Settings for Volunteers at Zoos and Aquariums

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Many zoos and aquariums rely heavily on volunteer energy and can place volunteers in almost every department, from tour guide and gift shop sales to assisting curators, tank divers, and exhibit designers.

Firsthand Account of Karyn Myers, a Volunteer

Karyn Myers is a paid legal secretary/paralegal who volunteers her time in the aviculture department at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. With a career as a vet planned, she is currently enrolled at the University of New Orleans working toward a Bachelor of Science degree. After that, it will be on to veterinary school. Karyn also has prior experience working for the Grosse Pointe Animal Clinic in Michigan. She has been involved in this field since 1988.



GETTING STARTED

"I have always liked animals, even more than most people," Karyn explains. "It all started when I was babysitting and the child's guinea pig got sick. We went to the clinic, and the doctor later approached me about a position he had available working as a receptionist/kennel help. I accepted the job, and by the time I left I was assisting in surgery.

"I moved to New Orleans in April of 1993.1 had already visited the aquarium three times before I discovered that they had a volunteer program. I enrolled at the end of the summer and passed all their criteria, becoming a naturalist volunteer. This position required working on the floor directly with the public, providing information about the animals as well as the facility.

"Soon after, I started working at functions in the evening and assisting with sleepovers with families and boy and girl scout troops.

"Approximately two years later, I approached the curator of birds and inquired about becoming an aviculture volunteer. I was accepted and transferred to the aviculture department where I now work with macaws, parrots, penguins, and many small free-flying birds. I still assist with the naturalist volunteer work occasionally, as well as the parties and sleepovers. I have also had the opportunity to help the saltwater and freshwater departments care for their exhibits and animals."

A TYPICAL DAY

"I have worked both morning and afternoon shifts on Sundays. This is what a typical, two-shift day is like. For the morning shift, I normally arrive at the aquarium at 8:00 A.M. and sign in at the volunteer office. After that I report to the curator of birds to see if there will be any changes in my schedule that day. For example, if there's been a birth of a new penguin, or the death of a bird, my duties for the day might be altered.

"I then prepare the food for all the free-flying birds in the Amazon exhibit, including the red-capped cardinals, aracari, boat-billed herons, conures, and Amazon parrots. Their diet consists of chopped fruits, nuts, and mealworms. I take their food up to the feeding trays in the exhibit and refill all the seed bowls and water bowls. At approximately 8:30 A.M. we take the macaws that are scheduled to be perched that day out of their cages and down to their perches. I then return upstairs and give fresh food and seeds to all the parrots and macaws that are not to be perched that day. I also remove all the dishes from the macaw cages so they can be cleaned and their new diets for that day can be prepared.

"At 10:30 A.M. I clean and prepare the fish and assemble the vitamin supplements for the penguin feeding show at 11:00 A.M. From 11:00 to 11:30 A.M. we feed the penguins and record their eating habits. If there are babies in the exhibit, they are weighed, and if there are nesting penguins, they are fed on the nest. I return to food prep and clean the fish bucket.

"I then have a break until about 1:00 P.M. During my break, though, I often bathe, exercise, and treat the birds, as well as have my own lunch.

"During the afternoon shift we generally hold a question-and-answer period with visitors to the exhibit. At around 2:00 P.M. I return to the cage area and clean cages, fill all the seed bowls and water bowls, and clean the surrounding area. The cleaning generally takes approximately one hour, and I then head to food prep to prepare the macaw fruit diets and the fish for the penguin's second feeding show.

"At 4:00 P.M. we do another penguin feeding show. At the close of this second show, the staff member remains behind to clean the exhibit, and I head to food prep to clean the bucket and tally the penguin feeding chart, which helps the curator determine if penguins are pregnant or about to molt. Then I take the macaw diets to the third floor and prepare the cages for the birds to be brought back to them. I pick up all the bowls from the free-flying bird diets that I put out at 8:00 A.M. At 4:30 P.M. the macaws are brought back up to their cages and all the doors are secured. I leave the aquarium by 5:00 P.M."

THE UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES

"I love working with the birds and getting to meet people from all over. I've been teaching the birds tricks and learning about all the different positions that are available in the aquarium.

"The obvious drawbacks are getting bitten, having to clean cages, and smelling like fish when you go home. Another draw-back for the actual staff members is the low pay."

A WORD OF ADVICE

"As a volunteer, you obviously would need to have a real job. As for someone looking to go into this as a profession, I would recommend they also consider having another job. The pay is very low for a starting aquarist, and it isn't much better for those in higher positions. You have to really love what you are doing. You take a lot of abuse from the public and from the animals."
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