We’re Flying High At The Calgary Zoo!
Calgary Zoological Society Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Each year about ninety-seven million humans are added to the world’s population. Habitats around the world are shrinking. By the year 2000, the rate of extinctions will have increased to six species per hour.’ Books, radio and television shows warn about the future of our planet. At the brink of the millennium we face many uncertainties as to what lies ahead. But doom and gloom will never get us anywhere.
Dr. Jane Goodall believes that we have been confronted by so many gloomy facts that as ordinary people we feel powerless to affect change. Yet human beings are capable of meeting almost any challenge. There are few limits to our capacity to learn, adapt and grow.2 Dr. Goodall says that it is the responsibility of ordinary people to break the chains of apathy and preserve the planet, but how do we reach and motivate these people?
According to a 1987 survey, 98% of the adults in Canada and the United States have visited a zoo, and about 120 million people visit accredited zoos in the United States each year.3 Zoos offer the ordinary person an excellent opportunity to get in touch with the natural world. In turn, zoos have captive audiences of millions of visitors. Writer Vicki Croke explored this topic in her provocative book “The Modem Ark.” In her view, “the future zoo will be about connections; to the wild (and) to other humans.”4 The next step lies in connecting caring with action.
Education is a vital part of the zoo’s role in conservation. If zoos are destined to become proactive conservation organizations working to preserve wildlife and nature, they must educate zoo visitors by balancing the hard realities of loss of habitat and biodiversity with messages of hope.5 Fortunately, there are many committed, caring, conservation-minded adults volunteering for zoos who believe that there is hope and who are dedicated to communicating the message. The challenge to Docents is to remain positive and enthusiastic in the face of apathy.
At the Calgary Zoo, one of the chief goals of the Docent program is to invigorate, challenge and support motivated volunteers to promote conservation. The zoo’s Docent program has been in place for 20 years and has an excellent community profile. Two hundred Docents teach 800 educational programs a year and stay an average of seven years in the program.
Over time, it has become evident that the Docent program has a life cycle involving three stages; education, growth and renewal.6 At our recent Docent Awards and Appreciation Evening, the Docent class of 1992 presented a touching skit. They sang about the time before they became Docents; before Jack began his fight to preserve the world’s rainforests, before Char learned of her fondness for crocodiles, before Marge learned other ability to rap and before Gillian learned she was able to speak in front of an audience. It was apparent that the Docent program had enabled many caring, conservation-minded people to learn new ideas and develop new interests. The program had changed their lives.
The life cycle begins with education. This word comes from the Latin word “educate” which means to “bring forth or draw out.” The 14-week Docent training process is challenging, interesting and most importantly, fun. The knowledge and life experience each trainee brings to the program enriches it greatly.
Training provides the arena where students learn the curriculum and where we establish trust so that the special gifts that each possesses may be drawn out and developed further.
When interviewing potential Docents, we not only ask pertinent questions about the applicants, we also play charades and do role-plays. Interviewees might mime a cactus or a T. rex or draw a grizzly bear. It has proven an excellent way for us to leam a great deal about each other in a short time, and for some it is the first step in discovering hidden talents.
On day one of Docent training, we begin by playing a game or two to increase everyone’s comfort level. One of the easiest involves a person saying his/her name and then naming an animal, which begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Each person repeats the names and animals of those before him/her and then his/her own. The icebreakers are an effective means of establishing trust and friendships within the group. Later in training, games accompanied by small prizes help reinforce knowledge and make the learning process more interactive and enjoyable.
Ensuring comfort also means providing an atmosphere conducive to learning; we have bright classrooms and comfortable chairs. A midmorning coffee break allows everyone to avoid academic overload. On week 13 of training, we present the trainees with a cake to thank them for their hard work.
Docent training is a team effort, with every member of the education department, from Docents to managers, contributing. Our challenge is to ensure that classes are active and that everyone is challenged to move out of their comfort zones. Presenters work creatively to model a variety of teaching techniques so that trainees feel empowered about trying the techniques themselves.
We incorporate teaching methods geared to the auditory, visual, kinesthetic and sensory learners, demonstrate team teaching and teach how to encourage class participation. Students are asked to keep a list of the teaching techniques that they have seen and are encouraged to try them in their presentations. They see live classes being taught by
Docents and then present a program during the last week of Docent training.
Trainees are encouraged to share and incorporate their special skills such as acting, puppetry, poetry and music. We have seen song, dance and high drama coming from even the shyest individuals. By testing their limits, many Calgary Zoo Docents have become wild and crazy, inspirational teachers. We all thrive in an atmosphere of mutual trust and have found encouragement in the example other Docents have set.
