Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Girl Scouts - February 18

Friday night was another girl scouts program, and as usual it was both well attended and a lot of fun. This time, we had 4 staff members, 6 other adults, and 17 girls between 9 to 12 years of age. The focus of the program was on Watching Wildlife, so most of our activities were aimed in that general direction.

Amber Mount, the education director's assistant, started off by telling the girls a little bit about the zoo and their philosophy on life. The mission of The Alaska Zoo is to provide homes for arctic and sub-arctic wildlife in a natural setting for the enjoyment and educational enrichment of Alaskan residents and visitors to the state. They are a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of all wildlife species through education programs and rehabilitation. Since their incorporation in 1968, the Zoo has successfully rehabilitated and placed many orphaned and injured animals in good homes at other zoos and wildlife parks throughout the United States. They are one of the most visited attractions in the state, with an annual attendance of close to 200,000 visitors.

She then spoke a little bit about herself and how she got to be working at the zoo, but I won't go in to that here since I've already covered that in previous postings. It was then time to introduce the other staff members, myself included. We all basically just explained who we were and what we do at the zoo, with perhaps a little information about our personal lives thrown in for good measure. We then had each of the girls, and the adults too, give their names and tell us what their favorite animal is. It's always interesting to hear what they come up with. This group seemed to be made up of "followers" in that they all just repeated the same animals over and over again, with no real new or interesting ones being added. It seemed like they all liked either Horses, Bunnies, or Monkeys. One lady did say her favorite animal was a Caribou - that was unique in the crowd.

Our first activity of the night had Amber talking about personal space and ways to communicate to others to let them know if they've invaded your "space". You can tell them to go away; you can tell them to stop; you can scream; you could even run away. She then applied it to the animal world, asking the girls to come up with a few examples of what an animal might do if you're too close to them. We had a lot of suggestions, anywhere from scratching, growling, and biting, to running away. One little girl talked about what might happen if you were out hunting with an ax... she didn't get any farther than that in her story because all the adults started laughing at the thought of hunting for bear with an ax!

Talking about our Basic Needs was next on the agenda. Amber had the girls come up with a list of things that are necessary for life, either an animal's or a human's life. The girls were able to come up with just about all of the major ones: water, food, heat source, air, protection, and shelter. Once our list was written down on the drawing board, we passed out crayons and paper and had them draw a picture of their homes, listing where each of their basic needs were met (ie: in the kitchen for food, in the bedroom for sleep, that sort of thing). My house that I drew had bookshelves in each room - that's definitely a necessity of life for me! On the back of their pictures, they were to come up with a shopping list of items they'd need to buy. Most of them had things like ice cream, mild, and bread, but oddly enough, allot of them listed tomatoes as well.

We then handed out another sheet of paper; this one with an animal's name printed on the upper right-hand corner (like: polar bear, musk ox, wolf, eagle, that sort of thing) and had them do the same thing for them. It was hard for some of the girls, particularly the ones who got "alligator" or "anaconda". I think Amber should have stuck to animals the girls would be familiar with!

Finally it was time for the main event of the night: the nocturnal tour! The nights are not quite as cold as they had been lately, but we still had them bundle up. It's no fun if you're cold, so we erred on the side of caution. We did, however, take away their flashlights, for the most part. It really isn't necessary for them, and the girls just can't seem to resist the temptation to shine the light in our eyes all the time. For those of you who get migraines, you will understand when I tell you that I really don't like a flashlight shined into my eyes! We stayed out on zoo grounds for a good hour, visiting the polar bear, the wolverines, the ravens, the goshawk, the snowy owls, the Sitka black tailed deer, the arctic fox, the musk ox (my personal favorite), the eagle, and the moose. We always get one or two girls who ask if we can go see Maggie, our African elephant, but unfortunately she is asleep at night and really gets cranky when you wake her up, so we always avoid her area of the zoo. By the time we got back to the education building, we were all ready for some hot tea, hot coco, and snacks. Nothing like a brisk hike out in the cold night air to work up a hearty appetite!

While the girls ate their snacks, Amber handed out an evaluation form to the adults attending the program. This form is intended to help us create better educational programs, asking for any advice they might have, and for an evaluation on our performance that night. We always get good reviews, so I’m never sure exactly what good the form does for us. But it’s always nice to know you’re appreciated, even if they never really have any suggestions for us on how to make it better.

