Letter to the Editor, Chicago Tribune and Kevin Bell, CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo

Until a recent move out of state, I was a volunteer docent at the Lincoln Park Zoo. I want to add my voice to the outrage and frustration that comes with the closing of the LPZ docent program.

A typical docent day for me included giving the “gibbon chat” first thing in the morning and then spending time at an education cart talking about the big cats or polar bears. After lunch I was either talking to visitors about the Lowland Gorilla operant conditioning program in the Regenstein Center for African Apes or handling skinks and snakes so school children could get up close and personal. Some days, I would go with the Traveling Zoo to nursing homes. On a busy summer day, it’s not uncommon for a docent to talk with, educate and answer questions for as many as 300-400 people. Each year thousands upon thousands of visitors to the Lincoln Park Zoo get to share in the docent’s dedication to the zoo, their love and enthusiasm for the animals, and their experience and knowledge surrounding the messages of conservation and preservation. Every docent I worked with was a well educated, well trained, highly invested volunteer.

On any summer day that I worked I would encounter numerous multi-generational families from Chicago neighborhoods where English was a second language and the only familiar animals were the rats in the alley. As docents, we often found ourselves talking to the youngest of three generations and waiting while these children translated to parents and grandparents. Nothing made me happier than watching a child goad his fearful mother into touching Barney the skink, and their discovery that these were very cool, very harmless creatures. Countless times, I would find myself in conversations with visitors to Chicago and the zoo from all around the world. They were curious about the zoo’s collections, it’s involvement in conservation programs in Africa and they were excited to learn about the species survival program. Docents with many years experience knew how it was that we came to have a brother and sister polar bear in the same enclosure (and could tactfully explain the use of birth control among zoo residents) , the whims and habits of Adelor, why Caruso sucks his thumb and the story of the gibbon’s morning song. Many visitors wanted to know about the elephants: what happened to the elephants? All of my fellow docents knew how to have a sensitive discussion about that time in the zoo’s history when the elephants died and they could explain the circumstances and have thoughtful discussions about what kind of conditions and space are required to humanely house elephants. Similarly many guests wanted to know about global warming and it’s impact on marine mammals, the polar bears in particular. Hard to believe that this was a political hot button- but we were successful in explaining how the fact of melting ice was a threat to the bears survival without (too much) Bush bashing.

During the Fall of 2008 and into the winter of 2009 it was clear that change was coming to the docent and zoo education department.  All ears perked up at the biannual meeting where we were introduced to the new management recently coming from Disney World (that magic kingdom where all the faces are young and pretty, bright and shiny, the scripts are rote and the parting words are “Have a magical day!”) At that meeting, it was clear the agenda was changing- away from conservation and education and towards selling memberships, promoting the food concessions and gift shops and offering guests more of an amusement park type atmosphere.

These are challenging times and zoos have been especially hard hit by federal and state funding cuts. It’s time for creative thinking. But to imagine that eliminating a volunteer program that has successfully worked with the public for more than three decades and replace those individuals with paid young adults equipped with scripted talks seems senseless. This is a change that not only gives very short shrift to the dedicated pool of docents at LPZ; it is a change that will cheat the public of education, information and important messages for our future as we share it with the other creatures of the planet.

Zoo docents have made a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo an interesting, educational and thought-provoking experience to guests from all around the globe for more than 30 years. The individual personality differences and unique experiences of the docents made the program all the richer. Many of the docents have had extensive experience traveling the world with environmental programs focused on endangered and threatened animals. The decision to end the docent program at a time in our society and in our city when a personalized sense of community and human connections are more important than ever seems monumentally sad and ill-fated. Replacing this wonderful cadre of hard working volunteers with script-wielding models and talking plastic kiosks will mark a definitive change for zoo visitors. I fear that, in the end, it will be a not so magical day.

Sincerely, Vicki BennettIMG_1546

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22 responses to “Letter to the Editor, Chicago Tribune and Kevin Bell, CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo

  1. Obviously the lion is voicing his opinion of the decision to get rid of the docents. I think he hates it as much as I do. Whatever are they thinking? (Perhaps the real question is….Are they thinking at all?)

    My only trip to the LPZ was at the age of 14, on a long school trip. I had never been to a zoo so large (and I suspect it was a mere shadow then of the zoo it has become over the years). We had no docent that day; only our teacher and a few chaperones – none of whom knew as much as they should about the animals we were seeing. A docent to lead the way and tell about the animals would have been wonderful to have. I know in my heart that LPZ will come to regret that decision, and reinstate the program. The problem is that by the time they realize the error of their ways, the current docents will have gone elsewhere.

