents in Uganda an alternative to clearing their forest for cooking fuel.

In the Bay area our Zoo supports The Bay Area Puma Project to help protect our local wildcats through research and judicious use of dart guns.

California Condors are coming back from near-extinction and our Zoo is building a facility to help treat those that have lead poisoning from the buckshot they pick up in their food.

We already learned about our Head Start program for the Western Pond Turtles (ZAM Day 4) and there are many, many more conservation efforts the Zoo supports through donations, supplies, staff and public education.

Our new “Quarters for Conservation” program is raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for projects Zoo visitors vote for with tokens they receive on admission.

Zoo Visitors have the chance to vote for 4 different conservation projects when they use the tokens they receive with admission.

On top of direct help to animals, the Zoo does its part by recycling, composting and using solar panels and hybrid or electric vehicles.

If you’re like me, you might feel overwhelmed by the size of the need and how urgent it is. I have an ache in my stomach just thinking about it right now. At least as a docent and volunteer I will be able to get directly involved in helping people understand that our choices have consequences.

A few easy things we can do right now

• Don’t flush kitty litter. The bacteria in cat feces isn’t killed by sewer treatment and is sickening the endangered sea otters.

• Don’t buy exotic or wild pets including reptiles and tropical birds. Here’s the  listing of illegal pets in California.

• Recycle your cellphones at the Zoo and demand that electronics companies develop gorilla-friendly technologies.  You’ll get a free train ticket and the phones will go to a group that refurbishes them to reduce the need for more Coltan. Write a letter to your cellphone maker today.

• Eat sustainably harvested fish. To get a list of what to avoid, go to  Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. You can print a pocket guide that makes choosing the right fish easy.

• Buy handmade products from the Zoo’s Conservation section of the gift shop. Sales of jewelry and other items help support people in Africa so they won’t have to kill wild animals to live.

Volunteer to make a difference.

I’m sure Amy’s complete list of things we can do would take a hundred blogs, but we have to start somewhere and I am going to go write Apple this minute about Coltan mining.

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,

Wild Animal Ownership Can Hurt All

by | November 17th, 2011

The events in Ohio demonstrate that the United States has an exotic animal regulation problem. Our country has not been able to address the lack of proper control over the keeping of wild animals as pets. To a zoo community that cares about the welfare of animals, those in the wild and those in captivity everywhere, this event was sad on many levels. My heart breaks for the wide variety of precious animals that were killed, but the 18 Bengal tigers lost on this day hit close to home.

First of all, this gorgeous species, and Asia’s most iconic predator, is vanishing in the wild. At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 100,000 wild tigers inhabited a range extending across Asia. There are only an estimated 3,000–4,000 wild tigers left, and only 7% remains of the tiger’s once vast geographic range.

Threatened by habitat loss, diminished prey, human–wildlife conflict, and the demand for tiger parts, especially bones for traditional Chinese medicine, tigers are now classified as endangered. Considering how few tigers now roam the earth in their natural habitat, it seems unnatural that between 6,000 and 8,000 tigers live as captive pets in the United States.

Regulations around these issues in the United States are divided into federal laws and State laws. The US Fish and Wildlife Agency oversees the import and export of live animals. Most of the exotic animals in the United States under private ownership are not imported, but bred from animals already here. Each state has very different policies regarding what exotic pets residents can own, and the care that must be given them. While the state of California has some of the strictest exotic pet laws, Ohio is one of ten US states that allows people to keep dangerous exotic animals like tigers.

This bifurcation of regulations makes it difficult to track the welfare and safety of privately owned tigers. The government has no way of knowing how many tigers there are in captivity, where they are, who owns them, their quality of life, or what happens to their body parts when they die. Authorities also have no way of knowing if the bones and skins of thousands of tigers in private hands in the United States are entering the wildlife trade and fueling the global demand for tiger parts.

It is my hope that the events in Ohio will awaken these sleepy policies, inspire tighter regulations within states, or even tougher federal laws. Meanwhile, we can act more awake in our own actions by avoiding all entertainment that uses tigers or other wild animals. We can also support organizations, such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society, Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund, and our own zoo, which has acted with compassion to give four tigers a new and forever home.

Please join us on November 17 as we screen the film, The Elephant in the Living Room. Winner of five Best Documentary Awards, the film courageously exposes the shocking reality behind the multi-billion dollar exotic pet industry with stunning photography, inspiring storytelling, and unprecedented access into a world rarely seen. We will also welcome special guest Warden William O’Brien from the California Department of Fish and Game. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Marian Zimmer Auditorium. for more information.

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 4, Children’s Zoo Module

by | November 14th, 2011

Franette Armstrong is writing about her experiences taking the Zoo Ambassador's courses.


Boy, today was jam-packed. Safety in the Oakland Zoo. Pond turtles, Children’s Zoo tour, Mammal taxonomy. My head is spinning.

Keeping Zoo visitors safe and animals calm is the first responsibility of every volunteer and staffer, whether on duty or off. Lost kids, climbing kids, dangerous behavior, possible evacuations …it’s all part of being a Docent. The Zoo needs eyes and ears everywhere.