Finally it was my turn, and I got to do my Creature Feature portion of the program. The animal I chose this time was actually a group of animals rather than just an individual one. I talked to the girls about Crocodilians, which includes crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharials. There are 25 species total in the group: 2 species of Alligators, 13 species of Crocodiles, 13 species of Caiman (which are actually a sub-group of alligators), and 2 species of gharial (a relatively rare type of crocodilian that lives over around India).

One of the most important things to know about the crocodilians, in my opinion, is how to tell them apart. The gharial (sometimes known as gavial) is an easy one to identify because its snout is extremely long and narrow. The males have a big fleshy lump at the end of their snout, so they are easily differentiated from the females, as well. The caiman are not so easily identified because they look pretty similar to an alligator, except they have small bony scales, called osteoderms, embedded into the skin of their bellies.

However, there are two major differences between alligators and crocodiles. First, the alligator has a broad, flat, rounded snout – pretty much a "U" shaped snout – while the crocodile has more of a "V" shaped snout. (Don’t you love that word? "Snout" meaning: the projecting part of a vertebrate’s head, consisting of the nose and mouth.) Second, the teeth on the lower jaw of an alligator are not visible when its mouth is closed, while they are visible in a crocodile when its mouth is closed, particularly the 4th tooth on each side. Of course, if you’re actually close enough to an alligator or crocodile to see its teeth, you probably won’t be wondering whether or not the teeth on the lower jaw are visible or not! At least, I wouldn’t be.

The crocodilians are the world’s largest living reptile, and used to live along side the dinosaur, back 110 million years ago. In fact, scientists have recently dug up a skull of a Sarcosuchus Imperator (better known as "SuperCroc") that was 6 feet long. Estimating it’s entire length by the length of its skull puts the SuperCroc at over 40 feet long! Nowadays, of course, they aren’t quite so big. The largest one on record today is a salt-water crocodile measuring 23 feet long, while the smallest one is an African dwarf crocodile measuring only 5 feet long (I got to see one of these just this weekend at a reptile show in Anchorage! Very cool!)

A very important thing to keep in mind when observing the crocodilians is: NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THEIR SPEED! They look very lumpy and awkward on land, but are actually capable of short bursts of speed, up to 10 mph even! They are unable to maintain the speed for long, so can be easily outrun if you’re paying attention. They actually have 3 main gaits: The first is called the belly crawl, which is fairly slow and used mainly in the mud where it’s easier to drag one’s belly down to the water’s edge. The second is called the high walk, where they pick their bodies up off the ground and walk just like a dog or cat would. They use this gait mainly for navigating obstacles on their way to the water’s edge. The third gait is the most unusual, and puts the funniest picture in my head when I think about it. It’s called a gallop, and is used for those short bursts of speed I spoke of earlier. In this gait, the gator is actually running, using both front legs first then both back legs (similar to a cheetah or a bunny’s hop) and at times the entire animal is airborne!

The crocodilians are unusually attentive parents. They typically build a nest on land consisting of mud and vegetation, where they will lay from 25 to 80 eggs. Oddly enough, the sex of the babies is determined by the temperature of the nest: warmer temperatures produce females, while cooler temperatures produce males. Both parents protect the nest quite vigorously, and when the babies are ready to hatch out of their shells, the parents actually help them by taking the eggs into their mouths and gently crushing the shells so the babies can crawl out. They then take the babies to the water and protect them for another two years, till they are big enough to defend themselves.

While I passed around the photos I had (thanks again to my friend Cyrinda who donated pictures of her Everglades vacation), Amber actually left the building and went to get a special guest visitor for the girls. She came back just as I was ending my talk, and had Liz and Trini with her.

Liz is a fellow zookeeper and Trini is our silver fox! Trini is 7 years old and came to us as a pup when she was confiscated from a family who was trying to raise her as a pet. It is illegal to own a fox as a pet so the Fish & Game not only took her from them, but also fined them rather heavily for it. A silver fox is actually the same thing as a red fox; they just have a different color variation (like I have red hair, and you might have black or blond hair, but we’re still both humans). In fact, a red fox vixen (or female, as they are called) may have a litter of pups with both red and silver hair colors, although they are typically regional – meaning that reds are typically found in one area, while silvers are found in another area.

Liz spoke to the girls for a bit about foxes, but then had to take her back outside due to the heat inside the building. The girls got to go outside in groups of 5-6 to pet Trini, while the ones inside waiting their turn got to meet Yaz, the ball python, and some of the millipedes we have. And that was our show for the night.

