Have Critters, Will Travel
Docent and Coordinator of the Los Angeles Zoo Special Needs Outreach Program
Gail Marko, Margie Hawkins, Kat Spearman & Fran Zell
Docents, Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association
Los Angeles, CA
In the early 80’s, there was a need for a program to reach out to persons with special needs. Originally, a group of Los Angeles Zoo docents interested in creating an Outreach Program, visited Children’s Hospital, Shriner’s Hospital and other facilities in order to determine what was needed. Doctors, staff and community coordinators really felt there was a need for a Los Angeles Zoo program that would bring live animals and animal information to their clients. Shriner’s hospital has been the longest standing commitment for over twenty years and has been visited more times than any other facility. GLAZA, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association has sponsored the Outreach Program since its beginnings. The program is free of charge to the facilities visited through the generous support of GLAZA and community grants.
Originally zoo programs were divided into two categories, “in zoo” and “outreach.” “In Zoo” were programs at the zoo including, Animals and You, where small animals were shown in the Children’s Zoo. The number of facilities and the number of participants has continued to grow throughout the years. Up until September of 1995, the program continued to be called the Special Education Program, then Special Education Outreach, but was changed to be known as it is today, Special Needs Outreach to better reflect the needs of the intended audience. Along with the name change, the program was expanded to include senior citizen, retirement homes, rehab centers and hospitals.
Originally, the program traveled a maximum radius of 40 miles from the zoo, but now has been changed to 35 miles because of traffic congestion.
Currently, Docents are recruited by presentations at provisional classes and at docent daily meetings. They must be in good standing, have a current TB test and the approval of the docent Chair and Manager of Volunteer Programs. Docent trainees ‘ride along’ on regular visitations to special needs facilities. After a period of time, they’re asked to join the program. Keepers train the new docents in the handling and care of the small animals taken on the program. Three docents including a trained driver with insurance certification are needed to present the program. Five animals are usually taken on the presentations. During July, August and September, live animals are not taken off zoo property due to summer heat. All summer presentations are only done with biofacts.
A MODEL PRESENTATION WITH LIVE ANIMALS AND BIOFACTS:
At the beginning of the presentation, one of the docents will introduce herself and the other presenters and will give an overview of the program. She also will emphasize that all of the bio-facts came from animals that died of natural causes. Participants are instructed to use two fingers when touching the bio-facts in preparation for touching the live animals. The docents will explain the unique aspects of the animals’ adaptations, behavior, diet and abilities followed by a participatory discussion. Docents will show either a live mammal or reptile to the group, explaining their unique
characteristics. To ensure that animals are not cross contaminated, reptiles or mammals are displayed by the docent that retrieved them from their cages. The presentation will end with a discussion and display of information about birds and their characteristics.
A question and answer period may follow.
LOGISTICS OF SETTING UP A SIMILAR PROGRAM:
First, a need in your community must be established. The program must have the support and cooperation of the zoo administration, keepers and docents. Letters of introduction to prospective institutions should include a brief overview of the program you wish to present. Means of transportation should be established. Docents must be trained in the care, crating and transport of animals by the zoo staff. With the cooperation of the keepers and the director of your program, an overall plan for the presentation should be created. Animals are assigned and scheduled by the zookeepers.
Monies should be allocated for the purchase of bio-fact materials and supplies. A coordinator should be identified who would interact with the institutions by taking calls and making reservations. An assistant would schedule the docents who would do the presentation at the sites.
Docent presentations should be evaluated by the zookeepers or the Volunteer Coordinator on a yearly basis. Monthly statistics are reported to the Volunteer Coordinator and an annual recap and evaluation of the program is required.