Beneath the Surface: Advanced Docent Training to Advance Public Knowledge
Los Angeles Zoo, Los Angeles, CA
The Los Angeles Zoo docent program is proud to be celebrating its 36th year. In 2001, our 474 active members toured 21,000 children and adults, managed and staffed seven in-Zoo programs, and took our Zoo out to over 10,000 individuals through six eclectic outreach committees. How have we built such a successful and dynamic program? By maintaining high academic standards.
Our provisional docent training includes:
– a 23-week UCLA accredited course in biology and ecology
– a mid-term and final, with a required passing grade of 75% or higher
– a year of mentoring with an established docent
– and an on-the-job touring evaluation.
All active Los Angeles Zoo docents are required to:
– take an annual review test and pass with a 90% grade or higher
– attend an all-day Annual Update
– volunteer 100 hours annually
– and be subject to performance review throughout the year
The key to our success is that we expect the best and we get the best people from our community. A third of our docents are credentialed teachers. An astounding 75% are college graduates. Nearly half of those hold higher degrees.
Our training program is a challenge, but it nurtures passion in our people. The personal commitment required of our volunteers means they have an investment in our program. The strongest evidence of this is that 38% of our members have been active docents for over 10 years.
We nurture our own lecturers not only for the provisional class, but to train Student Volunteers, teach zoology to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Zoo Magnet High School, and to provide community programs through our Speaker’s Bureau. We cultivate our own Animal Information research people, write our own newsletter, and develop our own programs. Our Special Needs Outreach Committee visited 1,400 emotionally and physically handicapped children and adults last year. We hosted 11 adult workshops and our Student Volunteer program grew to 103 individuals. All of these varied aspects of our program thrive on our academic foundation in science.
Why is it so important that all of our docents receive advanced training? Many institutions are proposing “modular” training for docents, or providing volunteers with information only for specific exhibits. They rationalize that with limited people, focusing volunteers to specific locations or animals gives the institution the greatest coverage. But training a volunteer to a script or a fact list sets them up to fail in the chaos of the real world. What happens when you are out in the Zoo? You plan to talk about the giraffe, but the patron wants to know about the penguin. If you can’t speak about the penguin, you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do: convey information. The focus of your encounter turns away from what you know, to what you don’t know. If a volunteer has repeated negative encounters, how long are they going to continue volunteering? If a person is talking about the same thing week after week, how are
they growing in the experience? Why do we have 21 docents that have been active for 15 years or more?
Because with an extensive generalized foundation in biology, you are comfortable everywhere in the Zoo and every day is different.
The Provisional Training Class
During the 23 weeks of our provisional training program, classes meet once a week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The class is offered on a weekday and on Saturday (Friday and Saturday in 2001-02). The day begins with morning lectures, demonstrations, and occasional visits from keepers or docents with animals. The afternoon focuses on touring some aspect of the Zoo, workshops, or behind-the-scenes encounters with keepers or veterinary staff. A panel of specialized docents provides the academic lectures, while members of the Horticulture, Research, Education, and Animal Care Staff provide guest presentations focusing on their departments.
The class uses a 178-page notebook researched and written by the Lecture Committee and Animal Information. In addition to the official notebook, each class member receives educational handouts and approximately 150 animal fact sheets representing the species in our current collection. These fact sheets are produced by the Animal Information committee and are updated regularly.
Provisionals are encouraged to make a note card system to highlight important facts about our higher profile animals. These note cards can then be carried with them when they tour. We feel this is important for reinforcing information. Also, no one can remember every gestational period or animal weight. The cards provide informational backup and they demonstrate to children the value of making personal notes.
The provisional class has weekly homework, six take-home quizzes, a mid-term and a final. During the class there are practice tours and provisionals are required to follow at least three different experienced docents to observe touring techniques. After graduation, each new docent is paired with a mentor docent for a year to help them establish touring skills. The Evaluation Committee follows along on a tour to evaluate the new docent and offer them any necessary guidance or suggestions.
The Importance of Advanced Training
Our provisional course is rigorous, but the camaraderie between classmates creates lifetime friends. This advanced training provides our graduating docents with a foundation in biology that gives them the confidence to discuss any animal in our collection. We do not currently have penguins in our collection, but if the patron is interested in penguins, each of our docents has the background to discuss penguins and to relate them to that giraffe.
Relate a penguin to a giraffe? Sure, the penguin and the giraffe are both uniquely adapted for procuring their food. The penguin has a sleek body and powerful wings to propel itself through the water so that it can catch its aquatic diet. The giraffe has long legs, a long neck, and a prehensile tongue, so that it can reach browse that is not accessible to other artiodactyls.
The more you know, the more you see connections. The more connections you can make, the more amazed you are about this incredible planet. The more your interest is piqued, the more you are drawn back into the program to learn and to share that information with others. Continuing education courses, workshops, and field trips are offered to our docents every year to keep them invigorated. Even our annual test rekindles this quest for knowledge. The test helps people rediscover things they may have forgotten, an animal new to the Zoo, or a change in taxonomy. The annual test is a refresher.
A Well-Trained Docent Is Like An Iceberg
If I’m speaking to kindergartners why would I need to know that a tapir is a perissodactyl? A well-trained docent is like an iceberg. At any given time only a tip of the whole is visible. For each informative and involving tip that you give to the public, especially children, beneath the surface, supporting that interaction, is an unseen mountain of factual information, teaching techniques, and passion. At the L.A. Zoo you might be touring kindergartners this week and a high school class researching primates the following week. You may be speaking in a 4th grade classroom about endangered California species today and discussing the same species with adults at Boeing Aircraft tomorrow. Once you have that iceberg of knowledge, you can take it with you wherever you go. And you don’t have to find space for it
in your suitcase. With an iceberg of information you can pick and choose just the right tidbits to explain what a tapir is to anyone. Our advanced training creates docents with a unique ability to nurture the wonder of biology, conservation, and ecology and to take that message to varied audiences in diverse situations.