In other news around the zoo, the three porcupine (Daisy, Petunia, and Porky) have been moved into their new enclosure and are happily coexisting finally. Porcupines are normally a solitary animal, so I really wasn’t sure how they would take to living together, but they seem to be adjusting well. They haven’t figured out that two porcupine don’t fit thru the doorway at the same time yet, however. I went to visit them the other day and found both Daisy and Petunia trying to stuff themselves into the door to their shelter (they have 3 shelters in their enclosure, but of course they all want to use the one the other guy is using, whichever one that happens to be at the moment), and let me assure you: they don’t fit. But give them credit; they were certainly giving it a good try! How they didn’t stick each other with their quills, I don’t know.

Ike, the new bald eagle, had to go back to the infirmary a while ago. He had been out in the exhibit with our female for a while, but ended up aggravating his amputation to the point where it got all "goobered up" to quote their handler. Ike is a very impressive bird, but has not adjusted well to not being able to fly yet. He keeps trying but ends up in a tangled heap on the ground, which is not good for his healing wounds. The zookeepers are actually planning to train him to the glove so they can get him out and about soon. I can’t think of anything more intimidating! Can you imagine a HUGE bald eagle on your arm, staring you in the face just waiting for a chance to bite your nose off?

And last but certainly not least; the zoo has acquired three sugar gliders! Sugar gliders are tiny gliding opossums from Indonesia, New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. They also happen to be illegal to own in Alaska, so they were confiscated from their owners and given to the zoo. We don’t know yet what we will do with them, but we are hoping to add them to our collection of critters in the education department. I will let you know more about them as I learn more myself!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

IditaZoo Training - February 12

Saturday was the training session for this year's IditaZoo program. Last year was our first attempt at the idea, and we realized that a lot more organization needed to take place before hand. I think we're on the right track, although I still see some areas that might fall thru the cracks again. We were supposed to have everybody who wanted to help out with this year's program attend the training session, but only about 10 people showed up - and that's not nearly enough. I hope the people who were not there are fully prepared this time. Last year, not only did they not know the information they were supposed to know, they didn't even know anything about the zoo!

Anyway, the training session was interesting. Shannon had tables set up around the education building with all the information that will be at each "station" so that we could see what the whole idea was to be. We read thru everything, and then signed up for the station & time period we wanted and took the information packet that pertained to what we signed up for. Earlier, I had asked Shannon if I could get all of the information packets rather than just the one that went with whatever table I signed up for (I seem to be a glutton for information!) so she had made me a special booklet and had it setting off to the side. Everybody else just got the smaller version.

The basic idea of this event is that people will be given a questionnaire sheet at the admissions booth that they are to fill out as they go to each station. The stations represent the eight checkpoints along the Iditarod sled-dog race (station #1: "Knik", station #2: "Finger Lake", and so on). Each station at the zoo will have different information about the race as well as information about the zoo (station #1:"Knik" will have information on Race History and Snowy Owls, station #2: "Finger Lake" will have information on What is a Sled Dog and Polar Bears, and so on). The people will answer one question on their questionnaire form for each station. Once they have answered all 8 questions correctly, they will receive a special "behind the scenes" tour of the polar bear's enclosure as a reward.

Throughout the zoo will be lots of other things going on as well. We will have a board up at the front gate (or maybe over by the coffee shop) giving the latest up-to-date information on the race (ie: which team is where along the route, and who is in the lead at that time). We even plan to have a dog team there to give short rides to the kids. And, I'm working on getting Jon Van Zyle to set up a table offering his latest book "Iditerod Memories" - that will be pretty exciting, I think.

Shannon offered a tour of the zoo after everybody had a chance to look over the tables, but since I’ve been there before (understatement of the year, there) I just took my information packet and went home. I have a stack of papers about an inch tall to read thru and memorize by March! If you go to the IditaZoo (and I hope you do) you can visit me at station #4: "Ruby" from 2:00 to closing time. I can tell you all about the Iditarod race as well as all about the zoo.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Setting the record straight

Now that I know real people are reading my blog, as opposed to just family members, I feel morally obligated to point out a few things. The postings labeled "Science Questions" and "Nature's Extremes", as well as a few others, were not written by me, exactly. I typed them out, but I was getting the information from other sources.

The science questions are from my Page-a-Day calendar, and the nature's extremes come from a deck of cards I bought at the zoo's gift shop.