    • Hi, Vicki I saw your concern blog. I am very concern too. Can you please contact me, I have more questions about the zoo and interested in the education. I want to volunteer and I want your message to be saw and heard.

  2. I hope your letter changes some minds, vicki. A zoo is not a magical Disney World. It houses real flesh and blood, living things that need people who choose to be there because of their hearts, not their wallets. A volunteer brings something to the experience that an employee usually doesn’t: that pure desire to simply be part of good works. The animals benefit from that, and I fear they would suffer if they were treated like the make believe magical kingdom of a Disney world.

  3. Oh, Vicki–your wise wise words make me inexorably sad.
    The word origin of docent says it all-to teach. I loved reading your blogs of your experiences as a docent, and I would think, what a wonderful thing to do, what a great place to be.
    And to think it is all swept away by yet another Disney-fication of the world. Disney? Oh, please.

  4. The whole world is being Disneyfied? What a horrible prospect. It’s a tragedy for those of us who want a zoo to be a place that celebrates and teaches about the wonder of the animal kingdom–and not a superficial entertainment park.

  5. And oh, a most excellent and well-written letter!!

  6. Excellent letter. I could not agree more. I was horrified by that story.

    I just became a docent at the L.A. Zoo (six month class, one year of touring oversight, annual zoology test, etc.) last spring. We’re all volunteers from the chairperson on down. There is a cadre of dedicated long-time docents there, some of whom have created and run wonderful programs for members and the public. For free. Because they love it. I would hate to see something like that happen to them.

    And I worry that it is coming. Our zoo is 100% owned by the city and the city is broke. The mayor has already indicated his desire to get rid of the zoo as a city asset/liability. I know there are those who wish for Disney (just down the road, after all) to take it over. I think this would be a disaster for the L.A. zoo & the community it serves. Sure, the zoo might get some pretty improvements. But it would be Animal Kingdom West, ticket prices would soar, we’d stop serving the local community in favor of becoming a tourist destination, and you know what that would mean for all the folks in the docent program.

    Of course, zoos should entertain. But that entertainment should serve the zoos’ role in education, conservation and scientific pursuit. Firing all the docents and replacing them with one-note smile-bots is a terrible mistake. I hope the LIncoln Park Zoo reconsiders.

  7. Wonderful letter!!!!
    The lioness… is definitely roaring… along with the lion.
    Please don’t turn the zoo into an amusement park. When we lived in northern Indiana we made many field trips into Chicago, most often to the Brookfield Zoo but on occasion, to Lincoln Park as well. Fond memories of childhood found there.

  8. So well written. I hope it sways them, as it should. So sad to hear of the disnification of LPZ. Yuck.

  9. Really short-sighted decision on the part of the powers-that-be. I wish I could believe that letters from people like you will change their minds but somehow I don’t think it will sway them. At least you took a stand and made your voice heard.

  10. I love Disney and Disney has a wonderful place in our world. However, the idea that everything should be as Disney is . . . that’s stupid. Zoos are definitely not a place to be disney-fied. Given the financial situation in our country, dismantling a viable volunteer program is insane.

  11. As a Lincoln park Zoo docent, I certainly sympathize with your point of view. However, I think your characterization of a turn at the zoo from education and conservation to an amusement park atmosphere is unfounded. In my time as a docent I have only seen a strengthening of LPZ’s role in animal and habitat conservation, and I expect that the new carts and kiosks will emphasize this. The zoo administration has also promised that there will continue to be roles for volunteers; not all the volunteers will be replaced by paid staff as you suggest. Furthermore, the current paid public engagement staff in the education department are not “models” wielding “plastic”, but strike me as pretty effective. Let’s be honest. Although most docents at the zoo are good, you can’t say that every one of them is effective. I think the education department staff wants more control over this, and why not?

