Volunteers Respond to Economic Times Turning the Negative into the Positive
By Betty Goodman, Bettie Farace, and Amy Miller
We are volunteers at the Minnesota Zoo. Since its beginning in 1978, the 350 docents at the Zoo have called themselves “Adult Interpretive Volunteers”. We are under the auspices of the Education Department, although this hasn’t been consistently true through the Zoo’s short history.
The Minnesota Zoo is one of only a handful of state zoos in the country. This means that we are considered a State agency, our staff are State employees, and we receive a percentage of our budget from available State revenues, currently 39% of our needed budget. The additional monies must be made up with gate receipts and private funding.
The downturn in state and national economies was particularly difficult 2 years ago for the programs and staff at the Minnesota Zoo. Budget cuts were required of all State Departments, including the Minnesota Zoo, in order to balance the budget. Minnesota also has a “no new taxes” Governor. So, for several years State funding for the Zoo was decreased. At the same time, other entities were affected; for example, household incomes decreased affecting the numbers who paid Zoo entrance fees, and public schools had fewer resources to bring school children to Zoo field trips. This resulted in lower attendance.
The Minnesota Zoo was forced to make some hard decisions. It cut or eliminated staff, it eliminated a favorite exhibit area that was “staff intensive”, and, at the same time, needed to construct fresh exhibits to attract the public’s interest.
The favorite exhibit area that was closed was ZooLab, a live animal interactive area where volunteers held and interpreted live animals for the public to touch. It was a major interpretive area for volunteers, and one of the most popular places at the Zoo for visitors. Not only did volunteers feel the loss heavily, but they also were put in a position of trying to explain what had happened to this favorite place for visitors. In addition, it was a lost opportunity for interpretation that was the core of our volunteer program.
Another major change made by Zoo management was the conversion of the Asian Tropics Trail, which contains the largest animal collection at the Zoo, to a Tropics Hotspots Trail. This opened the door to a greater conservation message on this Trail. Hot Spots are defined as an area that has lost at least 70% of its endemic species plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.
We’ll spend the remainder of this paper discussing how the Minnesota Zoo volunteers responded to these major changes and the following challenges they presented: interpretation sites, storage space, and training. Another challenge was figuring out how to deal with volunteers who were less motivated in using artifacts since their former experience was primarily with live animals.
First, how did we increase interpretation opportunities with the new Trail conservation emphasis? How did we motivate the public to “see through new eyes” our existing collection of animals on that Trail? And, how did we all learn the techniques and information needed to create a new program?
A sub-committee of a larger Volunteer Interpretation Committee, operated independently from the Education Department, decided to develop a curriculum featuring Hot Spot conservation. The Minnesota Zoo already displays animals from a number of Asian Hot Spots, for example, the Komodo Monitor, Sun Bears, and White-Cheeked Gibbons. The first Hot Spot constructed, as a new area by the Zoo was Madagascar, featuring ring-tailed and red ruffed lemurs. The zoo’s exhibit shop built a realistic looking baobab tree that houses other interesting small critters.
Volunteers already had an interpretative booth on every Trail. Our Zoo is built on trail concepts that are geographic biomes with artifacts at these stationary booths. Rather than remain with the concept of “fixed booths”, the challenge was how to have interpretation at exhibit sites. Each Hot Spot talk was modeled after the already developed Northern Trail Tiger Cart, encouraging volunteers to take any artifact from the Cart and talk about that part. No scripted talk needed to be memorized.
One consideration was how to transport the artifacts to the exhibit site, keeping in mind any special needs of the volunteers. Since there are places for visitors to sit along the Trail, we decided to use those benches as explicit sites to launch each exhibit’s interpretive talk. And, the name “Bench Talks” seemed appropriate.
Members of the sub-committee developed an individual bench talk “fun facts” sheet. The plan was submitted to the Education Department for approval. Plastic boxes and bags were purchased to store artifacts for each bench talk and to transport to sites. A red cloth was used to grab public attention to a Hot Spot Bench Talk. The Zoo was very supportive of this new idea and plan.
One night of training, where volunteers rotated through all the Bench Talks that were given by the members of the sub committee, was very well attended and well received. For those unable to attend, mini-trainings at a semi-annual update-training seminar were available. Experienced volunteers who had attended the initial training did mentoring on site. All volunteers were given an entire packet of bench talk materials, and each specific “fun fact sheet” was placed in each plastic artifact box.
Did it work? Comments have been positive from both volunteers and the public. Volunteers have found it much easier to connect with visitors. There has been increased emphasis on conservation, making the visibility of the Zoo’s mission more obvious. School groups have been reached in a different way. And, because they have been so much fun, the sub-committee has developed an additional 10 new bench talks partly because we now have South American Hot Spots as well!
The second major change was what to do with the closed favorite exhibit area called ZooLab an animal interactive area with volunteers holding animals and allowing visitors to touch and learn respect for all living creatures. Shortly after closing this popular site, Zoo management recognized that there was no specific space for small children to play, especially during a Minnesota winter. They asked the volunteers to develop a room for this age group. The same sub-committee of the Interpretation Committee designed a parent/child interactive room with activities appropriate for ages 3 to 8 years. It was self-contained, and used approximately half the space that had been ZooLab. It would be run by volunteers, so no staff was needed.
The sub-committee designed creative modules for specific fun and learning activities. The room modules were: Animal Health, Animal Costumes, Dive Area, and an activities area with rubbings tables, puzzles, and books.
We have recently added a puppet stage. The Zoo chose the name “Kids Den”, and renovated the room for public use. Talented volunteers painted ceiling to floor mirrors and spool tables, built exam and crayon rubbings tables, sewed animal costumes and tails, and collected donated equipment including diving suits, flippers, plush animals, x-rays, and an x-ray box. We had a small budget from the Education Department to buy supplies like crayons, toy medical supplies, animal crates, puzzles, the mirrors, Duplos, paint, etc.
We set rules for visitors using the room. First, parents must accompany children and remain in the room. Second, no food or drinks, especially hot beverages, are allowed in the room. Third, no strollers are allowed for lack of space. We asked adults accompanying the children to help kids pick up before leaving. The expectation was for parents to play with their children.
The room opened January 2004 with volunteer supervision daily. Volunteers who preferred to not work in this area were assigned elsewhere. The concept was an instant success, and became so popular that it is now open year-round instead of the original plan to make it available only during the winter. Children often head to the Kids Den early in their Zoo visit, and come back at the end of the day. They are reluctant to leave to go home.
And, as an indicator of success, the Zoo gave the volunteers $5,000 for new materials in the Kids Den for 2005!
What have we learned? The Kids Den no longer takes continuous supervision. A volunteer sets up the activities before the room opens in the morning, a check-in several times a day by volunteers passing by, and a “putting away” time at the end of the day have become routine and almost always successful. The Day Captain for the day has the option of deciding whether it is appropriate to open the room during special occasions or on days with large school group volume. It continues to be a very popular room.
What is the “Big Picture” learned here? Just as zoos must change to meet visitor expectations and economic pressures, so must volunteers be flexible and willing to change their expectations as well. This doesn’t mean that everyone is completely satisfied or happy with the changes, and that we don’t miss the old ways, especially the live animal interactive room. We can find working with artifacts satisfying, and an excellent way to teach respect. And, taking 3 steps forward, and 2 steps backwards still moves us forward as things change for the positive.