For 26 years I have been a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo. I did behavioral enrichment with the chimpanzees and led many tours, and I also collected data for the research department. In order to work on their research projects I had to take a UCLA class taught by the Director of Research, Dr. Cathleen Cox. For anyone reading this blog who lives in the L.A. area and would like to learn how to watch animals with the objective eye of a scientist, this is an excellent class to take. I learned how to build an ethogram, or catalog of behaviors, and how to make descriptive observations and put them into a database. I discovered that I sometimes read things into a behavior that were my human interpretation. I try not to do this but it is sometimes difficult.
I collected data for a doctoral student who was studying sloth bears and chamois, and I had the privilege of observing the giant pandas loaned to the zoo by China for the 1984 Olympics. I volunteered to work on a project run by the Jane Goodall Institute called ChimpanZoo. Time passes quickly when you’re watching animals as social as chimpanzees, and it is easy to become very attached to them. I got to know them even better when I did enrichment with them, trying to find ways to keep them from being bored.
Getting to know the chimps, spending part of one day every week with them gave me the best possible benefits. If you have never had one pant hoot with joy when he sees you coming, you have not lived a full life.
Working with albatrosses is very different. They are independent, wild animals who do not depend on human beings for their livelihood. They cannot communicate with us, even if they had any interest in doing that. They may need us to watch out for their safety when they’re in our territory, but they certainly do not appreciate our efforts. The only reaction to my presence that I am likely to get from an albatross is from a few who run away when any human approaches. I have also been bitten, barfed on and pooped on.
I was very fortunate to receive the best possible training on all things albatross from USFWS wildlife biologist Brenda Zaun. (Please see my “Thanks to…” section.) Brenda’s first two rules for the volunteers she trained were:
1. Don’t hurt the albatrosses.
2. Don’t bleed on the albatrosses.
It is not a glamorous volunteer job!