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Animal Talk

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

April 15, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM

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."

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.

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.

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.

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