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Day of the Docent : Can an Elephant Really Eat 6,000 Big Macs a Day? Just Ask an L. A. Zoo Volunteer

February 15, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER

D o was a word new to me when I came to America from England three years ago. We don't use it there, and I find that not all Americans are familiar with it either. As any classicist might guess, it is derived from the Latin docere (to teach). It has come to mean an unpaid educator, a volunteer guide.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has docents who will tell you about gold snuffboxes or contemporary art. One day I want to write a romance titled "Dora, the Decent Docent." It will be about a docent who talks so captivatingly about museum treasures that she wins the heart of a museum visitor--who will probably turn out to be a Texan billionaire or an English duke.

The Los Angeles Zoo also has docents. The docent service is run by the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. It isn't easy to become a zoo docent. You may be fond of animals and have a carrying voice, but GLAZA still won't accept you unless you pass stiff written and practical examinations. Candidates are expected to know whether these statements are true or false:

1--A snake sheds its skin once a year.

2--Turtles, snakes and lizards have no teeth.

3--The rhino horn is made of keratin and is often used for dagger handles.

4--Wart hogs have warts because they eat frogs.

5--The raven was able to quote "nevermore" because its tongue had been split to enable it to talk.

(Answers: 1--False. 2--False. 3--True. 4--False. 5--False.)

June Berliner was a homemaker when she passed the exams in 1986 and became a docent at the zoo. She wears a smart tan uniform with gold buttons embossed with lion masks (fancy jewelry is not allowed) and bears in mind the Docent Standards laid down by GLAZA: "Our facts must be correct. We may embellish these facts to make them interesting and attention-catching, but a fact, stated as a fact, must be a fact." Also: "Promptness and reliability are crucial. The entire docent concept would collapse without them."

Coralie (Corki) Dada became a docent the same day as Berliner. With her Pakistani husband, Jamil, Dada runs two stores called Woodcraft Treasures that sell furniture and gifts, including animals carved in wood and stone. Both she and Berliner come to the zoo on Thursdays. They are expected to be in the docents' room by 9.30 a.m. for briefing. They are told whether any animals have died and new animals have been acquired. (A newly acquired hedgehog was being passed around on the day I visited.) After briefing, the docents go to the zoo's wishing well, and the school parties are brought to them.

"We have all this knowledge when we graduate," Dada says. "And then you take your first tour with the kids and you have to simplify the information a lot." Some teaching aids are used: a model of a giraffe's tongue, 18 inches long; a piece of sandpaper to represent the surface of a lion's tongue; a noodle to explain the hollow bones of birds; a shed snakeskin, and a model of what marsupials look like when they are born--"they are only about an inch long--one would fit into a teaspoon," Berliner says.

Berliner tells her groups how to distinguish between the two kinds of elephant: The African elephant's ears are in the shape of the map of Africa; the Asian elephant's ears are in the shape of the map of India. Dada tells the children that an elephant could eat the equivalent of 6,000 Big Macs in a day.

This year, Jean Collier--herself a docent for 21 years--is chairman of the 436 docents. Last year, she and her panel interviewed 80 applicants and accepted 45. Among the qualities she thinks essential in a docent is a sense of humor. "They must also have good feet and stamina, must be able to walk up and down the zoo's hills," Collier says. "And one of the most important things we look for when we are interviewing is a positive attitude. We don't want a lot of complainers or gripers, because we know that criticism is contagious, and we want to keep our docent program on a high."

"The docents are paid nothing," says Richard Herczog, vice president and chief operating officer of GLAZA. "They buy their own uniforms and their own lunches--except for an annual luncheon at which service pins are given out. Even at minimum wage, their work would represent an enormous dollar contribution to us." The zoo's director, Warren D. Thomas, agrees. "Zoos, to justify their existence," he says, "have to fulfill four basic missions: recreation, education, conservation and research. The docents are heavily involved in two of those: the educational program and the research program. You simply couldn't run an education program without them. They are the essential arm of translating this zoo to the public, especially to schoolchildren."

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