Have you volunteered at a zoo?
December 28, 2012 3:51 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever volunteered at a zoo? What did you do?

I've got treatment resistant bipolar disorder and a half dozen other serious mental illnesses and I cannot work. I find solace in animals, and in the new year I'd like to do something that gets me out of the house. (I've basically been a shut-in for the last three years.) I considered volunteering at a pet shelter, but I have always had an overwhelming desire to work at a zoo. It is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to finish a college degree that would allow me to get a real job at a zoo, so I was wondering if volunteering could be the next best thing.

So have you volunteered at a zoo or do you know someone who has? What sorts of things did the volunteers actually do? (I've read all the literature from my local zoo; I'm interested in hearing about actual experiences.)
posted by xyzzy to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have a good friend who volunteers at a small zoo in Central Texas (The Capital of Texas Zoo). What I've learned from him is probably different than if you volunteer at a big city zoo.

First of all, here's the volunteer page, but you can find that kind of info for any zoo.

What I saw Lee do when we visited was pretty varied. He fed several of the animals. He hosed down the black bears because it was a hot day. He gave children directions to the lion cage. He took money at the gate. He helps the zoo director when they brought selected animals out to schools and fund-raisers. He gave people information about the zoo's mission and animals.

He worked there 2-3 weekends a week, and went over there when they needed him, such as to move and protect animals when there were wildfires in the area.

I'd pretty much classify him as the zoo equivalent of a general ranch hand.

No idea if other zoos are like CoTZ, but that's what I saw with my friend who is a zoo dude.
posted by Mad_Carew at 4:15 PM on December 28, 2012

When I was in high school, I was a junior zoo keeper at the LA Zoo. I went through a short training course and then was eligible for my volunteer duties. 90% of my time was leading tours, answering questions, helping with educational programs, helping zoo keepers prepare treats for animals and the other 10% was spent helping researchers with observations like how many times did X animal pee during an observation shift.

If your desire is to interact directly with the animals, that will probably not happen. During my year at the LA Zoo, the closest I ever got to an animal was getting sneezed on by an elephant from the other side of a gate. (SO GROSS, their trunks are big mucus cannons!) I think this is for liability issues, but depends on the zoo, perhaps a smaller zoo would do things differently.
posted by dottiechang at 4:48 PM on December 28, 2012

The little I know second hand about the local zoo volunteering program is it mainly is cleaning, and minor maintenance. Certainly will be different place to place but I'd wager most places would be reticent about much direct animal interaction. Never know though, call your local place and talk to their volunteer coordinator, they will be in a much better place to answer your questions directly.
Alternately, some science museums and similar institutions have animal programs, that might be an avenue as well.
posted by edgeways at 5:00 PM on December 28, 2012

I volunteered at the Detroit Zoo for a few months. The whole time I was there they had me work as a guide in the animatronic dinosaur exhibit. I think I sealed the deal when I pointed out that the dimetrodon they had out in front of the exhibit wasn't actually a dinosaur. That and I was able to say "pachycephalosaurus" without hurting myself.
posted by DaddyNewt at 5:09 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend recently interviewed to volunteer at the Cincinnati Zoo. Apparently they have a lot more potential volunteers than they have available slots. From what she said, the work was mainly answering guest questions about the exhibits and the facilities.
posted by mmascolino at 5:29 PM on December 28, 2012

I know that in my city both the zoo and humane society are so glutted with volunteers, there is actually a waiting list just to VOLUNTEER. This, I'm sure, is not the same everywhere, but if you'd really like to help, and also actually work with animals and like dogs, consider a local breed rescue. They are much more likely to need help. Let me recommend a pit bull rescue group. You may not be very familiar with pit bulls, but they make up to 1/5 of all dogs in shelters, and are half of the dogs put to sleep. This is because of the widespread prejudice against them, not because they are bad or aggressive dogs. They really need all the help they can get. You can do a lot more good volunteering to help them than with a zoo or general rescue, and can be a lot more hands-on.
posted by catatethebird at 5:43 PM on December 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used to do volunteer coordination for a live exhibit at a natural sciences museum, which is in a similar ballpark.

I have to second mmascolino that there are always more people who want to work with the animals, than there are opportunities to do so. It's probably different from place to place, but my museum was pretty careful about who got to do any kind of involved animal care or interaction. Very few of the museum animals were likely to hurt someone, but some of them could have been hurt themselves by careless volunteers.

If I were you, I'd sign up to volunteer anywhere the zoo can use you (if that's compatible with your recovery). After they've gotten to know you, you'll be able to acquire more interesting work. And eventually, you may get to help out with animals. The museum I worked for had a few volunteers who shouldered a great deal of responsibility for direct animal care, but they had gained that responsibility through a long record of being extremely reliable and competent. Which means they had to put up with a lot of crap for a long time, but it was worth it, in the end.

Do you like insects, by any chance? If your zoo has a butterfly exhibit, you could apply to volunteer there. My exhibit was full of butterflies, and they can be endearing, funny little creatures. And you could start interacting with them right away. They'd teach you safe handling techniques so you could rescue them when they inevitably get in trouble. There are several different kinds of positions in butterfly exhibits, but most of them involve standing in the exhibit and answering questions. This is often a lot less stressful than it sounds, because we had many, many volunteers who were in your position -- they had crippling mental illness issues and wanted to rejoin the world. They did fine.