I truly believe that one can never learn too much, so hopefully the actual authors of these sources will not mind that I have copied them in my blog. Please let me know if it is otherwise!

Friday, February 11, 2005

I'm reading a great book right now

Decipher, by: Stel Pavlou

Here's what it says on the back cover:

For 12,000 years, the messasge has been burried

In a frozen Antarctic wasteland, in the depths of the Amazon River, in a chamber beneath the ruins of the Sphinx, sometghing has surfaced: a cluster of crystalline artifacts composed of an energy source unknown to modern science and inscribed with ancient hieroglyphs. Between them a strange signal courses through the oceans, emanating from a source that has stunned mankind. The lost city of Atlantis has been found.

It is the meaning of civilization.

Now, two of the world's most powerful armies stand on the brink of war to gain control of the most powerful force known to modern man. But a group of scientists struglling to decode the message of the primeval network fears that it is already to late.

And its end.

Solar fires ignite the surface of the earth, and a worldwide cataclysm of biblical proportions begins. Now as Atlantis rises, so do its secrets - along with a terrifying prophecy that is coming true.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Women of Science - February 5

This Saturday, I attended the Women of Science seminar for the Girl scouts of America, giving 3 seminars of about 45 minutes each to groups of girl scouts ranging in ages from 6 to about 12. The program is intended to give the girls examples of the many different roles women can play in the field of science. The Alaska Zoo has participated in this program for several years, and is always happy to be a roll-model for the girls of our city.

Even though I have done this program several times before, I have to admit I was somewhat less than prepared for it this time. I had slept thru my alarm that morning (or, more truthfully, had forgotten to even set the darned thing) and ended up with only 5 minutes in which to get dressed and warm up the car (it being 6 below that night, the car needed a good 15 minutes of warming up - which it unfortunately did not get). Needless to say, the whole rest of my day was rather frazzled, because you just never get your balance back after a start like that.

I did make it to the Ed Building in time to meet up with Amber Mount, the education director's assistant. She and I loaded up my car with all the stuff we were bringing with us, a live snake included in the load, and headed on down to U.A.A. to sign in and get set up.

Amber took Yaz, the ball python, in to the warmth of the room while I made several trips hauling all our other stuff in. It wouldn't have been that bad, except that a mother moose and her yearling calf had taken up residence right at the front door of the building, which made me have to take the long way around just to get to my car and back. By the time I got everything brought in I was thoroughly frozen and dehydrated, and didn't have time to warm up before our first group arrived. So, once again, I was a bit frazzled and off center.

Imagine my surprise when Amber started off the seminar by introducing me and saying that I was going to talk to them for the first half of our program! I hadn't had anything prepared, and had absolutely no idea what to say. Not to mention the fact that my vocal chords were still frozen from traipsing thru the wilderness hauling heavy boxes up to the classroom.

But, I somehow managed to fill up the time with stories of how I came to be a volunteer at the zoo: about 5 years ago, after an injury to my lower back, my doctor told me the best thing I could do was walk. So, I thought to myself, "What's the best place in the world to walk, but the zoo?" and got myself a season pass. After going to the zoo every day for a few months, the workers there finally told me I should just work for the zoo, since I'm there every day anyway. So I signed up, and here I am!

I told the girls about some of the things I do as a volunteer: I give classes, like this one. I give tours to special groups at the zoo. I even get to take care of the orphans that come in, which requires a lot of man-hours for all the formula mixing, bottle feeding, and cleaning up that is needed for the babies.

Next, I told them about my day-job, and what it means to work for an architect. I explained about the new buildings being designed for the zoo, and told them all that they should keep watch on our progress; within at least a year, there should be a noticeable difference in the zoo!

I was then finally able to turn it over to Amber, who told them all about how she came to be working at the zoo. She started out in the High School Mentorship program: if your grades are up to snuff, there is a program where you can spend several hours a day at a job site, learning the skills required to be whatever it is you want to be when you grow up, and even get credit for it! Amber mentored in the education department with Katie Larson for a year. After she graduated, she interned at the zoo as a zookeeper with Shannon Jenson, which gave her enough experience to intern in Hawaii, during her college years, at several wildlife preservation companies (she got to work with sea turtles! I'm so jealous). Now that she’s back in Alaska, she hired on at the Alaska Zoo as the education director’s assistant, and is happily advancing her life-goal of educating people about animal preservation.

