Cold, Community, and a Sulky Owl

The zoo has just enjoyed yet another May, full of school groups on field trips and visitors who are glad to finally get out and enjoy the weather. Because the crowds are so large in the month of May, there are docents scattered around the zoo to enrich the experiences of these eager children and their adult chaperones. Those are the people you may see around the zoo with the blue vest/apron, spouting off interesting factoids and sometimes with live education animals in hand. Docents, along with many other volunteers, make May at the zoo a special experience. There is always someone around to answer your questions and point you to the nearest restroom.

I have been a docent since 2006. This year, I was able to volunteer once each week during most of May to help out. I was ready for lots of kids to talk to, so when May 11th rolled around and I got ready to go to the zoo, I was a little disappointed that it was a cold, rainy, and generally miserable day. For my station that day I was handling our little eastern screech owl (who, incidentally, did not want to leave his nice warm box behind the education center and let me know in no uncertain terms just what he thought of going out in the cold).

As I and a few other docents congregated under the roof by the otter exhibit, waiting for the rain to stop and the school groups to arrive, we could see our breath in the 40-degree air. We were all wet and the cold went right through to our very bones. That morning there were no school groups. Some had cancelled due to weather, others were running late as their buses made their way down from northern Michigan. So there we stood, waiting in the cold and wet.

But during that uncomfortable and slow morning I realized something. Volunteering as a docent is not just about the people you teach—it’s about the people who teach with you. As five or six of us milled around, watching an otter doing back flips into the cold water, we also talked to each other, got to know each other, shared information about animals, and asked each other questions. We gave and received advice. We told stories about funny zoo experiences. We quizzed a zookeeper about some strange information we’d received.

That little huddle of blue vests was a community. Most of those docents I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to talk with much. Some I was meeting for the first time. Despite our differences in age, gender, and vocations, we all shared a common desire to teach others about animals, conservation, and ecology. And those few hours in the soggy cold were very enjoyable because of the shared conversation.

Potter Park Zoo is a great place to see animals. But it’s also a great place to make connections with some wonderful people—even when you have an angry, sullen little owl on your hand.