By Courtney Sosnowski | Reporter
The first time you go to the Cameron Park Zoo, you may be surprised at its beauty. As you wind through the paths of the natural habitat zoo, you may find yourself so enchanted by the lions and tigers and bears living two miles away from Baylor’s campus that you decide you want to stick around.
Cameron Park Zoo has volunteer options almost as diverse as its wildlife. From taking animals off-site, handling them on-site, working special events, tending to animals’ needs around the zoo and gardening and conservation, animal lovers ages 18 to 60 can find their niche at the zoo.
, a Texas Tech student studying biology at the satellite campus at McLennan Community College, has volunteered at Cameron Park Zoo since she was a teen. She volunteers in various capacities, but her favorite is helping with the otters.
“I absolutely love the otters. They are just so cute,” Colon said. “When I get to feed them, it just makes my whole month. I know that sounds crazy, but you just don’t understand until you’ve fed an otter.”
Volunteers must work with the education department for 20 hours before handling animals. The education department closely monitors volunteers to assess their readiness to handle animals, in addition to evaluating the needs around the zoo. Many volunteers are placed based off of their availability.
“You take a written test to be able to handle the animals,” Colon said. “It’s just general stuff like characteristics of mammals, characteristics of reptiles, how to handle the animals properly in front of people and, if you do pass that, then you get to go on to the second step, which is learning to handle each animal individually.”
Animal handling is categorized by level. Small mammals such as guinea pigs, ferrets, hedgehogs and snakes under 3 feet are considered level one, while birds are considered level three.
One specific way volunteers can offer education and opportunities to zoo visitors is through biofact stations. A volunteer can take a particular animal’s biofact material and inform zoo visitors more about the animal by showing them anything from bones to artificial stool samples.
“When people come to a zoo, the first thing they think of is entertainment,” said Connie Kassner, Cameron Park Zoo education curator. “We want to capture those people that have come to be entertained and possibly provide some sort of education.”
Since Cameron Park Zoo opened in 1993, it has grown from 75 animals to over 2,000. Maintenance of the zoo is a joint effort between the City of Waco and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society. Since the education department only has two full-time staffers, the zoo relies on volunteers to keep programs running.
“People, when they see an animal on TV or a poster about some animal that’s endangered or threatened … feel bad but they don’t really feel a connection there,” said Jacquelyn Wilson, Cameron Park Zoo education coordinator. “But once you are able to help them form that connection with that animal — which is basically what we do — then people are so much more likely to go out and actually try and do something about it.”