Friday, May 9, 2014

Seeing Beautiful: At the Zoo

When my grandchildren moved away in January, I knew I was going to need a new activity to keep life interesting. Looking at volunteer or part-time work opportunities, one of the sites I thought of was the Virginia Zoo. It's 25 minutes away and one of my favorite places to visit in the local area.
Red Panda
They say "timing is everything" - training for new docents would begin in a few weeks. "Click here to download an application." I sat back and stared at the computer screen for several minutes. Finally the decision was made -  to put off making a decision!

Zoo docent. Would I really want to do that? I've loved zoos ever since we lived in San Diego and were members of the world famous Zoo and Wild Animal Park there. The National Zoo is amazing too, large and beautifully landscaped. As part of the Smithsonian it's even free. But the hometown zoo when I was growing up was a sad and smelly place. I went there on a school trip and never asked to go back.

The Virginia Zoo animals look healthy. The enclosures are lovely, natural-looking settings. But as a docent, I would see behind the scenes. I might get to know the keepers. What if it turned out that the Zoo was not a place I could stand behind and support? Maybe I'd learn that behind the prettiness on display was ugliness, meanness, abuse of any kind? What if it was just all about the money?

I decided to go for it, because if I didn't like what I found, I'd respond the same way I did as a kid.  I'd walk away and never go back. Training started in February. It went by so fast! Suddenly it was April, and I got my official Zoo Crew shirt. To date I've shadowed veteran interpreters, begun training to handle animals, and taught two classes myself. Getting to talk about the animals I love is so much fun! And it felt great to get in front of kids and teach again (I do miss that part of my old job).
Education - and Fun 

So what did I learn by meeting the keepers, the Virginia Zoo's director, program animal manager, educators, and veterinarian, and by going behind the scenes? 

  • The Virginia Zoo is just as scrupulously clean behind the restaurant and in the night cage areas as it is in the public areas. 
  • The mission of the education department is: Connecting people with nature; inspiring conservation; empowering change. They take that mission very seriously.

Baby Siamang Gibbon Lola, with her parents 
  • The city of Norfolk and the Zoo have invested four million dollars in a state-of-the-art modern hospital facility for their animals. It will be equipped with mikes so the vet can educate the public about the procedures she's performing.
    Wellness Center

  • The keepers love their charges. They delight in watching the animals enjoy treats and do interesting things. (One keeper confided, "Our job is harder when the weather's bad and the animals have to stay in - because we have to keep them entertained all day!")

    New Watusi cow meets the rhino
  • All-positive training is used - clickers and all- to move the animals around. They are trained to offer the appropriate body part for inoculations, and to stand on a scale for regular weigh-ins. 
  • Rigorous documentation is used so that program animals are not stressed and never overused. There are standards for each species regarding the outdoor temperatures and maximum length of time they can be used for demonstrations (usually not more than 30 minutes).
Baby Bongo
  • The Virginia Zoo is fully accredited by the AZA and participates in the Species Survival Plans for a number of endangered species. These people have a genuine passion for conservation.  For one example, the bongos have been so prolific that the Zoo has been able to send some to be introduced back into the wild.
  • The head reptile and amphibian keeper is also the Regional Director for FrogWatch, a citizen science program affiliated with the AZA.
  • Most, if not all, of the animals on display or used in programs were born in captivity. I'm not aware of any that were taken from the wild, except for the wallabies that were just acquired. The wallabies are considered pests in parts of Australia, and these were going to be victims of an extermination program.
Wallaby released in his new home

I've been hugely impressed by everything and everyone at our Zoo. I'm proud to help them educate and inspire the community. If only all zoos were as dedicated to their animals, to conservation, and to education.

Terra Toby will return next week after a short break.


  1. This zoo sounds absolutely wonderful. I'm glad you are enjoying your new volunteer position.

  2. This is awesome! I think it would be pretty interesting to work at a zoo. When I started working with exotic pets, I just fell in love. I can only imagine how I'd feel working at a zoo. Our largest zoo around here is the San Antonio Zoo. There is also an Austin zoo but I have yet to visit that one.

  3. So glad you went ahead despite the earlier reservations ans so pleased you are enjoying it and are happy that the behind scenes live up to the strict guidelines they have for the viewing public. Have a super Saturday.
    Best wishes Molly

  4. That wallaby looks so adorable hopping out of its crate!
    So glad you are enjoying your behind the scenes look at the zoo. It's nice to know they're being treated well around the clock!

  5. Wow, that is awesome! I am jealous! There is a zoo by me but it is 45 minutes away or more, with traffic. And I am already busy on most weekends with my therapy and my other volunteer job, and I am at work during the week. But boy, would I love to be able to get so close to animals like that! What a special job you have found! :D

  6. I always wondered about the animals at the zoo. I know not every zoo is the same but you surely have a great one there! Conservation and education are so important.

  7. WOW!!! That sounds like an amazing zoo!
    And look at that huge torto!

  8. I love good zoos and this one sounds great
    Retro rover


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