The next portion of our seminar consisted of Amber telling the girls all about the Ridley’s Sea Turtle, which is one of the turtles she worked with in Hawaii. The zoo has a confiscated corpse (I know of no nicer way to put it; the animal has been killed and shellacked into some kind of demented table piece) of a young Ridley’s Sea Turtle that she could show the girls while she talked. She told them about the dangers they face, both as young hatchlings trying to make it from the nesting site to the ocean (not only are there dangers from sea birds and rats eating them, but also from human encroachment) and as adults out in the open sea (from sharks eating them to garbage dumped into the waters). Only about 1 in 5,000 hatchlings will survive to breeding age. That is a very low percentage, so the turtle really needs our help to survive.

Finally, the girls were able to come up and take a look at our critter tables. We split each class into two, with one half going to the critter table that I manned, while the other half went over to Amber’s side and got to meet the snake. My table was full of pictures and critter pieces, and we all got to talk about animals native to Alaska. The girls, as always, each had stories to tell of their encounters with wildlife, and had fun sharing them with everybody.

I have to say Yaz stole the show, however. A live snake is NOT something you see every day up here, and all the girls enjoyed meeting him. Well, all but one, that is. That one little girl was so afraid that she ended up bawling at the table. She didn’t realize that she didn’t HAVE to be there. She calmed down once they sent her over to my side of the room, thankfully. I assured her that it was ok to be afraid of snakes – many people are, but that this particular one was really just a the teddy bear.

In fact, Yaz did exceptionally well that day. We had 3 classes within 4 hours, each one with about 10 – 25 girls attending. And all of those girls (minus the one) spent a good 15 minutes petting him on his back. Thru it all, Yaz was so calm and relaxed! He did very well.

Finally it was time to pack up and head on home. I hadn’t eaten yet, and was eager to get home to a bowl of homemade soup. But, I think both Amber and I had a good time, and I hope the girls did, too.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Animal Update - February 3

There are a few things to update you on at the zoo. First would be Ahpun's birthday party, held this weekend (she turned 7). Everybody loves our polar bear so she had quite the party, although it was really cold. I suppose that's good for a polar bear, but for humans it was downright chilly, to say the least. Even so, roughly 350 people showed up and even participated in the ice-cream eating contest! There were three age groups in the contest; children, young adults, and adults. Because of the cold weather, I know they had difficulties filling up all the spots; however, in the end they had three very cold winners, each of whom got a gift certificate to the gift shop. I was not able to watch the contest because I was manning the critter table, full of all kinds of bear stuff, which was thankfully located right next to the big bon fire we had going!

In other news, we finally got the go-ahead to breed our snow leopards! We are very excited about this, although we are somewhat apprehensive about putting the two of them together. They are an endangered species, and the whole point of a breeding program is to propitiate the species. So it would definitely be counter-productive if they kill each other in the process, because as you probably know from past updates, our Kaz & Molly don't exactly get along. If all goes well, we just might see some kittens later this spring. I've included some information about snow leopards at the bottom of this notice, taken from the Alaska Zoo's web page.

On a sad note, the zoo had to euthanize Collee, our llama. Collee started showing symptoms on Christmas: not eating and weak in the hind end. With in a week he was not using his front legs and has been down ever since. They tried giving him antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, acupuncture, ultrasounds, etc… but there was no improvement. Maybe in death they will finally know what happened to him. I, for one, will miss him, even though he was never the friendliest fellow at the zoo. You could tell he wanted to come over and visit, but he was just too afraid.



Our snow leopards arrived in September of 2002. Kaz came from the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Molly arrived from the Denver Zoo in Denver, Colorado. Both leopards were born in captivity as part of the AZA Species Survival Plan for the captive breeding of endangered snow leopards. This plan ensures that a genetically viable population of captive breeders will continue, ensuring the continued survival of this species.

Physical Description

Snow leopards are a medium-sized cat, with an average body length of six feet from the head to the tip of the tail. They weigh an average of 90 pounds, with males being larger than females. Their life span in the wild can reach 13 years, while captive snow leopards can reach ages of up to 20 years.

Snow leopards are native to cold, high altitude mountain ranges in central Asia. They spend much of their time traveling over steep and rocky terrain. As a result, these leopards have adapted many unique physical characteristics that set them apart from other cat species:

Short front legs and long back legs to jump distances of over 50 feet

Enlarged nasal cavity for breathing in thin air

Long tail, almost equal to the body length, used to balance while jumping

Fur is marked with black rosettes and spots for camouflage with rocks


These leopards may have territories of up to 700 square miles. Their territory size is dependant on the availability of prey, with less prey meaning larger territories. They usually live above tree line between 7,500 and 18,000 feet. Their habitat at these elevations consists of rocky, treeless slopes.