Let’s make some firsthand connections and appreciate how different birds are from people. Everyone stand up. You are now a bird.
· How do birds stand on their feet? DIGITIGRADE
– Rise up on your toes. Squat down a bit, because a bird’s femur is proportionally shorter and up closer to the body. Tuck your arms in at your sides. Now, scratch an itch on your cheek with your foot. [Not impossible for humans, but easily done by all birds]
· Neck flexibility
– Stretch your left arm up toward the ceiling. Stick your head under your arm. [Impossible for humans, but birds have longer more flexible necks]
· Rigid backs
– Stand tall and straight. Lift your right shoulder toward the ceiling and gradually bend to the left.
[Impossible for birds because their upper vertebra, as well as many of their lower vertebra, are fused. Birds evolved a rigid upper spine in order to create a sturdy frame for flying.]
· Pectoral muscles
– Stretch your arms up toward ceiling. Bring them down so that the upper arms are parallel with the floor. Clasp your hands and bring your elbows and forearms together. [Impossible for birds because their humerus is proportionally shorter and because of their pectoral muscles. Human pectoral muscles represent less than 1% of body weight. 150 lb person pectoral muscle weight = 1.5 lbs. Birds average a pectoral weight 15 – 25% of their body weight; hummingbirds 30%. 150 lb person comparable to a hummingbird, would have pectoral muscles = 22.5 lbs. EACH.]
Body shape isn’t the only thing that separates different classes or families of animals. Let’s come to our
senses for a moment:
· Smell – The ability to detect smell is ancient and some researchers believe the olfactory bulb may actually be the origin of the complex brain. When we think of smell, we generally think noses, except in the case of snakes with their tongues and Jacobson’s organs. But nearly all mammals have a Jacobson’s organ, including humans. It detects the larger molecules of hormones and pheromones, which are unscented. Your Jacobson’s organ sends information via a separate accessory olfactory system directly to the primal centers of your brain, effecting emotion and sexual response.
On humans, the Jacobson’s organ, or vomeronasal organ, appears as two small pits, 1 – 2 cm up from the end of the nostril on the septum.
Experience: Three nonsmoking, non-perfumed volunteers: one to sniff and one male and one female. Blindfold the sniffer and offer them a hand from each of the other volunteers to smell. By wrinkling up the nose, the sniffer should be able to pull scent past the Jacobson’s organ and determine which hand is male and which female.
· Hearing – The blue whale’s call is the loudest in the animal world, but it is subsonic. A 20 sec. call has a wavelength 30 km long. Humans must speed it up 10 times to hear it well. You might feel it and then you would be experiencing hearing similar to a snake.
Snakes have no external ear openings. They feel sound waves through their bodies especially through the quadrate bone, which carries vibrations to the ear.
Experience: Place a hand under your chin. Press against your jawbone and back against your throat. Without opening your mouth wide, say, “mammalian” and feel the vibration.
· Touch – Snakes and cetaceans have developed highly receptive skin and a sense of touch that enhances their hearing and provides environmental information. How receptive is human skin?
Experience: Lightly touch your fingertips with a feather. Notice how little you feel. Using the same feather, stroke your cheek. Notice your heightened facial sensation. While the skin on our versatile hands may not be as sensitive, hands have evolved to provide us with a specialized sense of tactile information. Touch your thumb to your pinkie and appreciate your opposable thumb.
· Sight – We think of sight as one of our primary senses, yet humans have just above-average sight.
Experience: Read this line of type. As an eagle you could read it from across a football field, but your eyes would be the size of tennis balls. You could read it behind your head if you were a dragonfly, but you would have eyes the size of basketballs.1
Experience: Make little “OK” gestures with your thumb and forefinger (lima bean-sized circles). Hold your special glasses up to your eyes, thumbs firmly against your nose. You now have chameleon eyes. Roll one eye opening up and the other out or down. You can position your eyes to look in opposite directions like a chameleon, but unlike them your brain can only process one perspective at a time.
Experience: Beak to eye coordination. Have a volunteer stretch their arms out straight in front of them self to form a hornbill or toucan beak. Have them try to catch a small ball (grape) at the beak tip and then toss and catch the ball into their mouth to simulate the visual perspective these birds have as they eat.
1 “Who’s Got Good Eyes” Discover, August 2001 pg. 53
Any Zoo Can Represent An Entire Ark
A strong background in biology builds knowledge regarding zoological pieces and facilitates making a connection. Let’s make some comparison connections and see how the animals in one zoo can represent an entire ark.
- bald eagle – similarities with other fishing eagles: African fishing eagle, Steller’s sea eagle
- penguin – webbed feet like flamingos & ducks, swims using flippers like sea lion
- cheetah – similar spot pattern for camouflaging as leopard, long balancing tail like snow leopard, pronghorn speed
- anteater – other members Order Xenartha armadillo, thick fur and heavy claws like black bear
- baleen whales – filter feeders like flamingos, share ancestry with hippos
- orca – pack hunters like wolves, some eat marine mammals like seals and seal lions, share aquatic adaptations with seals and seal lions
- dolphins – peg-toothed piscivores like crocodilians, especially gavials
- tortoise – keratinous beaks like birds.
Connections can take you from one animal to an entire web of life, if you have comprehensive training. At the Los Angeles Zoo we are proud of our high academic standards and our focus on science. We believe intensive broad-based training in biology creates docents with a depth of knowledge and experience that gives them the ability to make information relevant to any age group. We strive to give our docents the capability to deliver information in a manner that entices others to want to learn more.
Knowledge is the greatest nurturer of wonder.