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Zoo-per Girl! This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     I’m standing in my uniform of shorts and a green polo while people of all ages gather around me, talking excitedly to one another, “Look at her!” No, I’m not a celebrity, a mime or anything like that. I’m just holding a six-foot Mexican redtailed boa in my arms, trying to get children (and frightened adults) to come and touch the snake, while answering questions with responses like: “Well, here we feed him pre-killed mice” and “Don’t be afraid ... here at the zoo our animals aren’t afraid of people.”

You heard me, I am a volunteer at a zoo. How many times have you gone to your zoo and thought, Wow, it would be cool to work here! After all, many of us have dreamed of being zookeepers and veterinarians and loved watching Jack Hanna or Steve Irwin handle exotic animals like tigers and snakes. While I don’t pet tigers or wrestle crocodiles, I do get to work with animals ranging from baby alligators, tarantulas, llamas, chinchillas, macaws, to pythons. I grin at the amazed faces of my friends when I tell them what I do on Saturdays.

When I was 13 I started volunteering at my local zoo as part of the Teen Team. This program is for kids ages 13 to 15 to educate the public on the importance of wild animals through handling various animals, including pine snakes and rabbits. I’ve since graduated and am now a docent, which is a volunteer teacher. We educate the public by showing various animals and by giving tours and participating in outreaches (like taking animals to festivals). To become a docent I took a seven-week zoology course to learn about the animals in the zoo, necessary vocabulary, and the importance of zoos and programs like the Species Survival Plan, which ensures certain animals avoid extinction.

If animals aren’t your thing but you still think it would be exciting to volunteer at a zoo, you can help in the gift shop, concession stand, with gardening, or special events, which usually happen around holidays. If you don’t want to volunteer every week, but just a day, by yourself or with a group of friends or even a school club, helping at a special event is a lot of fun since zoos are usually swamped on these days!

This all sounds great, but how do you go about volunteering at a zoo? First, you need to check that your zoo is an AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) registered zoo, since they follow important guidelines to ensure the safety and well-being of their animals. You can visit your local zoo’s website, find the volunteer opportunity section, and fill out an application. Or call the zoo and ask to speak to the volunteer coordinator.

Some teens volunteer until they receive the necessary service hours to graduate, and then quit. I’m way over that number, but I continue to volunteer, even though I don’t want to be a zoologist. Going to the zoo every week keeps me off the couch and is a truly rewarding experience. It’s a great feeling to know that because you chose to bring out a leopard gecko, a little kid who was having a bad time (because he didn’t get what he wanted in the gift shop) suddenly smiles and laughs when you say, “No, it’s not the GEICO gecko, it’s his cousin,” and starts having fun again. Or, when you can inspire a kid by telling him that in a few years he too can volunteer at a zoo and suddenly he turns to his parents and says “Awesome!”

But of course, one of the best aspects of volunteering at a zoo is that you feel you’re a part of something big. You are helping protect these animals, which have no voice, by educating people on their importance and dismissing preconceptions (for example that tarantulas are evil - most species are actually quite docile).

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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Believebeluga This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
today at 3:17 pm:
Great to meet another enthusiastic volunteer! I 'work' at the Georgia Aquarium, and yeah, its the best job ever. But I still remember being that little kid who said, "You have the best job ever!" so it kinda throws me sometimes, you know?
 
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