Snow leopards prey on ibex (wild goat), bharal (blue sheep), small mammals, and birds. They are able to capture and kill prey weighing over three times their body weight. In captivity, their diet consists of red meat and Nebraska Brand (a commercially-made exotic feline diet).


Snow leopards are solitary, except during the breeding season. Their primary form of communication is marking. They scrape the ground with their hind legs, spray urine against rocks, or leave feces as a sign. These markings allow leopards to define their territories and advertise for mates during breeding season.

Snow leopards breed between December and March, with cubs being born from May through June. The births occur in "birthing dens", which consist of rocky caves lined with fur from the mother. Cubs will eat solid food at two months and learn to hunt by the time they are three months old. Females are responsible for raising the cubs, with no assistance from the males.

Fast Facts

A snow leopard has spotted skin, just like a tiger has striped skin.

Unlike other large cats, snow leopards cannot roar. They vocalize during the breeding season by mew calls, hissing, growling, and screaming.

Snow leopards have never been known to attack humans. If a mother has cubs and feels threatened, she will defend herself and her young.

Threats to Survival

Snow leopards have become endangered primarily through conflicts with humans. As farms expand into snow leopard habitat, livestock compete against wild prey for food. As the prey populations decline, leopards are forced to hunt livestock. This leads to the loss of leopards due to “retribution hunting”, or herders killing leopards that have killed livestock.

These leopards are also poached for their fur and bones. Snow leopard bones are now being used in place of tiger bones in some traditional Asian medicines. Tiger bones have become rare due to the success of tiger conservation programs.

Another factor in their decline is their slow population growth rate, with females usually giving birth to just two or three cubs every other year. They cannot recover easily from sudden population declines, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction.


There are approximately 4,000 snow leopards remaining in the wild. They are difficult to research due to their solitary habits and remote mountain habitat. Their exact numbers in the wild are unknown.

Snow leopards are listed as an Endangered Species and have protection through CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This law prohibits the trade of snow leopards or their parts between countries.

There are organizations such as the International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT) that work with local communities in snow leopard regions to enforce protection laws and educate the public on snow leopard conservation. The efforts of ISLT include providing financial incentives for local people to conserve leopards, as well as prevention of livestock losses.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Girl Scouts - January 28

At the monthly volunteer meeting the night before, I sorta mentioned the fact that for the past year or two we've had almost no help what-so-ever at the girl scouts programs. Several people came up to me afterwards to apologize, saying that they would have loved to help but hadn't known help was needed. So, this Friday night we had more help than ever! We had 3 volunteers; Myself, Megan, and Mai (she's visiting us from Japan for a month, but is helping out while she's here), our high-school intern (who's name, I’m sorry to say, I’ve forgotten) and Amber, the education director's assistant. All 5 of us, just to handle the 18 little girls and 12 adults who showed up that night. I admit, the girls were rather rambunctious, and the adults were only slightly better than usual at helping out - but still, that's a lot of people to cram into our tiny little temporary education building! We all had a good time, all the same.

One of the troupes that attended the program this time was a repeat from just a few weeks ago. I recognized the troublemaker right away, just as soon as she walked in the door! I also recognized my ex-husband's little girl, Kaitlen. This time, her mother brought her to the zoo, but just dropped her off so I didn't have to worry about any awkwardness from that corner of the room.

The repeat troupe was only a portion of the girls attending, however. The other troupes that attended had trouble finding the building, so were trickling in by ones and twos for almost an hour after the program started. The Girl Scouts Council is supposed to send the troupes maps showing how to get where they need to be, as well as instructions on what they need to bring with them. Seems they have been neglecting to do this, however. Thankfully, they all brought treats for the girls, so at least we didn't have to have some of the girls eating treats while the rest of them just sat and watched, as has happened in the past.

We started off the show by introducing ourselves, giving a brief description of what we do at the zoo. Amber then asked each of the girls to state their names and to tell us what their favorite animal was. There were a lot of cats, dogs, horses, and the like, with a few dolphins, giraffes, and moose thrown in for good measure. One lady, also from Japan, said that she didn’t know what her favorite animal was yet. I guess there’s just too many to choose from.

