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There’s More to Being a Santa Ana Zoo Docent Than Knowing Where to Find the Lions and Tigers and Bears--and Restrooms

The volunteer guide at the Santa Ana Zoo had carefully explained that, although the youngsters are free to pet the animals in the children’s zoo, they are not allowed to feed them, lest the animals’ health be endangered.

So she was somewhat chagrined when one tyke wandered over 10 minutes later to ask: “What was the name of the animal that just ate my name tag?”

Another volunteer at the zoo, a registered nurse, had taken the 6-foot-long boa constrictor out of its cage and was exercising it on the lawn when she noticed that the reptile produced a white, calcified deposit that looked to her like an egg. She ran inside the office, yelling enthusiastically for the curator, who went outside, looked and gently explained that the snake was merely relieving itself.

Then there was the volunteer who was taken aback to hear a child announce, after running his hand along the spines on the back of the pygmy hedgehog: “It feels like my mother’s legs.”

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To the ranks of those volunteer guides, whom the zoo calls docents, were added this week another 3 men and 12 women, each of whom spent at least $25 to become a Friend of the Santa Ana Zoo, another $15 on a uniform shirt and 24 hours in classroom training to distinguish a capuchin from a gibbon (both are monkeys), a black-necked aracari from a mitred conure (both are birds)--and to find out where the restrooms are. That’s the sort of stuff zoo visitors need to know.

“I think I’ll be all set and ready to go,” said Amos Bernstein, a Tustin resident who applied to be a guide when he saw a newspaper story saying the zoo was about to begin one of its twice-yearly training classes. “I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, maybe drop a pearl of wisdom or two.”

Like most of the volunteers in the class, Bernstein, 63, is retired. A former general manager of an industrial company in Tustin, he decided last year that he did not want to accompany the firm when it moved to Wisconsin.

He joked that his previous volunteer work was “just for the U.S. Navy” in World War II, but figured this was the kind of job he wanted, even though there’s no pay and volunteers--there are more than 50 active now, including the most recent class--are required to spend at least 80 hours a year helping out at the zoo.

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With all the varieties of volunteer activity available, why did he pick the zoo?

“In my case, it’s a matter of recognizing the fact that we are losing our environment to a great extent,” Bernstein said. “And I think people, particularly children, could be more aware of the animals and the dangers to them. I think in the long run they’ll be helping to maintain the environment.”

Jennifer Rigby, the zoo’s education curator, said the zoo “could not perform the education programs we do without (the volunteers’) assistance. They’re considered part of the educational team, and with their help, we’re able to reach out to do the number of programs we do.”

Those programs include lectures in the main building on the grounds, where a tiny hedgehog sleeps almost standing up, paws pressed against the glass cage, not far from a table that usually serves as a platform for a plastic model of a human skeleton, dubbed “Fred.”

Another program is the Zoomobile, a van that carries up to five animals or birds at a time to schools, senior citizens’ homes, hospitals and day-care centers and often features one of the zoo’s most popular creatures, Pedro the talking parrot. There is also a summer “zoo camp” for children ages 8 to 12, who spend a week taking part in anatomy labs, working with zookeepers, collecting aquatic insects or building models of animal skeletons.

The main volunteer job is conducting student tours of the zoo. Those applying for the job are screened, picked and plunked down in the classroom, where they sit around the table from which “Fred” the skeleton has been temporarily removed.

The guides-to-be are given 140-page notebooks stuffed with information about zoos in general and the Santa Ana facility in particular, with rundowns on the zoo’s animals, including the snakes and the porcupines, the parrots and the monkeys. Especially the monkeys.

The zoo opened in 1952, thanks to Joseph Edward Prentice, a wealthy, eccentric landowner who donated the 20.5 acres to the city--with the provision that the zoo to be built there will always contain at least 50 monkeys. No monkeys, no money.

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Rigby, the education curator, told the guide class that Prentice’s descendants still tour the zoo periodically, counting the simian population, so “when we get down to 51 or so we get real nervous.”

Because of Prentice’s love of monkeys, the zoo now has one of the better collections of those primates. Much of the class is spent showing the volunteers how to tell one type from another, the characteristics of different types and how to deal with some of their behavior that human adults sometimes find embarrassing, but that sends children into fits of giggling.

One characteristic that’s a sure attention-getter is the swelling that occurs in some female monkeys around their patches of hardened rump skin that make it possible for the animals to sit on the ground or on tree limbs for long periods. The swelling, which indicates the monkey is sexually receptive, sometimes causes the rump pads to crack and bleed.

Despite signs describing the condition and explaining what it is, Rigby said, adults will occasionally berate the zoo for not taking proper care of its animals, while children simply ask: “What’s that?”

“You use the word sex, and the teacher immediately breaks out in a cold sweat,” Rigby told the guides. “The way we word it for young kids is that ‘it’s just a sign that she’s ready to be a mommy.’ And kids understand as much as they want to understand.”

Questions of all sorts come from the 225,000 people who visit the zoo each year. Rigby said most of the questions are distinctly non-exotic: When is the zoo open? (Daily except Christmas and New Year’s Day.) What does it cost to enter? (Admission is $2 for ages 13 to 59, 75 cents for children 3 to 12 and senior citizens 60 and older. Children under 3 and handicapped are admitted free.)

Once a sleepy, shabby animal facility overshadowed by the zoos in Los Angeles and San Diego, in recent years the Santa Ana Zoo has upgraded its collections, renovated exhibits and begun new programs. Owned and operated by the city, the zoo received accreditation by the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums 5 years ago. The accreditation recognizes a zoo’s high standards of care and management of animals. It is held by only about 20% of U.S. zoos.

Rigby said the volunteers and the 11 full-time and 14 part-time staff workers spend much of their time “defusing the myth that some of these animals make good pets.”

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Although visitors may ooh and aah over a mongoose, monkey or mountain lion, “little do they know (that some animals) scent-mark their path with urine,” Rigby said, not exactly the trait one wants in the home.

In addition, some of the zoo animals are threatened with extinction and need professional care to survive. Others, seemingly tame when young, often become unmanageably wild when they reach adulthood, which would be kind of tough on the curtains at home.

“A lot of the typical questions we get revolve around whether an animal makes a good pet,” Rigby said. “To that we respond, ‘Dogs and cats make good pets.’ ”

One prospective docent who already knows a lot about animals is Karyn Siegel-Steele, who has lectured on men and beasts in the early days of the West at parks, museums and libraries, as well as at the zoo.

“I do living history,” Siegel-Steele said, explaining that she dons buckskins to discuss the days of the fur trade a century and a half ago. “I explain how the Native Americans and the mountain men, the fur trappers, lived off the land. . . . They used the whole animal--ate the meat and used the fur to clothe themselves.”

Siegel-Steele said because most of her lectures have been volunteer appearances and because of her interest in animals, she decided to volunteer to be a docent. But like many of her fellow students, she was worried about the final exam, which they took Thursday.

“I haven’t taken a test in 25 years,” she moaned. (She passed, as did all the others.)

Not that they needed inspiration, but the volunteers could take heart from the experience of Claudia Collier, who said she started as a zoo volunteer 20 years ago and wound up making it a career. Today she is director of the Santa Ana Zoo.

“Our visions and dreams are always larger than our budget,” Collier told the docents, “so with the use of volunteers, we can do some of the extra things.”


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