Many of the people in my exhibit developed a strong protective empathy toward the butterflies. Honestly, it was kind of good for my own intensely neurotic soul to be around them - they're so inoffensive, pretty, and soothing to watch. It's hard to be unhappy around them. My mental health has degraded quite a bit since I stopped working with the butterflies. If you don't have an insect phobia and can tolerate standing in warm-to-hot rooms, I recommend this.
posted by Coatlicue at 6:03 PM on December 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a girlfriend that volunteered at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (about 25 yrs ago). She had little interaction with the animals. She did a lot of direction giving, helping out when groups of school children came to the zoo and worked at a concession stand selling t-shirts and other zoo stuff. She did get time to see the animals when there were no patrons before the opening and after the close. I think she got to do something with a few elephants once with the elephant keeper that she thought was neat.

Obviously, it depends on the zoo, but if your goal is to spend time with the animals and not so much with the human animals, I would not volunteer at a zoo. I would go the shelter route.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:04 PM on December 28, 2012

If a zoo doesn't work out and you want to work with animals - a therapeutic horseback riding program might be up your alley! You'll most likely get to work with horses - cleaning, grooming, getting the horses ready, leading the horses, etc.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:08 PM on December 28, 2012

I volunteered at a small zoo for a summer during college and had an absolute blast. I applied to both this smaller zoo and a large city zoo, and I was ultimately glad I decided to go with the smaller one, since there was so much more they'd let me do. It sounds like a small zoo might fit the bill for you as well.

I was with the education division so the main job was to give presentations to kids from toddler up to high school age on basic zoology and conservation. They had an educational animal collection that we used during the shows, so I got the chance to handle things like boas, raptors, parrots, lizards, insects, and even an alligator. It was completely awesome, some of the most fun work I've ever done.

Outside of the shows and caring a bit for the education animals, we would just wander about and field guests' questions. It definitely made me a much better public speaker and educator, for which I'm immensely grateful. If you can keep the attention of 300 third graders twitching with field trip excitement, you can handle giving a college lecture.
posted by bergeycm at 6:42 PM on December 28, 2012

I had a friend who volunteered/ interned at the invertebrate section of the zoo, and I think she mainly answered questions and helped with low level tasks. She did get in close contact with animals, but squids aren't for everyone...Smaller zoos will probably give you more options.

If you did want another animal-based option, are there any horse and large animal rescues near you? Lots of manual labor, but also the chance to be around and help ( and sometimes ride!) some fantastic animals who need help. In Philly, there's also a place that has a polo team and stable or local teens, and they are also looking for volunteers.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:44 PM on December 28, 2012

Yeah, seconding horseback riding stables and particularly therapeutic riding programs. You might even be able to get paid -- I used to date a woman who got riding lessons by trading about five hours of stall mucking, feeding, etc type work for a one-hour individual lesson, each week; other people at the same stable got paid, also. She was already horse-experienced when she got that gig, though, so your milage may vary. Horses are awesome, though.
posted by Alterscape at 6:56 PM on December 28, 2012

You could also look into wildlife rescue organizations. A friend of mine volunteered for an exotic animal rescue for about a year, and got to feed and otherwise interact with some of the less dangerous animals. They didn't let her into the cheetah pen, but she handled armadillos, alligators, and sugar gliders, to name just a few. And she did get to pet the cheetah a few times after all.

The few actual employees were certified/degreed exotic animal people. Most of the volunteers were part-time veterinary techs, but my friend had no animal experience other than your typical pets growing up.
posted by natabat at 7:01 PM on December 28, 2012

I volunteered at the LA zoo for a long time. I worked in the petting zoo, which wasn't particularly fun, but when I learned to time it right, I got to help corral the animals into their nighttime stalls. And that was super fun.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 6:29 AM on December 29, 2012

I had a volunteer position at the St. Louis Zoo watching video footage of fox behavior and taking very detailed notes whenever they had sex.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:40 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I volunteered at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio when I was a teen. The main jobs of note for me were washing display windows (kids with their handprints, omg), sweeping, washing out the enclosures for some of the animals and birds behind the scenes of the Wings of Flight show, washing food dishes, feeding some of the smaller & less dangerous animals, wrangling Madagascar cockroaches out of their box so I could clean it, filing old "former zoo subjects" paperwork, and taking food to some injured animals not on display.

The fun of volunteering was, for me, in the little scenes. I had to show up early each morning I was scheduled, so the most of the animals were up and ready to play. Some memories:
- washing a leopard's display window from the outside but unable to find him when *BAM!* Giant paw in my face! He'd snuck up beneath the window like a good hunter. Sat me back on my ass where I stayed for a few minutes (he peeked over twice at me, likely ready for a new round).
- the same thing happened with a female chimpanzee, except she wasn't hidden. She was sitting quietly when she leapt incredibly fast and body slammed the window full on.
- washing food dishes while a crowned crane untied my shoelaces
- washing dishes on a different day while eying a Harris Hawk, tied up nearby for cleaning time, who tended to like to attack
- holding the door for 9 people walking by carrying a large python
- carrying baby crocodiles (or was it alligators?) for random visitors to pet
- carrying a bucket of water when I realized a cheetah was stalking me along its enclosure. I set the bucket down and crouch suddenly. The cheetah stands tall and searches. I stand up. The cheetah crouches and stalks again. We did this for a few minutes before I had to keep moving.
posted by DisreputableDog at 9:11 AM on December 29, 2012

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