Amber then spoke about Animal Misconceptions. She showed the girls pictures, like a spider, a bat, a wolf, a snake - that sort of thing, and asked them what they thought of each one. A few of the girls squealed in mock-fright at the spiders and snakes, but that was obviously pretend. Most of them just identified what the picture was and said either, "Ooo!" or, "Ug!" depending. Amber told them that each animal has good qualities as well as bad reputations, and that you really should get to know the animal (or person) before judging them by appearance alone.

She also spoke about reptiles in particular, showing them several snake skins (provided by Yaz, our in-resident Ball Python, who was having a bad day so did NOT come out to play with the girls) and empty turtle shells (not from our in-resident turtles, who are still using their shells). She took Mercy, one of our Eastern Box Turtles, out and fed her some mealworms for the girls to watch. Mercy will eat mealworms till she bursts; she just loves them! She started at one end of the row of tables, and about every foot from beginning to end she got another worm – so she just worked her way down the table eating one after another.

The Japanese lady who didn’t have a favorite animal yet came over and got my attention in the middle of all this, and said, "I think I just found out what my favorite animal is!" So I said, "Great! It's the mealworm, right?" That rather startled the poor lady (I really shouldn't tease the foreign people) but then she assured me it was the turtle she was talking about. She had all kinds of questions about turtles, so we talked quietly for a while, before it was my turn to speak to the whole group.

Since the girls were so "attentive and well behaved" (not) I shortened my creature feature bit considerably from what I’d planned on. But I still had fun with it, and I think the girls did, too. Zieh, Heather's sister (Heather being my brother's girlfriend, for those of you who don't know her), had loaned me a stuffed SpongeBob Squarepants toy, and I used him to begin my talk about Sponges. I held him up and asked the girls who it was. "SpongeBob!" they all yelled. "Is he real?" I asked. "No!" they replied. "Ah, but he's based on something real. A sponge, from the ocean." I replied. I just about fell over laughing when one little girl piped up and said, "I thought he was made of cheese?"

We then talked about sponges for a while, and I got to show them some really cool pictures taken by my friend Cyrinda, who is a professional diver and photographer, who travels the world over taking spectacular pictures everywhere she goes. Cyrinda also loaned me an actual sponge, so the girls got to see a "live" dead one as well as just photo's. Megan, one of the other volunteers who was working the program with us that night, had also brought in an actual sponge; this one being a bath sponge, so the girls could see that there really isn't that much different between a real sponge and a man-made sponge.

Just before my Creature Feature portion of the program, Amber had conducted a science project with the girls. She had taken a pair of gloves, one with the fingers tied off and one with the fingers left loose, and filled them with water. She then asked the girls which one they thought would loose heat the fastest when placed outside for 15 minutes, and talked about heat conservation in animals, such as the giraffe as compared to the musk ox. The gloves got placed outside on the steps while I gave my little talk about sponges.

Once I was finished, the gloves were retrieved and the temperatures were taken. The glove with fingers had a temperature of 54 degrees, and the one without fingers had a temperature of 56 degrees. Since the gloves had each started out at the same temperature of 71 degrees, the girls got a first-hand look at how surface area effects heat-loss. But, then it was time for the nocturnal tour, so I'm sure all thought of heat-loss and surface areas just went "Whoosh!" right out of their heads.

Our nocturnal tour is always the best feature of the program, and no matter how cold it is they always want to go out there. We always give them the option to stay indoors and do crafts if it is below zero, but oddly enough no troupe has ever taken us up on that offer! The temperature was pretty cold that night, but we bundled everybody up and headed on out the door anyway. We really didn't stay out very long, but got to visit with a couple of the animals before the lure of hot coco pulled us back into the building. Unfortunately, we had no coco to offer! We'd run out... Oh well, the girls had their snacks and juice boxes, so were happy enough.

The first craft project of the night involved crayons and paper. Amber talked to the girls about different ways they can help protect the environment and asked them to draw pictures of either something they should NOT do or something they SHOULD do, depending on their moods. There was only about 15 minutes worth of time for them to create their masterpieces (and boy, some of them were certainly doing just that!) before the next item on the agenda, so we told them they could finish them up at home.

