Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lincoln Park Zoo docent program slated for extinction

Mary Schmich left a voicemail to interview me for the August 30 Chicago Tribune article, but I didn't get the message in time to meet her deadline. I sent the following letter to the Chicago Tribune and to Schmich. As soon as I get some post-surgery energy, I'll be writing more here.

To the editor:

As a former Lincoln Park Zoo docent during the 1990s (I was 29 when I joined the program), I read “Zoo docents fading from landscape” by Mary Schmich (August 30, 2009) with interest. During my docent service, I received laudatory letters from donors, ovations after animal presentations, and kudos for tours; helped develop a popular “Escape to the Tropics” weekend during the winter; talked to families who delighted in both the interaction and the information; participated in numerous revenue-generating programs such as family workshops; and delivered in countless other ways on what was one of the four prongs of the zoo’s mission: Education. And I was one of more than 200 people of various ages and professional backgrounds, including not only retirees, but working teachers, college instructors, lawyers, nurses, dietitians, executives, Ph.D.s, and so on, doing the same—all on a volunteer basis. To paraphrase the Peace Corps slogan, “It was the best job I ever loved.” I left it with regret for personal reasons.

According to a zoo document quoted by Schmich, “the antiquated volunteer utilization model . . . does not enhance the zoo’s strategic initiatives and often does not set up volunteers for success.” Neither “strategic initiatives” nor “success” is defined. I admit I felt successful when, for example, families paying to attend workshops requested me as their tour guide and when I could persuade children—and their parents—to overcome their fear of snakes to touch one and find out that reptiles are animals, just like us. It’s hard to believe that the docent program, and docent-guest interactions like these, didn’t benefit millions of zoo visitors during the docent program’s nearly 40-year history. Surely the education mission and the visitor experience remain important to Lincoln Park Zoo.

To find out how to enhance its strategic initiatives, Lincoln Park Zoo might consider redesigning the docent program with help from its sister institutions. For example, Prospect Park Zoo (Brooklyn, New York) “is welcoming applications for its Docent Program . . . Docents lead group tours, interpret exhibits, present biofacts and other touchables at Discovery Stations, assist in our interactive Discovery Center, work at zoo special events, and teach visitors how to interact with alpacas and sheep at our barn area. Docents who successfully complete Live Animal Handling Training are also eligible to present short Live Animal Encounters to the public, teaching children and families about animals from the Zoo’s collection of education animals.” According to the Saint Louis Zoo, “Our docents are volunteer Zoo educators who are dedicated to teaching schoolchildren and the general public about wildlife, ecosystems and conservation. In sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm about our Zoo animals, they help increase our visitors’ caring attitude toward nature. Docents are critical to the successful operation of the Zoo’s Education Department and the greater zoological community.” Closer to home, “Brookfield Zoo docents will host the next National Association of Zoo & Aquarium Docents (AZAD) Conference September 7–12, 2010.” (The 1993 national AZAD conference was hosted by Lincoln Park Zoo docents.) These, and many other zoos and aquariums with thriving, successful docent programs, can provide the kind of guidance that Lincoln Park Zoo isn’t able to obtain from a consultant focused purely on business.

Renowned primatologist and herpetologist Russell A. Mittermeier Ph.D., the president of Conservation International and the only working field biologist to head a major international environmental organization, says, “The dedication and efforts of docents are a major contribution to the education of society. Their volunteer services are exerting a real impact, particularly on this country’s young people who show a growing interest in natural history and conservation.” This fits in perfectly with the Obama administration’s nationwide service initiative.

During this severe economic downtown, when Lincoln Park Zoo has had to slash budget and staff, it seems counterintuitive to squeeze volunteers and downsize volunteer programs. And it would be deeply regrettable if Lincoln Park Zoo were to dismiss as an “antiquated model” one that so many zoos and aquariums, and environmental leaders such as Mittermeier, have embraced as essential to conservation education and human appreciation for our fellow earth travelers.


Diane Schirf


  1. Very well written. The interesting note about the Prospect Zoo's description of the docent's role is that's what I thought we were doing- quite well, thank you- at Lincoln Park. Thanks, Diane

  2. Yes, exactly. Docent programs thrive at other zoos, aquariums, art museums, natural history museums, and the like. My best visits to other cities' zoos and to some of our own museums have involved chatting with docents or education volunteers—a much more pleasant visitor experience than just ambling around and reading graphics. To my knowledge, LPZ hasn't explained their strategy or how exactly reducing educational opportunities and interactions is better for volunteers or visitors. Many words, not much meaning.

  3. Perhaps (in order to increase revenue) LPZ plans to charge an annual fee to the docents for the privilege of volunteering there?