Docents on Safari
Jan Ryan-Finlayson and Dixie Decker
Salt Lake City, Utah
Utah’s Hogle Zoo has been doing outreach safaris to communities throughout the state of Utah for the past 15 years. Utah is a large state with a total area of 84,916 square miles, but a population of only 2,235,000 people, most of whom live along the Wasatch Front where the Zoo is located. The majority of the state is rural with small towns located considerable distances from this major metropolitan area. The school districts in some of these smaller communities have limited financial resources and cannot provide overnight bus trips to visit the Zoo. Consequently, many of the children in these small communities would not have the opportunity to see, touch and learn about exotic animals without the Safari outreach program. The Hogle Zoo is partially supported by tax monies awarded on a yearly basis by the state legislature, and this puts an obligation on the zoo to cover as much of the state as the Zoo’s resources allow.
Currently the docents in the education program schedule four of these out of town, overnight safaris each year, two in the spring and two in the fall. A safari can keep the docents away from home and family for three to five days at a time. Our goal is to visit every elementary school in the state at least once every five to six years. This is in addition to the regular outreach programs serving schools within a twenty-five mile radius of the Zoo which we visit no more often than once in every two years.
Getting it together – Planning, Scheduling and Routing, etc.
How do we go about implementing our above stated goal? There is one docent who, with the help of the volunteer coordinator and the education curator, has taken on this task of working miracles scheduling these programs with the schools throughout the state. Careful records have been kept over the years to track the schools visited, when and by whom. The safaris are planned to assure that each elementary school in the state is visited every five or six years if possible. Requests from our zoo director involving districts whose legislative representatives are anxious to have us come (remember those tax dollars?) are accommodated whenever possible as well. Another consideration is individual school populations and the possibility that during the five years between these planned visits enrollments can decrease or increase sometimes by some fairly large numbers. The Utah State Board of Education publishes a book on a yearly basis which lists all the public schools within the state. This is a very useful tool in determining if new schools have been built within any given district and as a resource for making contact with school principles who are listed by name. Once areas are chosen for the year, mailers are sent to the individual schools explaining who we are, what we do, and when we will be in their area. It also asks if they would like us to come and requests they advise us what days are best for a safari visit. The safari is capable of providing as many as twenty programs in a day (each of four
docents doing five programs). Surprisingly, on rare occasions we are turned down for reasons that remain a mystery. The schools are also advised what we expect from them. Money is not included in our expectations since this program is free to the public schools, again in consideration of tax dollars. Our expectations do include a maximum class size (hopefully not to exceed 35), enclosed classrooms and preferably no assemblies in auditoriums because of undesirable acoustics.
The distances between towns in Utah can be daunting and must be carefully considered when scheduling presentations, especially the first one of the day. Time must be allowed to care for and pack animals as well as care and feeding time for docents. Distances again must be considered when traveling between schools during the lunch break, and hungry docents should never be turned loose in a school to do afternoon presentations.
Empty stomachs make empty heads. Sometimes schools will kindly extend invitations to share their midday meals. This can be a good thing, or maybe not depending on who’s doing the cooking. However, it can be a great convenience under tight circumstances. Recently, one principal was completely confused by our request for a schedule, and did not return the class schedule form. The safari arrived at his school to find that each docent was scheduled to give five presentations each without benefit of a lunch break. This situation made for some very hungry docents scrambling to find a fast food lunch spot on the way back to their motel. Thank heavens the animals survived this feeding frenzy.
Several phone calls and letters later, enough information has been gathered to begin the process of coordinating a workable schedule operating around a central location whenever possible. Having to move from motel to motel along with from school to school can be tedious to say the least, though we have become somewhat expert at packing our safari van. (Docents are allowed only one small suitcase each as the animals and their needs take most of the van space.) This frequently takes more phone calls and letters to finalize. These completed schedules are then mailed to the schools with the sometimes overly optimistic hope that they will be followed.
With the dates and schools set, four docents must be recruited who are willing and able to staff the safari. It isn’t easy finding docents who can leave family and work for as long as a week at a time. Each year a list of people who are interested in going on safaris is compiled, and those of us who regularly do go have learned to keep April and October open until the details are worked out. Weather is a major reason for choosing these two months. Driving many miles in a Rocky Mountain snow storm is not all that much fun, and we still run the risk of spring and fall storms during these `safer’ months.
