Friday, November 2, 2012

My Zoo Volunteer Training Has Begun!

My temporary badge
Today I was at the Toronto Zoo for the first week of my ten-week training program to become a "Weekday Zoo Volunteer". Each session (except the two weeks in the middle where we will be "shadowing" an experienced Volunteer on a walking tour) will be from 10-3 on Fridays, with a break of three weeks over Christmas and New Years. The intake group is very large this year—twenty-eight potential new Volunteers—because in their existing pool there are some members with increasing mobility issues who are unable to take on the task of a two-hour tour any longer. I believe there were a total of five new Volunteers last year (there may have been even fewer); that's quite a jump from one year to the next. It does appear that I came along at just the right time. It was pretty nice to sit in a room full of like-minded people, all eager to share their love of wildlife and conservation with young people, hoping to light that spark within each of them. I am very much looking forward to doing this for a long time.

Zoo Volunteer leading a tour
Most of our duties during the winter months will involve leading school groups on curriculum-based tours, acting as Nature Interpreters for the kids (and their teachers). There will also be opportunities to be involved with Student Workshops as well as outreach presentations, such as community-based "Interpretation Tables" at events such as the Taste of the Danforth festival, and "Zoo to You" programs at individual schools. We will also help to staff special events at the Zoo, such as the recent "Penguin Awareness Day" and "Boo at the Zoo". The Zoo welcomes approximately 1.2 million visitors each year, of which about 150,000 are students; Volunteers are vitally important in enlightening and engaging the tours that are virtually omnipresent through the school months. To that end, after we did a quick "Bingo" game as an ice-breaker, our group was given a "Scavenger Hunt" to complete, which took us on a path our Volunteer Coordinator, Karen, referred to as the "Inner Loop". We were given about 75 minutes to complete our tasks, which is roughly half the time we would have to take a school group on the same tour. I was delighted to find that my knowledge of the Zoo and its creatures is pretty sound already; nevertheless, I saw a few things on the "hunt" that I had never even noticed before. Along the way we also came upon a member of the Zoo staff who told us he had just given the lions (tawny lions, the white lions were off display) a "snack" and that the cheetahs were also out and prowling around. Then he mentioned that there was a brand-new zebra baby (three weeks old) who was also out on display today and it almost killed me to have to turn back to our classroom short of seeing her. However, I rectified that situation the moment the class was adjourned for the day.

We were also given some sheets regarding "Principles of Interpretation", one list containing points made by Freeman Tilden, the second by Larry Beck and Ted Cable. All of the quotes were very interesting, but the one that spoke to me the most was this one (from Tilden):
"The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation."
I hope to utilize that philosophy quite a bit in the months to come.

Zebra baby and mom
After filling out the requisite forms and some discussion about the loop we had walked, we were dismissed for the day. I immediately made a beeline, of course, for the zebra enclosure which is at the far end of the African Savannah path. I paused momentarily to say hi to the elephants, whose fate has finally been passed back to the Zoo itself in a wonderful decision made by Council late last night, and when I came upon the zebras I found the sweet little new arrival calmly grazing beside her mother. They were not close to the edge of the area, so the shots I was able to get were of a long-distance variety; however, despite not having a tripod they came out pretty well for the most part. This one is my favourite; I also took a couple of videos, one of which I have embedded below. In it you can see that the baby's mom was trying to keep her from suckling; I don't know if the weaning process has already begun (the youngster was definitely eating grass) or if there just wasn't milk ready for her yet. After I stopped shooting the video, the mom and baby walked slightly behind some rocks and I could clearly see the little one nursing at that point.

On my way back to the main gates, I stopped in to see my penguins, who were all indoors (along with the cormorants) receiving a late-afternoon feeding. Some came out of their "nests" (which are all converted pet carriers) to nibble on some fish before retreating back to brood. I spotted Eldon close to Brandon (the Zoo's penguin keeper) and not far away were Chupa and Matata, practically inseparable. I wonder how much longer it will be possible to tell this year's chicks apart from the more mature adults; for now, their colouration is quite distinct and it's not particularly challenging at all.

I popped my head in at the Volunteer Centre on my way out of the Zoo, reporting back to Karen on how cute the new zebra was. I found out there that it was a female and I think I heard that her name is "Shanika", but I am not entirely sure. Either way, she was absolutely lovely, especially in the way her fur has varying degrees of intensity in the striping at this point in her development. I will likely check in on her a few times in the next weeks.

So that was my first day. It was even better than I had hoped and I had built it up quite a bit in my mind. I can't wait until I shadow my first tour in a couple of weeks. I'll report back as the classes progress; for now, here is the video I promised you. Enjoy!


  1. Sounds like a great day! I am glad it went so well, and I'm excited to have an "inside edge" at the zoo!

    1. Thanks, Sarah! As always, you were my "inside edge" before I ever showed up for training. :)


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