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You Ask, Patch Answers: What's Does It Take to Be a Zoo Volunteer?

The Detroit Zoo has approximately 1,100 volunteers working in seasonal and year-round positions. Patch talked to four Royal Oak residents that lend a hand at the zoo.

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Whether it’s something you’ve always wondered about, some information you just can’t put your hands on or a sudden curiosity, we want to hear it.

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Patch reader Patience wrote: "Have you ever considered doing a piece about the people who volunteer at the ? I am sure it would make a lovely story to hear why some people spend their time volunteering there and what kind of training one might need to become a volunteer."

To answer Patience's question, Patch talked to Linda Denomme,volunteer service manager, and four Royal Oak residents who volunteer at the zoo.

  • Sue Glynn has been a volunteer gallery guide since 2008.
  • Paul Dunkerley is a Zoo Ambassador. He's been a volunteer for 3 years.
  • Bob Jarva and Aileen Barkume are both docents. Jarva's been a volunteer for 2 years; Barkume for more than 4 years.

What kind of training do people need to volunteer?

The Detroit Zoo hosts orientation events every spring and fall, said Denomme, who manages about 40-60 volunteers per day.

At the orientation sessions, volunteer opportunities and expectations are explained.

"Everyone receives training, but the amount varies," said Jarva. "It all depends. There are quite a few different positions."

For example, Zoo Ambassadors, who greet people at the gates and are way finders, require less training than docents who conduct guided tours.

Do any volunteers get to work with animals?

It's common for animal lovers to enquire about volunteer opportunities, said Denomme.

"Some people will call and say 'I will do anything. I will clean up after the animals - anything,' but to do that you need a degree," Denomme said. It is not the zoo's policy to allow volunteers to handle animals.

"Being a volunteer is a people orientated position," said Barkume. "It's hands off the animals."

Still the zoo is a wonderful place for animal fans to volunteer.

"Volunteers have plenty of opportunities to observe the animals," said Dunkerley. "For example we're there on the rare occasions when the rhinos trot and run. We get to stop and watch."

"And the animals love to watch us, too," said Barkume. "You know how people love to watch Animal Plant? Well the animals love to watch people. We are like 'People Planet!'"

What are the responsibilities of a volunteer?

Volunteer responsibilities vary. Pointing a patron to the nearest restroom, offering a guided tour, doing outreach at area hospitals and schools, and gardening are all things done by volunteers.

"I work in the Butterfly Garden and so I explain butterflies and butterfly larvae," said Glynn. "When we have large groups, I also do some policing if necessary."

One of the biggest joys for Glynn is helping guests overcome their fear of butterflies. Some worry they sting or bite, she said. They don't.

"I love it when I can convince someone that butterflies are not scary and that if one lands on you it is supposed to bring you good luck," she said.

It's music to Glynn's ears when someone says, "Sue! I am not afraid of butterflies anymore!" she said.

How old does one have to be to volunteer?

You must be 18 years old or older, Denomme said.

Any tips, advice or best kept secrets for visitors?

"My tip is to have patience and to look carefully when you visit the zoo," said Dunkerley. "I am always disappointed when I hear someone say they didn't see an animal they wanted to. All the animals are there, you just need to patient. Look around. Move around. Try another spot to view."

The morning is a good time to visit the zoo, said Jarva. "Animals are a lot like people. They have a lot of energy in the morning and like to find shade and take naps in the afternoon."

A best kept secret all the volunteers agree on is to visit the zoo in the winter when the giraffes and rhinos are in indoor habitats and you can see them up close. You have an opportunity to warm up and see the animals just 10 or 15 feet away.

Another little known fact is there is one volunteer position that requires no training and that is being a helper at the annual Zoo Boo event in October. The zoo needs lots of assistance for this event and it's a wonderful opportunity to test the volunteers waters and see if it's right for you.

"The best advice I have is to please respect the animals," said Barkume. "Don't chase the peacocks and please don't try to feed the animals."

When is the next volunteer orientation?

The next orientation is Oct. 3 from 6-8:30 p.m. Attending this exploratory meeting does not mean a commitment on your part. It's just a way to see and hear what volunteer positions are available and sign up for the proper training if you are willing to take the next step. Email volunteer@dzs.org for more information.

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