Texas Zoo Junior Volunteers complete first day on the job

June 14, 2011 at 1:14 a.m.

Mikayla Henderson, a participant in the Texas Zoo's junior volunteer program,  looks on as animal keeper Hannah Wolfshohl cleans the great horned owl exhibit.

Mikayla Henderson, a participant in the Texas Zoo's junior volunteer program, looks on as animal keeper Hannah Wolfshohl cleans the great horned owl exhibit.

Sweat poured down Mikayla Henderson's face and drenched her blonde hair as she courteously opened the gate to let visitors out of the Texas Zoo's petting zoo on Tuesday afternoon.

Dressed in her safari-style khaki-colored shirt and shorts and black sneakers that were covered in sand, she quickly raised her neon pink water bottle to her mouth to take a swig before the next group of visitors approached the exhibit.

"They warned us if you didn't want to get messy, then don't apply," said 13-year-old Mikayla, as she glanced over at her favorite goat, Cali. "I don't mind."

Thus is the life of a junior volunteer at the Texas Zoo.

Mikayla is just one of 13 young adults participating in the zoo's junior volunteer program this year.

Having completed orientation on Monday, Tuesday marked five of the volunteers' first official day on the job.

"It has all been pretty fun," said Mikayla, a Victoria resident. "I've been helping people out and answering questions."

The program, which has been in place for more than 15 years, seeks to give students between the ages of 13 and 17 an opportunity to work behind the scenes of the zoo, helping with both animal care and the educational mission of the zoo.

"The program will teach them about volunteerism, which is what communities are based on and what makes communities a success," said Andrea Blomberg, executive director of the Texas Zoo. "You're not going to do just what you love to do. You're going to do what's needed. That's what really good volunteers do."

Volunteers were selected after a rigorous application process, which included a reference check, an essay and an interview.

Throughout the program, which is scheduled to end on Aug. 5, participants will organize educational materials, assist with the reptile shows, man the petting zoo and give presentations to campers during the zoo's summer camps.

Life will not be completely glamorous for the young volunteers, though.

Their tasks will also include cleaning animal cages, racking, and the least desirable task of them all - scooping up animal feces.

"If you can work in this environment, then you can pretty much work anywhere because of all the stuff that can potentially happen," said Amanda Rocha, program director for the zoo.

That's something Wendy Sweet, a kindergarten teacher and Texas Zoo junior volunteer program alum, can certainly attest too.

Sweet, 30, participated in the program from the age of 13 through her senior year of high school.

"I got experience teaching kids, doing birthday parties and outreach," said Sweet, who smiled as she spoke about helping to raise Beatrice the cottontail rabbit, who has since died, during her time at the zoo. "Working with kids helped me learn to prepare activities and follow them through."

So far program participants said they have already acquired a wealth of new knowledge and are yearning for more.

"I make sure the animals are treated well and let people know where they can pet the animals and where not to pet them," said Mikayla, who has learned more about the pigmy goats, potbelly pigs and rabbits.

"I'm looking forward to everything because I like taking care of animals," said Lucia Trevino, 14, of Victoria.

Blomberg said she hopes the program will also help students in making a career choice.

"I enjoy animals. I find them interesting," said Patrick Adam, 13. "I want to be a marine biologist."

At the end of the summer, the students will also participate in a collective project to showcase what they have learned throughout the program.

"Our goal is conservation through education. By getting these 13 kids, who are already interested in animals and the zoo, we can work with them hands on to make a bigger difference," said Rocha.



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