I consider myself extremely fortunate in having been able to spend a lifetime working in zoos with animals from all over the world. However, zoo work is not for everyone – even those who are passionate about wildlife may become frustrated by the lack of opportunities (not to mention the exceedingly low salaries!). There is, however, a very pleasant alternative for those who wish to be around exotic creatures on a regular basis– volunteering. Many zoos, aquariums, nature centers and museums accept volunteers, and most provide extensive training.
Typical Volunteer Activities
Volunteers become involved in a host of interesting activities and often have more frequent contact with the public than do staff members. Those seeking to enter the zoo field as salaried employees usually acquire useful job experience as well.
Volunteers provide valuable information about animal behavior and conservation by answering questions, conducting tours and helping visitors to interpret exhibits. In some institutions they also interact closely with animals – preparing diets, monitoring animal contact areas and using hand- raised creatures in educational and outreach programs (i.e. nursing home visits).
Volunteers may also assist animal keepers where long periods of observation are required, as is the case, for example, when new animals are introduced to an exhibit. They also participate in research efforts – at the Bronx Zoo, a group of dedicated volunteers documented the fact that Alligator Snapping Turtles remain submerged for over 2 hours. This discovery eventually led to important new information concerning the physiology of these rare and unusual reptiles.
Unfailingly, volunteers report that the experience adds a new dimension to their lives…my mother, for example, volunteered at the Bronx Zoo for most of the 21 years I spent working there, and counted the opportunity as one of her life’s most rewarding. Elderly and retired people make up the bulk of the volunteer force at many institutions, and I can’t help but believe that they also pass along a bit of valuable “life wisdom” while working with youngsters.
While not everyone will be able to duplicate the experiences pictured in the accompanying photos, I hope they will give you some idea of what may be in store should you follow this exciting path.
Specific information is best obtained from your local institution. A centralized listing of zoo opportunities is available here.
You can read about an exceptionally well-run volunteer program on the website of the St. Louis Zoo.