A wild bonding experience

Some people volunteer in hospitals or libraries, but others babysit escape artist orangutans and dig worms for hungry foxes.

The Los Angeles Zoo enlists 800 volunteers from high school teens to retirees throughout the Los Angeles area, many of whom live in Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge and Burbank.

One docent, Muriel Horacek, of La Cañada, can often be found near Bruno the orangutan. Bruno is well-known on zoo grounds for his 25-minute escape in May 2008. Ever since, volunteers like Horacek have kept a watchful eye on him, which she enjoys because orangutans are her favorite species to observe.

Horacek began her work with animals at age 67 as an Earth Watch representative. Earth Watch recruits people to help scientists with their wildlife field research.

At 87 years old, Horacek has traveled with 35 expeditions to sites such as China, Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

This is Horacek's first year as volunteer docent, teaching people about wildlife.

"The more you go, the more you see the personality of the animals," she said. "When you go to the zoo once, you don't see that."

One of her favorite memories is watching a 5-year-old orangutan spend 30 minutes reaching for a branch outside the cage. With perseverance, the young ape finally nibbled.

Glendale resident Beach Rogers has volunteered at the zoo for nine years and also loves the orangutans.

Rogers worked at KNX-FM (1070) and spent his entire career in Los Angeles. In 1998, he retired and wanted to give back to the community when he wasn't playing golf.

As a docent, he loves sharing facts about the animals and teaching children about wildlife conservation.

"There's not an animal that doesn't deserve care and doesn't deserve our attention," Rogers said. "Can you imagine not being able to see a particular animal? There are so many wonderful animals, and we don't want to see them disappear."

He's proud to volunteer at the zoo, and he looks forward to the new 3.5-acre Asian elephant compound. Asian elephants are most at risk because they are threatened in the wild and by humans, he said.

Horacek and Rogers took a zoology course to be a docent like many retirees at the zoo who are overseen by Burbank resident Kirin Daugharty.

Daugharty is manager of volunteer programs for the zoo and began her volunteer work as an artist in 2001. Daugharty started doing more observing than painting and began her work there as a "happy accident," she said.

She doesn't work with the animals like she used to.

"I just work with the North American primates, which are the volunteers," Daugharty said.

Ecology lovers can volunteer in several capacaties at the zoo.

For high school students, a program is offered for ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders who take a 13-week class about ecology, conservation and plants.

These volunteers are stationed throughout the zoo and at the California Condor Rescue Zone. Guests enter the area and learn about condors through play and dress-up with costumes for scientists, condors and veterinarians. The volunteers also help with audience participation at music-in-the-zoo events on July 23 and Aug. 6. The next date for orientation will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday.

For adults, there is a UCLA-credited program through the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. This nonprofit corporation supports the Los Angeles Zoo and offers adults a look at taxonomy, ecology, conservation, biomes, adaptations and the zoo's botanical garden. Orientation for this program will begin July 24.

Once students graduate from this 23-week program, they give tours to members and school groups, help out as ambassadors, speak with the public and talk about exhibits. Often, these ambassadors will conduct speakers' bureaus about the condor rescue program and other events or education stations at the zoo grounds.

In addition, these volunteers may do outreach for special-needs people who cannot travel to the zoo.

Another adult opportunity is the general volunteer program open to people 16 and older. These volunteers run Muriel's Ranch, the petting zoo. Volunteers help guests greet goats, sheep, pigs, a mini horse and donkey on Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. They also help with food preparation for animal diets and in a general volunteer division called enrichment.

Volunteers help bat-eared foxes from Africa dig up their food. The foxes use their ears to find their prey and eat from the ground after volunteers dig worms in holes for them.

To volunteer , visit http://www.lazoo.org/volunteer/.

The zoo wouldn't be the same without the volunteers, said La Cañada resident Connie Morgan, president of Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., which runs the docent program.

"We are very fortunate to have them because they are folks interested in lifelong learning," Morgan said. "They go through very intensive training for weeks before they can step into the zoo and lead a tour."

Docents serve as important contact points between the zoo and the public at large, whether a volunteer holds a snake or directs people to the restroom, she said.

"That's our ultimate mission — giving people a nature experience here in the center of Los Angeles and advocating for wildlife conservation across the world," Morgan said. "What we share with our general public is our desire to conserve species on Earth."

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