The most important thing that Docents-in-training learn is to include a conservation message in what they teach. ‘The conservation message is critical because it is here we may either motivate a person to action or turn them off completely. This skill involves balancing negative messages with positive ones, and a good sense of humor goes a long way to help. There is a well-known cartoon of a dinosaur convention where the speaker is saying, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the earth’s atmosphere is warming up, the oceans are advancing and we’re entering a whole new era. The bad news is that we have a brain about the size of a walnut.”7 We are all familiar with the doom and gloom messages.
The trick is to put a positive spin on them so that we empower others to strive for change. Life experience enables Docents to deliver the most effective conservation messages. Last Christmas, adults were seen fighting tooth and nail to purchase a small, furry, pet-like toy called a Furbie. My colleague Sue Arledge brought to our attention how sad it was that none of these same people would put the same energy into fighting for living creatures. She then linked thought with positive action and started a petition to request that the Canadian government enact endangered species legislation.
Once Docent training has been completed, we enter the second stage of the life cycle, and growth continues.8 Support for our volunteers in the early part of this stage is provided by a mentorship program.
The program allows new Docents and their mentors to form a shared vision of the Zoo’s role in conservation.
The mentoring program is a very effective tool in ensuring the success and the bonding of the new Docents with each other and the organization. Experienced Docents act as teachers, advisors and counselors, providing emotional and psychological support to the new graduates. The program is informal, as we have found the best framework to be a flexible one. We post the request for mentors, and then match them with proteges according to compatibility and the day of the week they are volunteering. Sometimes the matchmaking doesn’t quite work out, but we learn from our mistakes and don’t get bogged down with negative feelings. We try to work out the wrinkles by keeping the communication lines open.
Both Docents and new graduates benefit from this program. Mentors provide a feel for how things should be done, model special skills and offer background information which the protégé may have missed in Docent training. The protégé can then practice new skills with the mentor. I have noticed that a particularly good use ofmentorship is in refining animal handling skills. Protégés often become expert in handling the mentor’s favorite animals, even if they are a bit squeamish at first.
The mentoring program allows the zoo to continue to invest in the development of our volunteers by providing a support network that binds them closely with the organization.10 With new-found knowledge, sometimes Docents find that they are the only people in their work or family worlds who are impassioned with concern for the environment. The zoo builds a strong team by providing an arena where Docents can relate to and respect one another’s caring perspective.
One of the ways we promote a positive environment for the program is in imparting hope for the future in our volunteers. We continually stress the value of the individual in changing the world by walking the talk.” All Docents are encouraged to demonstrate a level of environmental awareness, whether by composting, gardening, recycling, writing letters to the government or membership in an environmental organization.
One of the questions on the Docent final exam is: As a Docent, how will you positively model conservation in your own life? During training we also promote zoo membership and the ZooCare program where a donation of $20.00 sponsors a specific zoo animal, plant or dinosaur for a period of one year.
The third step of the life cycle is renewal. Monthly meetings allow Docents to revisit our conservation mission regularly.12 After meetings, Docents often comment on how they feel invigorated and reconnected with the team. These gatherings provide us with a tremendous teaching, bonding, and sharing opportunity. They allow us to share information, introduce new teaching aides and techniques, show off, socialize and, very importantly, eat. Meetings are also an effective form of recognition where Docents find support and feedback. We have learned by keeping the lines of communication open that successful meetings must be fun, informative and no longer than two hours in length.
Recognition is a vital part of renewal. We have numerous forms of recognition in place and we have two favorites. The Docent Awards and Appreciation Evening occurs in April. The Docents in training graduate, and we present certificates and awards to the Docents who have fulfilled their 100-hour yearly commitment to the zoo. We work diligently to ensure that this is a fun, heartwarming evening for everyone who attends.
This year our theme was “Sowing the Seeds of Change.” We gave packages of seeds to all who attended, honored our five-year Docents in part by presenting them with their own personalized seed packets and planted a tree in honor of our ten-year award recipients. The Docent BBQ occurs in June and is the most relaxed meeting of the year. Everyone loves the fun atmosphere and we have learned never to underestimate the power of food in uniting a group. The Calgary Zoo Docents love to eat and food is in ample supply at both these events.
Not every moment of a Docent program can be construed as a positive one. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain an upbeat attitude when faced with apathy, despair or criticism. Creative problem solving and recognizing the effects of our attitudes and behaviors help maintain a positive outlook, not only in docenting, but also in life.
When you reflect on your docenting experience, you wilt surely be able to think of at least one major way that it has changed your life. For some it will be the self-confidence gained, for others, the personal satisfaction of knowing that you have made a connection with someone. But what you offer zoos is even more important. Today and in the future, Docent creativity, innovation, dedication and caring will be the strongest factor in steering public attitudes toward the positive and breaking the chains of apathy.
Croke, Vicki. The Modem Ark. Avon Books Incorporated, New York, 1997.
McNally, David. The Eagle’s Secret. Delacourte Press, New York, 1998.
Zey. Michael. The Mentor Connection. Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 1991.