Finding and choosing motels is the next detail to be considered. Usually, if a safari has stayed there before, the motel will take us again. We work hard to leave a good impression. It’s the first time motels we have to convince after telling the desk clerk we have sixteen assorted animals accompanying the docents. The reservation confirmation number is a handy bit of information to send with the safari docents, as well. It is even better to have a written confirmation describing the accommodations (two non-smoking rooms with two beds in each in this case) and location of rooms (preferably on the ground floor to save on steps and energy and connecting to facilitate easier exchange of shared equipment and supplies). It should also acknowledge that animals are accompanying the docents. A copy of this confirmation should be in the docent’s possession when checking in as it will minimize any possible surprises or misunderstandings.
Finalizing arrangements includes preparation of all the paperwork informing keepers and docents of the dates, motels, and animals selected for the trip. The day before the safari leaves the zoo, supplies are inventoried and replenished with the help of the Docent Animal Facility keepers. Supplies include individual animal food dishes, water dishes, heating pads, extension cords, hot water bottles, extra reptile bags (an absolute must to avoid highway stops along canals in order to wash out soiled bags), towels for those needing `security blankets’, lots of newspaper, lots of paper towels, plenty of large garbage bags, knives, cutting board, assorted smaller kitchen utensils, coolers, dry ice, extra jesses, medication and much, much more. Oh yes, and did we mention lots of newspaper? Additionally, the DAF keeper prepares individual daily diets packaged and labeled for each animal, and provides the safari docents with `animal logs’ that must be completed each day. These logs record what food is given each animal, how much, what is left uneaten, baths given, exercise, what stress may be manifested by the animal, what ways the animal did well, and special notations the docent may deem interesting or necessary.
There is one last very important detail remaining which is handing the docents enough cash to keep the safari going for the required number of days. These funds, of course, come from the zoo’s financial department. Enough money is sent with the safari to cover motel charges, gasoline for the van while on the road, meals for the docents, and incidental expenditures that may arise for care and feeding of the animals.
There’s More Work to Be Done
The docents going on safari have responsibilities in addition to providing their talents and expertise giving presentations in the schools. Each docent chooses the animals they will be using in their presentations and those are the animals they will care for while on safari. This is done on a first come, first served basis. Each docent chooses a mammal, reptile, bird and sometimes an invertebrate. The mammal choices include opossums, hedgehogs, tenrecs, chinchillas, ferrets and African pouched rats. The reptiles choices include tortoises, various snakes and some lizards. The birds we use are owls, falcons, kookaburras, parrots and cockatoos. The usual invertebrates include hissing cockroaches, vinegaroons, giant millipedes and tarantulas.
The docents are expected to come to the zoo a few days prior to the safari to be briefed by the DAF keeper on the diets and care of the animals they have chosen. The USDA guidelines for care, keeping and use of the animals is reviewed at this time. Each docent is given a daily animal care log which they are responsible for maintaining and which they must return completed to the animal care staff after the safari returns.
One docent is assigned the responsibility for carrying the money, paying all the expenses, obtaining and keeping track of all receipts and making a final report at the end of the safari accounting for all monies spent. Some modest math skills and a pocket calculator are very useful for this assignment. We are careful with our money and try to be rather frugal. Each docent is allowed twenty-five dollars a day for meals. However, we rarely spend that much.
If we want a really nice dinner in the evening, we opt for a free school lunch to allow for that. Those who have recently enjoyed a school lunch will appreciate this.
Another docent is assigned the responsibility of keeping a daily log. In the log is recorded the mileage, where we lectured, where we ate, the motels we used, how we liked or disliked these experiences and recommendations for the next time the safari goes to the same area. Recording the log usually takes place at the close of each day after some discussion regarding relative details and obtaining opinions from the other docents. This docent has this one last duty to attend to before retiring for a much needed night’s rest.
Of course there is a docent assigned to be the driver. The driver must be approved by the zoo based on his or her driving record and is covered under the zoo’s insurance program. The driver makes sure that one of the other docents has an extra set of van keys for obvious reasons. The driver studies the schedule and the maps, and is responsible for getting the safari to the right place at the right time, and in one happy piece. This can at times be frustrating. Usually the driver has the responsibility of making sure that all animals are present and accounted for and in the van before heading down the road so there are no surprises for the school left behind and no extra trips for the safari van to retrieve misplaced critters. Also, each animal must be strategically placed in consideration of safety and comfort so that no animals are facing each other or in reach of one another or suitcases, etc. Natural enemies should not be encouraged to follow through on their instincts nor be positioned in such a way to invite unauthorized munching. Each animal’s proximity to heating and air conditioning vents is also an important consideration. Of course, each docent has the obligation to make sure these details are remembered as well, as each is finally responsible for the animals they have in their care.
