I stood in the hot afternoon sun on Sunday at 12. The zoo was crowded due to the pleasant weather, sunny with a cool, refreshing breeze. I was standing next to the otter exhibit in The Stream section of Local Wilderness area holding an otter pelt. Artifacts such as the otter pelt or animal skulls are referred to as bio facts and they are a huge hit with guests. People young and old enjoy having a hands on experience that connects them to our animals. Working with enthusiastic guests is one of the best parts of volunteering.
A group of little girls ran up to me, intrigued about what I was holding. I knelt on the rough concrete so that I was their height. “You can touch it,” I encouraged as they examined the foreign object. “Please use two fingers, like this,” I demonstrated.
“Why?” they asked, repeating the youngest children’s favorite question, one I hear hundreds of times every day that I work.
“So that you don’t hurt the fur,” I answered.
“Why?” they repeated.
“Because you want other kids to be able to see it too, right?” All of them nodded their heads but wouldn’t let it go.
“Well, would using three fingers hurt it?” I sighed and tried not to laugh.
“Just be careful please.”
“Alright … Can we just use one finger?”
I smiled at the young girls. “Sure.” They pet the soft fur with one finger, two fingers, and then three fingers each. They giggled excitedly before running up to the glass to look for our live otter. As the little girls watched the river otter dive swiftly under water, another group of people came up to see me.
The zoo is a common field trip destination for any grade from first to, evidently college, I learned, as a group of half a dozen boys and girls came up to me, all holding thick, white packets of paper whose pages had been crumpled from all day use. A girl donned a local university’s sweatshirt and a boy held the same logo on his back pack.
“Welcome to the zoo,” I said politely. “Is there anything I can help you with?” They touched the otter pelt and asked questions from their worksheets. Talking to kids my age is different than dealing with younger kids. I get to have more of an interactive conversation with the older ones and ask more difficult questions to get them engaged. “So thinking about those physical characteristics of the North American River Otter,” I referred to their worksheets, “what adaptions help it when in competitions for territory and food in its natural habitat?” I quizzed instead of having them describe whether the fur was hard or soft.
“Its long whiskers help it locate food underwater,” someone spoke up.
“And its dark color helps it blend into its environment,” another person said.
“Another interesting fact about the otter is that it can close off its nose and ears when it goes under water,” I explained. As the kids wrote that down on their worksheets a young brother and sister came up.
Again, I crouched down on my knees so that they could easily reach the pelt. “Is it dead?” the little girl asked in awe and jumped back timidly.
One of the older boys cracked a joke, “No, it’s the rare flat river otter.” I held my composure and tried not to laugh.
The little girl squealed. “Will it bite us?” she asked as she pulled her younger brother back.
“No, it’s not alive,” I explained. “This is just the fur of the otter.”
The little boy still appeared timid, “How did it die? Did you kill it?”
“Of course not!” I exclaimed. “I don’t know exactly how it did because it was given to the zoo as a gift. It wasn’t hurt though,” I informed them with confidence. The zoo gets most of its bio facts from other educational organization, such as WWF, the World Wildlife Fund. Places such as that are conservation organizations so they would never hurt the animals.
“So it died ‘cause it was old?” the boy clarified and I nodded my head in response.
The siblings’ grandparents walked over and smiled warmly. “Is that a beaver?” they inquired.
“Good guess, but this is actually a river otter pelt.” The grandmother smiled excitedly and launched into a story about how there was once an animal like this in the stream behind their house. Her rosy cheeks were bright with delight and it was exciting for me to see the spark of interest within her. Older people in general usual enjoy sharing stories that connect them to the bio facts and I love hearing them.
After the grandparents and siblings left, I looked down at my phone to see that it was already quarter to three, my last shift of the day was already nearing the end. For the next five minutes I shifted from foot to foot alone. No other visitors were coming to see me. Our female otter came up to the glass to say hello but soon returned to her log for nap time. The otters are both diurnal and nocturnal so they switch back and forth from nestling up in their straw to sleep and swimming around in the water all day and night.
Finally, I had only five minutes until sign out, so I started to pack up my things to leave. Just as I tucked the otter pelt back into its box for safe keeping, another family came up to see me. There was a middle aged mother and father with a young girl, probably about six to seven years old. She was cute with thin, blond hair that curled around her shoulders and wore a light pink dress. With her left hand, she gripped her mother’s hand with a sense of security and with her right, she held onto a small, plastic stick.
“We are near beavers,” her mother told her. I was too startled to correct her as I simultaneously made eye contact with the young girl. Her eyes were large and blue, the exact color of the sky, but I knew that they were not seeing my brown ones back. They were startlingly cloudy with no pupil whatsoever. With two minutes to go, I knew I still had a chance to meet up with my friends to walk back to the volunteer office with them, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I slowly pulled the otter pelt back out of the box, unraveled it, and crouched down so that I was her height. She turned the side of her head toward me as I shifted my belongings around, and I later realized that she heard the noise I had made and was listening closer.
“Would you like to feel the otter’s fur?” Her mom smiled gratefully and put the little girl’s hand on the pelt. For her presumed age group, I would have usually asked about the color or the texture but she was able to make analogies that event the college kids were making.
“These are its whiskers,” she identified by touch. “Like my cat. I feel them on her too.”
“Its whiskers help it underwater because it is dark there,” I said, flinching as I realized my word choice, but she didn’t react.
“Then does it use its whiskers to touch things?”
“Yes. Do you know why it can’t use its hands?” Again, I was worried I would upset her, but she seemed intrigued that it couldn’t see everything either.
“It uses its hand to swim and its feet to swim.”
I ended up talking to the smart, little girl for a few minutes past my shift, but I didn’t mind. I love having the opportunity to talk to all different types of people and teach them about the environment and animals in our ecosystem and how to conserve them, because all are topics that I am passionate about. What has surprised me about my volunteer position so far is that I learn from the guests just as much as they learn from me. Bio fact work can sometimes be boring when there is no one around but the insightful moments that I do experience make it all worth it.