Zoo Teens: A Summer Volunteer Program At The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
Laurie Machen and Jim Adams, Docents, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
The objective of the Zoo Teen program at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is to provide a fun and fulfilling educational experience for teens ages fourteen to seventeen. The teens volunteer one day per week doing a
variety of jobs in various areas of the zoo. The Zoo Teen program started over 35 years ago with approximately 50 Teens, and it’s grown and expanded tremendously through the years.
The Zoo Teen program is an eight week volunteer program that begins in June and ends in August. From experience, high absenteeism made it more practical to end the program the second week of August and cancel the program on July 4th. The program runs seven days a week with the Teens working the same day each week with as allowance of two absences. Their day begins at 9:30 AM with a one hour lunch time. Each week there’s a behind the scenes tour of a different animal department or a class on animal handling or enrichment.
This allows the Teens to see how the zoo works away from the public and gives them an opportunity to talk to the animal keepers. During the last week, we throw a pizza party at lunch to thank the Teens.
The program is based primarily in the Kids Kingdom. Kids Kingdom exhibits mostly North American species with play areas interspersed throughout the area. The Teens rotate through a variety of duties each day.
Activities include helping to clean and care for the animals used in docent programs, helping care for the Education department’s animals, and helping to prepare and staff the Kid’s Kingdom’s contact yards (deer, kangaroos, goats and sheep). The Teens also help with Zoo Camp (children’s summer program), the Stingray touch tank in the Aquarium, exhibit guiding, touch tables, and animal handling. Special projects may be assigned when asked by the staff. The Zoo Teens have helped with observations during animal introductions or births. Zoo Teens are also invited to help staff our Haunted House during Zoo Boo (our Halloween extravaganza).
Our work begins on January 2nd and because of the popularity of the program, we don’t actively recruit for the program. The program seems to be advertised through “word of mouth” or by seeing our Teens at work. When asked about the program, prospective teens are told to call on January 2nd as the program fills quickly. The number of phone calls is tremendous and the program is often filled by January 3rd. The prospective teens call our Volunteer Coordinator who takes their name, address and age. When the list is compiled, it is given to the Zoo Teen chairperson. In 2007, we sent out 97 letters to prospective teens and had a waiting list of over 60 names by the end of the first week. Letters are sent out explaining the program and the commitment the prospective teens are asked to make, and who to call to set up an interview appointment. We have a Saturday in March set aside for interviews.
During this same period, letters are sent out to the current Zoo Teens asking whether or not they are returning to the program. Once the returning Zoo Teens have called in, we know how many new teens can be accepted into the program. We would like to keep our numbers between 100 110.
During the interviews, the teens are asked to fill out a number of forms that include: a general questionnaire to gauge their interests, a Release form, and a personal information questionnaire. Once the forms are filled out, the teens are interviewed by a docent.
The docent goes over their forms and gets more information where necessary. In the interview, the docent gets them to talk about their interests, why they want to be a Zoo Teen and what they expect to get out of the program. The docent gives the teen more information about our program, what is required (The Zoo Teen must purchase a T-shirt.), what their duties will be and answer any questions the teens may have about the program.
There are also docents in the waiting area answering any questions the parents may have. Many of the prospective teens are fourteen and this is their first experience applying for a job. They are nervous and shy. Our docents are very good in drawing the teens out, making them comfortable and getting them to talk about themselves and their animals. During the interview, we also check for allergies and other medical conditions that may interfere with their working at the zoo. If there is a question, a doctor’s written permission is required. After the interview, the docents give a brief evaluation of the teen and if there are any questions about their being a Zoo Teen, the Zoo Teen Chairperson or Volunteer Coordinator will talk to the parents or teen at greater length.
After the interview, letters are sent out to the prospective Zoo Teens saying they are accepted into the program. Enclosed with the letter are a uniform order form and a request for their two choices of days to work. When the order form is returned, uniforms are ordered, the schedule is made up and any handouts needed for the Orientation are copied.
A few weeks before the program begins, there is mandatory Orientation for all the Zoo Teens. At the Orientation, the Teens pick up their manual, T-shirts, purchase a zoo membership if they are not already members and fill out an emergency information card which is kept at the zoo. At this time, the schedule is given out. In 2007, we had approximately 130 Zoo Teens and we have found through experience that it is easier to make schedule changes when all the Teens are in the same room. Cookies and soda are served while the teens are getting organized. We’ve found that they don’t get as restless while waiting for everyone to finish.
After the Teens have received their uniforms and filled out the paperwork, we begin the Orientation. We go over the manual which includes the contact information of staff and docents they may need to contact, monographs on all the animals they will be working with, animal handling protocols, a map of the zoo and the Zoo Teen rules. The Zoo Teen rules have developed through the years from problems or issues that have arisen in the past. They also include zoo policy on uniform standards, use of body jewelry, etc. Two infractions of these rules could result in dismissal from the program. We also go over general information on where to report for work, changes in the program, and any other topics pertinent to the year’s program. After the Orientation, the returning Teens are dismissed and the new Zoo Teens and their parents are taken on a tour to show them the Docent’s office (Their headquarters for the summer.) and the Burrow, the docent animal holding area.
Once schedule changes are finalized, it is given to the Volunteer Coordinator. She makes up the Zoo Teen sign in book and makes the work assignments for each day. We have docent day captains assigned to each day who’s duties include supervising the Teen’s animal handling and getting the Teens to their behind the scenes tours.
During the first week of the program, an animal handling class is given to the Teens by an Education animal care person. It is a good refresher for the returning Teens and helps get the new Teens started.
We have created a popular program that is sometimes challenging and have found that by working together, the Zoo Teen committee, Volunteer Coordinator, docents and staff can overcome any problems and create an enjoyable and fulfilling experience for everyone. The Zoo Teen program at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium continues to grow and we hope that by providing this opportunity to the Teens, our goal of promoting conservation and animal awareness continues after the Teens have left the program. Several past Zoo Teens have gone on to be docents, zookeepers, animal or conservation educators and veterinarians.