The fourth docent usually keeps track of numbers. We need to know exactly how many students we talk to at each and every school as well as how many adults are in each classroom. These numbers are important when it’s time to go to the state legislature to get funding for the upcoming fiscal year. This docent is the first one in the school to announce our arrival and arrange for much needed help from 12 to 16 strong students from the older grades to assist the docents with getting the animals and assorted teaching aides into the classrooms. It is at this time that the student populations are verified. After the completion of the presentations, this docent gets the numbers again from each docent including the number of adults that were present at any time during the presentations
Some kind of crazy?
The reader may be asking “what kind of people would willingly get themselves into so much work?” There is a key word in this question and it is `willing.’ Four willing and able volunteers are needed for most of these safaris, and they are not all that readily available. It isn’t easy finding docents able to leave family and work for as long as a week at a time, and these docents must have certain qualifications:
Experience is of prime importance. Since these schools get a safari visit only once every five or six years, we want it to be a good experience. We all know that there are varying levels of expertise among our docents. Some are more willing to take the extra time to hone their docent skills and augment their individual store of knowledge. If a school in Salt Lake City gets a not so good program one year, we can take note and make sure they get a better one the next time. Of course, this is not possible for safaris because of the length of time between visits.
Congeniality is also important. Many docents consider this their number one priority for taking this assignment. We have to live together with these people twenty four hours a day, four to five days at a time. We work together, eat together, sleep together (with some obvious limitations), share equipment, room space, bathroom counter space (this can be a tough one), decide who sleeps next to the air conditioner, and who showers first. You get the idea. We’d better get along. Not only get along, but enjoy one another and have a good time or we will quickly end up short of people willing to go. A sense of humor is an absolute must.
The docent must be flexible. There are many Murphy’s laws designed with overnight outreach programs in mind. “If it could happen, it will.” What are some of the problems we face? Arriving at a school to discover they have changed the schedule so none of us are going to the classes carefully printed out on our schedules. It’s always entertaining to watch two docents and their student entourages who have arrived at the same classroom desperately trying to figure out who is in the wrong place. This is especially amusing as we only allow five minutes between presentations. We have on occasion arrived at a school only to be told they had switched days with another school in the district and neglected to tell us of the new arrangements. In our normal programs we limit the number of children to thirty-five per classroom and we don’t do kindergartens (or windows). But how do we tell the kindergarten children everyone else in the school gets to see the animals but not you? We do kindergartens on safari. While on the Navajo Reservation we have even dropped down to pre-school rather than disappoint those little children. We have been asked after arriving on the reservation to not use certain animals because of cultural considerations thereby limiting our available animals to be used during a presentation to two or even one. We have walked into schools and been told there were 70 sixth graders waiting in the library in addition to our scheduled class rooms. In Salt Lake City we’d say sorry, we don’t do that, but
on safari, one of us will just grit our teeth and go to it. Yes, flexibility, is a very good thing.
Resourcefulness is a definite bonus. We never know when traveling with 12 to 16 animals what might happen. On occasion we have had to deal with the natural consequences of old age in our education animal collection, and even untimely deaths due to accident. It has taken some quick thinking to figure out how to preserve and where to preserve these deceased animals until they can be returned to the zoo for the required necropsy.