We role-played and got tips on situations that might occur in the Children’s Zoo. We will all carry radios whenever we are on duty, so we learned how to work them and practiced radio protocol.

Western Pond Turtles—Zoo Research in Progress
Next, Kristin Mealiffe , one of our zookeepers, joined us to describe a project the Zoo is conducting with Sonoma State University to reverse the decline of these turtles in California.

SSU collects eggs, hatches them, and then sends them to the nursery we’ve set up in the Children’s Zoo.  Here they can grow in ideal conditions until they are big enough not to be eaten by non-native bullfrogs and bass.

Tipping the scale at less than 3 ounces, Dilbert promotes Western Pond Turtle survival.

Our baby turtles will be released into a healthy lake in Northern California wearing microchips so we can track their progress. Hopefully, all will grow to their full size (10-12 inches) and bring many more like themselves into the world. So far we’ve released eighty and you can see some neat photos of this here.

This project will benefit not only our State, but Washington and Oregon where they have lost all or most of their Pond turtles to water contamination, the pet trade and non-native predators.

Out to the Zoo for Hard-won Advice
Nobody knows how to be a docent like those who have done it for years. Today we had the benefit of several who took us around the different exhibits and taught us how to talk about them to children.

An experienced Zoo Docent gives us advice on handling safety issues that can come up.

One of the key features of a good Docent is the ability to answer questions simply, briefly and with a focus. For example, if we are asked about the Panamanian Golden Frogs, which are nearly extinct outside zoos, we can tell them:

  1. 1)    An interesting fact (they are the mascot of an entire country)
  2. 2)    What threatens them (chemicals in their streams is one problem)
  3. 3)    What zoos are doing to help (breeding projects)
  4. 4)    What we can do in our local area (keep our water clean so our frogs don’t go the way of Panama’s).

More precious than gold in Panama, these little frogs are getting a second life in zoo breeding projects.










Using this formula will help me format the tons of information we are getting on every animal. Of course, with older kids and adults who are really interested, we can tell them as much as we know.

Funding a New Zoo isn’t Child’s Play
To appreciate the splendor of our current Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, during lunch we got a brief slideshow showing how far we’ve come. The new kid’s Zoo opened in 2005 after the old baby zoo was demolished. It took three years and cost nearly $12 million, paid for by citizens who passed a bond measure, charitable foundation grants, and by individual donors like you and me—all for the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of kids who visit every year.

Mammals at Last

Finally we are going to learn about the mammals in the Children’s Zoo and, of course, that starts with taxonomy.

Sarah zoomed through a mind-bending lecture on how mammals are divided up into classes based on their reproductive methods, forms of locomotion and other characteristics. It is very complex, let me just say that, but some fascinating facts emerged:

20% of all mammals are bats!

Bats are the only mammals that fly. And they really do fly. Even though they have to take off by letting go and dropping, they can reverse course and fly upstream, unlike gliding animals such as Flying Squirrels. Their wings are membranes stretched between their finger bones like the webbing in duck feet. Our bats, which are Fruit Bats,  don’t use echolation (sounds to detect prey) because their food doesn’t move.

Some mammals lay eggs but most give live birth to young which are more independent (a goat) or totally helpless (a human or kangaroo baby). There are only 3 egg-laying mammals including the duckbilled platypus.

The largest class of mammals, Carnivoras, are not all true carnivores. Some, like bears, eat both meat and plants—they are called omnivores. Some, like pandas, are herbivores and eat only plants, and some, such as tigers and lions—who are true carnivores—eat only meat and get plants as a side dish if they are in the dinner animal’s stomach.

Locomotion is Destiny

Humans and kangaroos walk on their full feet by rolling their foot from heel to the toe. This makes them the slowest animals, but they have the best balance. Kangaroos have to hop with both feet to move around so they really need that extra edge. Their tails help, too.

Dogs and Cats walk on their toes, so they are faster than humans because less paw contacts the ground. Don’t try to outrun a cheetah.

Goats, horses and hippos wall on their toenails. Their hooves are not their toes, which are bones up inside. They walk like a ballerina en pointe. This can make them very fast if they are like one-toed horses and two-toed gazelles, or very slow if they are four-toed hippos.

The pygmy goat walks on its toenails like all hooved animals.

Goats and Bighorn Sheep can skitter across rocks because they either have hair between the toes of their  cloven hooves, or a spongey place there. The two toes help grip the rocks like fingers. There’s a great photo of this here.

One good thing about the homework is that it raises so many questions I can’t stop researching once I get it done. Shocking to the core is my discovery that whales and dolphins are descended from the earliest hoofed animals and their nearest living relative is  the hippo!

Believe me, this is just a tiny sampler of what we learned today. On Wednesday we’ll learn about the mammals in our Children’s Zoo and next Saturday meet them in person.

Spoiler Alert: Day 3 Quiz Answer. Stop reading if you haven’t been to that blog yet.

