Two-year-old triplets stand on their toes to peer into a plastic container at fuzzy yellow chicks. With a bit of hesitation and curious smiles, the children stretch their arms to feel the soft babies’ feathers.
“Now be careful. Use only one finger and lightly touch,” says Pat Chamber, a docent at the Santa Ana Zoo.
The zoo is a breeding ground for not only small animals, but also the ever-growing family of docents. It seems that once a person volunteers, he or she is hooked.
Frank Worden has been a volunteer at the zoo since he retired four years ago.
Today he is working at “Critters’ Corner,” where visitors can have hands-on contact with various animals and birds.
Worden notices a young boy approaching a table laden with animal skulls, eggs, feathers, a shark’s jaw and other items. Worden grabs the skull of a gorilla and skillfully and patiently describes its features to the boy, pointing to the teeth and explaining its eating habits.
Cheerfully, Worden says he’ll keep volunteering “as long as I can walk and have a good voice.”
“It’s a real nice family,” he says. “I think we have probably one of the greatest bunch of docents I’ve never seen. Everyone is interested in what each other is doing, and everyone is trying to benefit the public.”
The zoo is seeking participants for its fall session of the Docent Training Workshop, scheduled each Monday and Wednesday morning from Sept. 13 through Nov. 1.
Once a docent completes the training period, he or she is asked to work one day a week for at least 100 hours during a year.
“The docent program consists of volunteers who teach the education programs,” says Kent Yamaguchi, curator of education for the zoo. “The docents will lead tours, primarily for elementary aged students.”
Yamaguchi explains how “the (program) gives a general background of the philosophy and history of the zoo and animal selection.” It will “teach techniques and all the facts (docents) will need to know about the animals.”
“It’s fun to come to a zoo and see the animals and learn about them,” says Yamaguchi. “But we’re really trying to teach more than just the facts. We are trying to show that the reason that we have zoos is to teach about the animals and stir that appreciation of them so people will take action and have sensitivity toward them.”
Interested program participants need no prior experience. Yamaguchi stresses that all that’s needed is a love for children and animals. “It’s a great combination. That’s what we’re doing, sharing the animals. But more than that, we want to get across the idea of responsibility.”
Worden says the docents have pride in the zoo and are willing to give an extended hand when needed. “We realize such a thing as not having all the money to do everything you want to do, so a lot of us pitch in and help do things even if (the zoo) could afford to do them. We like to do it just to help.”
Karen Cashen, another docent of the zoo, is cradling a possum. As the visitors approach, the possum yawns. “Look at those teeth!” one of the women shrieks.
“There’s 50 teeth,” Cashen says. “That’s because he eats a big variety of foods, so he needs lots of different teeth. He eats dog food, cat food, and he loves snails.”
At first, most visitors are hesitant to touch a possum because of its appearance and its scavenger traits.
Cashen quickly puts visitors’ minds at ease by saying that “they are not aggressive. They will try to protect themselves, but they are not going to attack.”
As for its looks, one mother shouted: “What a pretty Mr. Possum!” and suddenly the possum achieved celebrity status.
Cashen had changed the group’s opinion.
Frank Worden is now standing back, taking a breather during a lull between groups of visitors. He is watching other volunteers who are showing some children the animals.
It seems the little chicks are the big hit of the day. A small girl, held by her mother, reaches into the plastic container, and Worden issues the familiar friendly command. “One finger only!”
The girl obliges. Worden, admiring the young child, chuckles deeply and with an ear-to-ear smile says, “This is what makes your day.”