Once we got all the crayons cleared off the tables, we handed out the Animal Bingo boards. This is just like regular bingo, except with pictures of animals rather than numbers on the boards. We have apparently misplaced the chips used to mark places on the boards, so Amber passed out macaroni pieces instead. She then would describe an animal till somebody called out what they thought it was. Once the animal was named properly, then everybody could see if it showed up on their boards. Sometimes, the animal in question would show up more than once, so they had to look very carefully to make sure they got as many pieces of macaroni on their boards as they could.

The winner of the game got a surprise: I gave the lucky young girl the SpongeBob Squarepants toy I had brought for my creature feature program! She was VERY excited about winning him. The other girls were very envious, to say the least. By that time, however, it was time to send them on out the door and out to their parents, so we said goodbye and locked the door behind them.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Volunteer Meeting - January 27

Thursday was our first Monthly Volunteer Meeting for all the zoo volunteers. The Alaska Zoo has appointed Shannon Jenson as Volunteer Coordinator, helping out the education department. Katie Larson is still the Education Director, and Amber Mount is still her assistant, but with everything going on they felt it would be best to have somebody else coordinate all the volunteers.

Shannon has implemented quite a few changes in the way volunteers are handled; some of which are good changes, some of which will take a bit of getting used to. The most obvious change is her plan to have these monthly meetings; a thing that was once tried, but it never really got off the ground.

Thursday's meeting was held at the BP Energy Center, since they have room for everybody (and the zoo currently does not, although that will change once their new entrance building is built) and the cost is within the zoo’s budget (as in: it was free). Speaking of budgets, the zoo really does have one set aside for the volunteer program: $100.00 a month. With this, Shannon is expected to handle not only the volunteers she now has (about 25 or so) but also the 25 of so more she wants to recruit!

Anyway, back to the meeting: it was a success in that a lot of people showed up (about 17 in all), but I do think the whole process will need some fine-tuning before getting it exactly right. First, Shannon spent quite a bit of her budget on munchies: chicken wraps, Cheetoes, Doritos, trail mix, and soda. At first thought, this was a good idea: give the volunteers something to munch on since you’re asking them to give up 2 hours of an evening when they could be at home eating a home-cooked meal (yeah, right). But in actuality, hardly any of the food got eaten so there was quite a bit of leftovers. I’m sure the food eventually got eaten (just take it to the zoo; the keepers there will eat it in no time), but there’s no point in blowing your budget on food that no body wants.

Second, Shannon intended to show a video that she and John Gomes, the unofficial photographer for the zoo, are working on for recruitment of new volunteers. However, she neglected to see if the video player provided by BP would work, so she ended up spending a good 10 minutes fiddling with it and never did get to show us the video!

She did have a lot of good ideas, like I said. One thing was to hand out new badges to everybody. They’re real spiffy badges, too. Much nicer than some of the badges I’ve had in the past. She also told us that the zoo is planning on giving the volunteers jackets with the zoo logo, as well as t-shirts with the word "Volunteer" written across the back to identify us while we’re at the zoo. Not too shabby! She also implemented a sign-in sheet again. The zoo needs to track the hours that volunteers spend so they can claim it correctly on their taxes. They also need to see how many hours we spend, so they can better appreciate the job we do! This is, however, one of the ideas that will take a bit of getting used to. I’m not in the habit of checking in each time I do something for the zoo.

Shannon’s worst idea by far, at least in my humble opinion (and it may just be that I am not one for change: I like things just the way they are!), is the new Volunteer Opportunity Sign-up sheet. No longer will I be getting the occasional phone call from Katie, Amber, or Shannon asking me if I can help out with a special tour or a critter table off site. Now, I am expected to check their Volunteer Opportunity Sign-up page on the website, and actually volunteer for the events I’m interested in on my own initiative! The nerve of them! As I said, this will take a bit of getting used to.

For a special treat that night, we got a visitor in the middle of our meeting. Liz, one of the zookeepers, brought Trini in to see us. Trini is our silver fox, and is one of the education animals. This means that she goes out to schools and whatnot to help educate people on animals. She was very excited to be out and about that night. She’s been on medical leave recently, due to an injury to her hind leg that is being treated by our vet, Dr. Riley, and this was her first time out in several months. She is a cute little thing, that’s for sure. She is only about 7 years old, much younger than I had thought. Liz told us her story

Most of the rest of the time was spent getting to know everybody, and talking about some of the opportunities available to zoo volunteers. We talked about different techniques used on-site or off-grounds, about how to handle difficult people, or just some of the different experiences we’d each had. Eventually, we broke up and headed on home.