Snakes can open their mouths so wide because of the quadrate bones at the back of their jaws and their split mandibles which have ligaments that stretch to allow a pig-sized entrée to enter a python’s mouth.

That’s all for this week. See you Wednesday,



Stepping Through ZAM: Day 1, Children’s Zoo Module

by | October 13th, 2011



Franette Armstrong, volunteer and soon-to-be-docent, is journaling her progress through Zoo Ambassador Training


Tonight has finally arrived, after three months of waiting for my Zoo Ambassador Training course to begin. Twenty-five other Oakland Zoo volunteers and I will be taking classes twice a week to learn everything needed to be docents in the Children’s Zoo. This ZAM course lasts six weeks. In January there is a ZAM course for the Savannah area followed by one for the Rainforest. I intend to take all three.

I thought you’d like to step through the training along with me to see if it is something you might want to do some day. I hope you learn a little of what we’re being taught in the process.

The Real Purpose of Zoos

This first week is introductory and volunteers who have taken the other courses don’t have to come until next week. We Newbies, though, need to learn a little bit about zoos in general and how animals are classified by scientists so we’ll  have a framework to put all the new information in.

Newbies and experienced volunteers are taking our class along with docents back for more training.


Did you know that zoos started out as private menageries — collections of animals by wealthy people with huge estates. Then these owners began opening up their land to visitors for a fee and that started it all.

Entertainment or Recreation? But early zoos…and some even today…had a very different philosophy about what they were there for. Entertainment was their chief goal, so they made bears wear tutus and elephants prance around on their back legs—basically making them be more like human performers than the natural animals they were.

In more recent decades, modern zoos came to realize that animals should be allowed to be animals and people should come to zoos for recreation—active involvement—rather than passive entertainment. Now, the “good” zoos, about 200 in the U.S., all have to meet strict accreditation standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, plus pass inspections by the USDA.

Docents in training at Oakland Zoo

Recreation is actually a side benefit of zoos: The most important missions are conservation, education and research.

So today our zookeepers do train animals, but only for the animals’ benefit: Lions and zebras are taught to press their sides to the fence so they can be given vaccinations. Elephants know that every morning they will lift one foot at a time for their daily pedicures. Otters willingly walk into chutes so that they can be examined and treated without being scooped up and traumatized. It’s all good.

And here’s an important point: All the animals in our zoo were rescued, or born here, or obtained from another AZA-accredited zoo/responsible captive-breeding program.

Back to Biology

For most of us it has been awhile since we studied animal classification, so it was back to school for the last hour tonight.

It's all about taking notes to remember all these facts.

We learned that all the animals in the zoo fall into the Kingdom Animalia because…they are animals (as opposed to plants). Within this are a bunch of classes of animals which include Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds and Mammals. Each class has defining characteristics shared by all members of that class.

For example, to be a Reptile, you need to have scales, lungs, a 3-chambered heart and lay eggs. (Take notes, there’s a quiz coming up).

Amphibians have porous skin that instantly absorbs water, air (and air pollution), chemicals, and other substances. This is a good reason not to pick up frogs. And it is a reason that frogs are the harbinger of doom for a troubled ecosystem because they will feel the pain long before we will. Unlike Reptiles, Amphibians can go through metamorphosis throughout their life cycle—so a tadpole can become a frog, but a baby snake just grows up to be an adult snake.

Arthopods such as ants, spiders, lobsters and millipedes have jointed legs, but unlike Amphibians and Reptiles, they

Have you petted a Millipede? Feels like one of those tightly coiled cords we attach to pencils. They have four legs on each segment of the coil.

don’t have veins with blood in them…their insides are full of—and this was the word the teacher used—goo. Because of the jointed-leg requirement, snails, worms and starfish don’t get to be Arthropods.


This sleepy little guy is a Madagascan hedgehog called a Tenrec, and a perfect example of his class: Mammals.


That leaves Birds and Mammals, two classes of animals we all can easily identify. But what are the key ways they differ from each other? Well, birds have beaks, wings and feathers and they lay eggs. Mammals have fur or hair, mammary glands, and live births.

A little challenge for you

Our homework is to take a list of about 50 animals and classify them according to these groups—a Google exercise in the making. Want to test yourself?

1) Which of the following is a Reptile?

a) Turtle

b) Snake

c) Gila Monster

d) All of the above

2) Which of the following is NOT an Arthropod?

a) Black Widow spider

b) Leaf Cutter ant

c) Earthworm

d) Horseshoe Crab

e) None of the above

3) What is a requirement of the class called Fish?

a) Lays eggs

b) Has gills

c) Is ectothermic

d) Spends its entire life cycle in the water

e) All of the above

4) Given the requirement that all mammals must have fur or hair and feed milk to their young, is a whale truly a mammal?

If you answered d, c, e, and “yes,” move to the head of the class! By the way, whales and dolphins are born with moustaches that help them locate their mothers and this lets them line up with the mammals.

Next up:

Saturday. 4 1/2 hours of hands-on training out in the zoo. Can’t wait. I’ll talk to you afterward.