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 Bennett