The Wonder of Volunteering: What do you mean the volunteer week is nine days long?
Ellen Rogalin and Betty Goodman
The Minnesota Zoo is a relatively young 24 years old, and volunteers have been an important part of the zoo since before it opened in 1978. Volunteers helped found the zoo in the first place and have played a vital role in its success ever since.
Planning for the Minnesota Zoo included the development of a program for volunteers to work on weekdays during the school year, providing tours and interpretation for groups of school children. In fact, the first two volunteer training classes, which were held while the zoo was still under construction, were just for these school-group volunteers.
However, it soon became clear that volunteers would be invaluable with visitors of all ages and the next two volunteer classes (still held before the zoo opened) were designed to provide volunteers year-round and on weekends to “random” the trails, answering questions and talking with visitors.
Since those first pre-opening classes (there were five in all before the zoo opened), the number of zoo volunteers has grown from 200 to more than 600 adults and teenagers.
Volunteers are an integral part of the Minnesota Zoo. Considered “unpaid staff” by the Zoo, volunteers educate visitors, answer questions, run special programs, provide behind-the-scenes support, act as extra pairs of “eyes” for the keepers by observing animals and their behavior, raise funds, support professional associations and help run the volunteer program. And yes, they also still provide tours and interpretation for school groups (we had nearly 112,000 students visit from 1,768 schools during the 2000-01 school year) and “random” the trails.
At the Minnesota Zoo, volunteering is a wonder-full experience for the volunteers, for the staff and for zoo visitors. To help “strengthen the bond between people and the living earth,” as our mission states, we work closely with the paid staff to meet the needs of our guests, our staff and our inhabitants in many ways, including the following.
Randoming (answering questions and talking with visitors on specific zoo trails)
We have four major trails at our zoo Tropics, Minnesota, Northern/Monorail and Discovery Bay. Randoming means walking along one of these trails, usually for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, and interacting with visitors.
The interaction ranges from the more mundane (“the bathrooms are down the ramp and to the left”) to the less mundane (“you can see the pumas at the top of the cliff”) to the challenging (“Would you explain to my little girl why those two otters are rolling around in the water together?). There are also great opportunities to share information about the animals with interested people and, sometimes, needed opportunities to guide visitors to the safest place to be during a tornado warning.
Animal Handling With some additional training, volunteers have a number of recurring chances to get up close and personal with individual animals and to help visitors interact with the animals.
In the zoo’s Zoolab, volunteers prepare food for animals and hold or take out animals so visitors can see them more closely and, in most cases, touch them. In order to work with these animals, volunteers study and take tests on handling protocol and on each of the individual types of animal, including a variety of reptiles, rodents, rabbits, arachnids and other animals.
With even more training and practice, volunteers also present formal “Animal Spotlights” in the zoo theater using Zoolab animals, take animals into special classes and give children at zoo birthday parties the chance to see their favorite animal up close.
Interested volunteers can also receive special, additional training to work at the zoo’s Family Farm. This miniature model of a working farm with horses, cows, chickens, goats, sheep, pigs and ducks let visitors learn more about farming (both traditional and modern). Volunteers help with the farm chores preparing food, cleaning out stalls, milking as well as interpret the animals to the visitors and help make sure no one is hurt when 30 toddlers meet up with 30 goats.
Information Booths The zoo has several information and/or artifact booths which serve as a home base for a volunteer to answer questions, provide information about special zoo activities and events, and share animal and plant artifacts and other items that show how animals are cared for at the Minnesota Zoo.
Volunteers not only work at the booths, but in almost all cases have actually developed the content of the booth with input from zoo staff. In fact, some of the booths have even been constructed by zoo volunteers!
Interpretation Interpreting animals, plants, conservation and the purpose of the zoo to visitors is a basic responsibility for all volunteers. This is done in many different settings and in many different ways. It happens naturally as part of the three areas mentioned above randoming, animal handling and information booths but is also included in many special activities.
For example, volunteers staff story-telling corners where children can sit and listen to a book read to them by a volunteer. The book, of course, is also selected by the volunteer and is used to help children gain a better understanding of the world around them.
Volunteers also lead tours for visitors, both on the trails and behind-the-scenes. This gives the volunteer an opportunity to get to know a small group of people quite well and share information that matches their interests.
Special Events The zoo holds a wide variety of special events to give people different kinds of zoo experiences and volunteers help make them work.
There are overnights with the dolphins and with the sharks (how do you feel about sleeping on a pad on the concrete floor by the dolphin tank?).
The zoo is often rented by private groups for after-hours events parties, receptions, weddings, etc. and volunteers are there to help the visitors (who might otherwise never come to the zoo) appreciate the unique environment.
The zoo’s outdoor bird amphitheater hosts concerts during summer evenings, with the help of 10-20 volunteers each concert night to guide the visitors and then enjoy the concert themselves.
Many zoo fundraising activities involve a large number of volunteers in the planning, behind-the-scenes and carrying out of the event, before, during and after the event. For example, the zoo’s largest single fundraising activity the Beastly Ball usually involves approximately 200 volunteers.
Special daytime events spring babies, wild bird weekend, big cat weekend, foreign language days, etc. use the unique skills of many volunteers.
Behind-the-Scenes With advanced training, some volunteers get involved in very specific behind-the-scenes activities. Volunteers provide valuable support services for the staff in many areas, including the following:
Horticulture and greenhouses
Correspondence with the public
Animal health/veterinary clinic
Developing classes and programs for children and adults
Teaching Volunteers are a regular part of the training program for new volunteers developing the curriculum and teaching the classes. Volunteers also assist with summer and year-long classes for children. (The Minnesota Zoo is an accredited educational institution.)
One of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of being a volunteer at the Minnesota Zoo is the fact that most of us do many of the activities listed above and work all over the zoo on any given day. No day is dull and no day is the same.
By the way, there are nine days a week at the Minnesota Zoo Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Saturday and Sunday. (No, that’s not a typo.)
Volunteers who work weekdays work once a week on “their day” Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Volunteers who work on the weekend who are more likely to have full-time regular jobs work one day a weekend every other week 1st and 3rd Saturdays, 1st and 3rd Sundays, 2nd and 4th Saturdays, or 2nd and 4th Sundays. Many volunteers work half-days; many others work full days (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer).
The typical whirlwind day of a Minnesota Zoo volunteer usually includes some not-so-typical surprises. It is also a wonder-full chance to enhance the zoo experience for guests, provide valuable assistance to staff, enrich our own lives and, we hope, help make the world a better place for future generations of flora and fauna.