Wanda Wierzbicki, far right, with some of the people who volunteer at the zoo on Thursdays.

By Wanda Wierzbicki

A year and a half ago, I decided that I would like to volunteer at the Toronto Zoo. I had recently retired and was looking for an interesting and meaningful activity. The process to become a Toronto Zoo volunteer turned out to be more involved than I expected but also more interesting and rewarding.

After filling in an application, I was invited to an interview. Several weeks later, I was accepted into the Year Round Volunteer Program. There were 27 of us starting the training course together in 2017. Training began in November and consisted of 10 classes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. one day a week. The program focused on information about the zoo as well as the science curriculum from Grades 1 to 12, since Year Round Volunteers are expected to lead school groups. As part of the training program we had to give a three-minute presentation about an animal of our choice and later a 10-minute presentation on three animals.

Ten minutes may seem like a long time but most of the trainees went over the 10 minutes. Time management was important because the students have to be back in time to catch their buses. The training course finished with a take-home exam, which was really more of an assignment. It was not long before our training was finished and our name tags changed from “Trainee” to “Volunteer.”  We had graduated.

I was nervous before leading my first tour but I soon found that leading a group of students is less stressful than leading a group of peers who are evaluating you. The students are divided into groups of 10 plus their parent/teacher for every volunteer. Often two or more classes come from the same school and 50 students will quickly be divided into five groups. The volunteers plan their tours so that they cover similar topics and areas of the zoo without being in the same place at the same time. This is done by having one group go in the entrance while the other group goes in the exit of a pavilion. The same thing happens in the neighbouring pavilion while the fifth  group does part of the outdoor trail. This allows all the students to see many animals up close while hearing interesting facts about them from the zoo volunteer guide.

Like all the other volunteers, I have certain preferences for age groups and science curriculum topics, but can truthfully say I like all of them. I have found the vast majority of the students to be interested, pleasant and well behaved. It is enjoyable to see the appreciation for animals grow in the eyes of the student before you.

The volunteers are also responsible for staffing the interactive tables found in many of the zoo’s pavilions. These tables often have animal pelts, skulls, teeth and skin sheds on display and they give visitors an up-close opportunity to see and to touch.

The volunteers are also responsible for “wayfinding.” I particularly like standing at the front gate greeting visitors from around the world and giving them suggestions on how best to spend their time at the zoo. One day last December I had three groups from Australia, two separate groups from Mexico, a group from England, a group from Germany, a group from Sweden and several groups from countries in South America. It feels good to welcome people to our great city and to our wonderful Toronto Zoo.