  12. anon(Ms. Nash)- I’m not convinced. The mere fact that the term “docent” (from Latin, meaning “to teach” is being replaced by “Ambassador”- an identical title to Disney World staff, defined by Disney marketing as “Ambassadors carry the messages that motivate our Guests to visit.” is not just coincidental since the Zoo’s recent hire from Disney’s marketing management team and suggests quite clearly that teaching/education is less important than generating business. The Zoo’s document that states “the antiquated volunteer utilization model . . . does not enhance the zoo’s strategic initiatives” makes me wonder about the zoo’s initiatives. Further, it is my understanding that current docents are most likely to be ‘allowed’ to stand at membership kiosks promoting new memberships rather than roving, engaging with guests, giving talks, etc. You are absolutely correct-in any work environment, not every person is effective. The Zoo’s education department, from my personal observations, has been so busy sending out missives about “what not to wear”, designing identical t-shirts, and most strikingly,hiring and firing their own management that they have been ineffectual in training, retraining, redirecting, supporting or, if necessary assisting those few ineffectual docents to find a different avenue for their volunteer energy. And, based on a recent visit where I specifically made a point of listening to the seal talk and the RCAA talk, I did not think the scripted hired help was all that impressive.

    Finally, there’s the whole concept of volunteerism. There’s a powerful inherent value, especially at this time in our society, in utilizing volunteers in community activities. Brookfield Zoo, incidentally, will be hosting the AZA Docent’s 2010 national meeting. Apparently, Lincoln Park is in the minority in their opinions about docents.

    There is nothing in the mission statement of Lincoln Park Zoo that leaves room for the ridiculous political pettiness that has been pervasive in management for the past few years- especially at the expense of focusing on the animals. Lincoln Park Zoo is a model urban zoo-a beautiful venue with magnificent animals who are housed and cared for with love. As zoos have become necessary because of our foolish need to corral, dominate, own and mess with just about every other living thing, Lincoln Park stands out as a fine example of what an institution can achieve in the interests of preservation and conservation of species. I truly believe that. I also believe the that the end of the docent program is a foolish, misguided and tragic loss for the zoo and the City of Chicago and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come each year.

  13. Nice letter. Well done.

  14. Kris Gavin, LPZ Docent

    Vicki —

    As a soon to be former docent, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for expressing my thoughts exactly. After 14 years, I find I now will have my Saturday’s free. Best of everything to you and yours.

  15. Da descent of da decent docents? Drat and darn!
    ~Dike

    The decent docent doesn’t doze;
    He teaches standing on his toes.
    His student dassn’t doze and does,
    And that’s what teaching is and was.
    ~David McCord (1897-1997)

    A decent docent doesn’t doze,
    But bright and sprightly, on her toes –
    Her well-appointed rounds she goes,
    And erudition from her flows
    In audible and lucid prose.

    A shepherdess who leads her flock
    Past Buddha, Bosch and Boudinot,
    Past pagan God and Christian saint
    In marble, plaster, wood, and paint,
    As well as many a passing show
    Like “Motherwell” or “Eskimo”!

    With objects d’art from Greece or Rome
    Or Mayaluum, she’s quite at home,
    As well as bronzes from Benin,
    Mosaics glumly Byzantine,
    Things Classic, Renaissance, or Pop,
    Even the current campus crop,
    All this she’s studied, this and more
    From out McCormick’s fabled store
    All styles and cultures are her beat;
    She’s trained in speaking on her feet.

    With gentle joke, with learned quote,
    Or illustrative anecdote,
    She charms and steers her little group
    Who earnestly behind her troop.

    Indeed, it’s just as you’d suppose,
    A decent docent DASSN’T DOZE!!
    ~For the docents of the Art Museum of Princeton University by an admirer, Marie Louise Stokes (1974)

    xoxo (I shall reply to your email soon. What a lovely surprise!)

  16. Bravo Vicki. This makes me furious. What next? I hate to think.

  17. I am a docent who would have been celebrating 20 years in 2010. I appreciate everything you wrote. I do not agree with it all you wrote about the zoo becoming Disney-like, but do agree that loosing a volunteer group with years of experience about the zoo and its animals and their personalities and behaviors is a huge loss. I too feel the zoo is losing its best feature its people. We are people that others can ask where to find food or a bathroom or a certain animal someone adopted and wants to find. We can respond to their concerns about what they overheard or thought they saw in the news. I had almost 20 wonderful years there. My Sunday’s were always the most rewarding day of my week. After October 31, it is all over. What a loss!!!!!

  18. we always go on gift shops whenever we want to find something to give on special occasions ;-“

  19. There is clearly a bundle to know about this. I suppose you made various good points in features also.Keep functioning ,fantastic job! sewing machine tables cabinets

  20. I needed details in regards to this on Aol and came across your post. I found it to be nice and very clear. Cheers

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