As any entertainer knows, the trick is to grab the audience before the first commercial break.
The formula has always worked well for Jeanne Collier, a 25-year veteran docent at the Greater Los Angeles Zoo who was honored last month for completing her 12,000th volunteer hour.
Collier coordinates the zoo's speaker's bureau from her Eagle Rock home. But for her, the fun begins when she laces up her tennis shoes, straightens her safari shirt, and prepares to shepherd a group of kids on a tour of the zoo.
Carrying an oddity-crammed handbag of fake fur ("Real people wear fake fur," she said jauntily), Collier is a blend of storyteller, jester, teacher and mom to the thousands of people she has guided past the preening flamingos and around the omnipresent squawking peacocks.
Her tour group one recent morning consisted of a chatty bunch of 4th, 5th and 6th graders from the talented and gifted program at Inglewood's Kelso Elementary School.
Even before they set out for the woolly monkey island, Collier had won their hearts, and more importantly, their attention.
"Now I don't know if you've ever seen a drunk elephant before . . . " she said, her eyebrows raised and her delivery sounding like a cross between Johnny Carson and Mr. Wizard.
She went on to explain that elephants aren't given alcohol at the zoo, but in the wild they eat fermented marula fruit and whole herds get tipsy on them. To the delight of her listeners, she pulled a dried marula fruit out of her handbag.
Interspersed in her stories, such as how the zookeepers collect saliva samples from female rhinoceroses for pregnancy tests, are important messages, such as how poachers have pushed the animals close to extinction.
"When you're giving tours, if you start to lose them, you change the pace," she said during an interview. "You either get humorous, get gory, get surprising . . . or you talk about courtship!"
For her straggling band of elementary school students, Collier used the zoo's colony of woolly monkeys as a springboard to talk about the disappearance of the tropical rain forests.
"We care about the rain forests because we love the animals and they're in our hearts," she said. Besides, she tells the youngsters, when the rain forests are gone, so is chocolate, because the cacao seeds that make real chocolate are grown only there. "And how would we live without chocolate?" she asked.
"We couldn't," replied Antoinette Marble, 11, sharing a somber look with the "60-something" Collier.
After so many years at the zoo, Collier knows the turf like a second home and its residents like old friends. She fondly greeted Evelyn, a gorilla who blows kisses, and noted that Zombo, the dominant silverback male, could be pounding on his chest just to show off.
At the anteater exhibit, she got groans from the Kelso students with a pun about all the "anti-bodies" that are given the animals to keep them healthy in captivity.
All the while, as she chatted and clowned, Collier sought to educate. The smell emanating from the gorillas is the male gorilla's sweat, she said, and not what an 11-year-old delicately referred to as "bathroom."
The meerkats, prairie dog-like rodents, are not only sociable, she said, but smart. "Find the lookout," she said, and the children were quick to spot a lone rodent atop a rock, scanning the sky for hawks.
Why are the female peacocks so dully marked, when their mates are so resplendent? "Because the girl doesn't have to attract the guy?" asked 11-year-old Nicholas Rice. "That's part of it," Collier replied. She also told the children to think about camouflage, and how it would protect "somebody sitting on a nest, trying to hide."
Collier's enthusiasm has never dimmed, she said, because she loves the zoo, she loves children, and she loves animals.
Her love of the zoo may have something to do with its location, she said. She and her husband, Harold, courted in Griffith Park before their wedding 50 years ago this month. Twenty-six years later, when the zoo opened at its present site in 1966, she gave her first tour.
When it comes to the children, junior high students are Collier's favorites. "They are kind of incorrigible, and pretend they're not interested in anything you've got to say. I take that as a challenge," she said.
Collier's love of animals is one born of close observation and a delight in the surprises the animal kingdom offers. A favorite memory is the day she watched a mother siamang gibbon make her body into a hammock underneath her baby in order to protect the youngster as it practiced crawling upside-down on the wire ceiling of the cage.
To her, the quiet scene was as entertaining as watching the saliva collection at the rhinoceros enclosure. This was done, by the way, with a basket of apples to make the mother rhino drool, while a keeper collects a sample with a long-handled cup.
The only thing Collier doesn't like to watch at the zoo is the clock, which inevitably steals time she wishes she could spend showing children the two-headed snake, toucans and other exotic animals.
Limping slightly, but outpacing her brood of the day, Collier breathlessly dashed to a cage housing four red-faced uakari monkeys from South America. These, she explained, are so rare they are only found in this zoo and in the endangered rain forests.
"I know we're late," she said apologetically, "but this may be the only chance you'll ever get to see a uakari, and I couldn't let you miss them."
The tour was over, with little fanfare, at the 11:30 a.m. bird show, where Collier caught her breath and giggled at the crow that untied the keeper's shoelace in a gag she's seen dozens of times.
"I never get tired of this," she said. "I really got a kick out of these kids today."