Docents must be physically able and in good health. Outreach programs, even regular in town programs, are physically demanding. There is loading, transporting, lecturing two or three one hour programs and the loading, transporting and unloading back at the zoo. It’s hard work, but that work is multiplied while out on safari. One must get up with the birds, literally. The animals must be cleaned up and fed. Their carriers must be cleaned and readied for the day. The motel room must be put in order. This is very important as it is difficult enough to get a motel to take four docents and sixteen animals in the first place. We have to make sure everything is easy for the maids. We take care of our own messes, soiled papers, etc. All unmentionables are stowed away, and this doesn’t mean underwear. No mice are left out thawing, no crickets, and no one ever uses the word `cockroach.’ Then docents see to their own needs and get breakfast. Then the van is loaded and we head for the first school, which can be thirty, forty, or fifty miles away. (Have we covered snow storms, ice, fog and rain? How about white knuckle driving?) Each docent gives two or three one hour programs in the morning moving from classroom to classroom. Then a break for lunch at the school if we are presenting there in the afternoon, usually parking the animals in the principal’s securely locked office…lucky principal. If we are moving to another school for the afternoon we grab lunch along the way. Then two more presentations for each docent, more loading, transporting, and unloading back at the motel. Now we must clean carriers, feed animals,
give necessary baths, and generally see that all is well for them. This last year the safari docents rebelled and now limit our presentations to just four a day for five days. After a while you forget what class you’ve told what. But again, some days we still have to be flexible and will do five. Safari docents had better be in pretty good shape and have plenty of stamina.
Finally, docents must be knowledgeable which includes a very healthy portion of common sense. All school docents are knowledgeable about their animals, after all that’s the idea. Docents should have a good command of appropriate grade level presentations as well as an extensive knowledge about the animal kingdom that can be articulated appropriately to each grade level.
Safari docents need something more. They must perform the role of keepers for the days they are out. They have to know each animal’s diet and how to prepare it. They must keep records of what is eaten and what is left. They must have the ability and skill to replace a raptor’s jess when necessary, the confidence to bathe reptiles and exercise animals. They must know how to establish and maintain suitable environments for each animal using hot water bottles, heating pads, and showers stalls while leaving appropriate space between animals. They must remember to place newspapers on floors and walls (ever feed a mouse to an owl?) and be prepared to clean up grisly messes, consider room damage control with the cockatoos, and remember to always leave a `do not disturb’ sign on the door when animals are in the room. The wise docent soon learns the most suitable animals to take out on safari. Opossums make great animals for school lectures because there are lots of really cool things you can talk about. But after lugging a ten pound opossum in a large heavy carrier around for a week, cleaning up large, messy and very smelly presents twice a day, and then listening to it rattle around in it’s carrier all night (they are nocturnal) you soon realize what a great animal a chinchilla is. Hedgehogs are even better. And a king snake is far superior to a desert tortoise any day for safari. It’s surprising how
important weight, excretion and nocturnal habits can be.
The wise docent also learns after their first safari to cut down on visual aids. These can be wonderful illustrative helps in the classroom, but too many can leave a docent feeling like a pack horse not to mention looking like one.
What Are the Rewards?
By now you should have a pretty good idea of what a safari docent should be made of. But another question may have occurred to the reader at this point. Why would we do this? Are we truly crazy? Masochistic?
Actually, we have a great time. Why does any zoo docent do what they do? It’s just plain fun. We meet interesting people all over our state and interact with students in a variety of settings. Some of the schools we visit are still in one and two room buildings, and some of the most interesting and rich learning experiences for the docent are found in these quaint and friendly places. When smaller schools are visited it gives us the opportunity to team teach and the students the opportunity to get a close up comparative view of a whole cast of animals.
Safari docents also have the occasional opportunity to treat themselves to small sightseeing trips `after hours’ when all the animals are settled, fed and cared for. Utah is one of the most scenic states in the country, and we have had some really great experiences visiting national and state parks, historic sites, monuments and museums. We have found some really great folks in these places who share in our passion for education.
Safari docents have some small claim to fame on a local level at least. When the safari van arrives at these smaller rural schools, it’s like the circus has come to town. Kids yell and wave when they see the zoo van coming down the street sporting its wild paint job. Café and restaurant waitresses thank us for coming and report back to us what their children had to say about our programs. The local newspaper reporters turn out with photographers in tow to take our pictures. It’s quite an ego trip to find your photo looking out from the newspaper rack on the front page of the local paper on the way into breakfast. What a kick! That would never happen in Salt Lake City.
Most importantly, it’s the children that really make it worthwhile. These small town students are enthusiastic, excited and eager to hear what we have to say. It’s a teacher’s dream that offers us an incredible opportunity to spread our message. We care about animals. We are committed to sharing what we know about animals with as many children as we can reach creating first interest and then respect for those with whom we share this planet. We are firm believers in the philosophy of the African ecologist Baba Dioum who said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.” Docents want to help make that difference and out-of-town safari programs definitely augment that possibility.