If you have ever been to the zoo, you probably have noticed those cheerful, enthusiastic people with the word "docent" on their shirt.

Perhaps they were standing next to a cart filled with pelts, skulls and bones. Or maybe they came to your child's school and brought animals for a program.

But what exactly is a docent and, more importantly, how did they become one of those lucky individuals that work with animals at a zoo?

A docent is defined as a person who leads guided tours, especially in museums, art galleries or zoos. These people usually are volunteers who have received training in how to engage the public and present material in a fun and educational way.

Docents at zoos often have advanced training in animal handling and general care. They are a vital part of the zoo, and many tasks could not be accomplished without their dedication and hard work.

The docents at Lee Richardson Zoo typically assist the education division in a variety of ways.

To give a better idea of what a docent actually does, we asked one of our long-time docents to describe her experiences as a volunteer.

Linda Doll has been a docent at our zoo since September 1982. In the past 27 years, she has put in more than 4,000 hours of volunteer work. The zoo has changed a lot in that time, and the docent program has changed as well.

Linda originally learned about the docent program when she saw an article in the paper. Since she already had a passion for animals, she thought it would be worth checking into.

She received her training from Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo (FOLRZ) board member and the creator of our docent program, Marie Osterbuhr, and the current zoo director, Kathy Sexson.

Linda has participated in almost every aspect of zoo work. From giving programs and helping with camps, to manning discovery carts and managing biofacts, Linda always has been willing to jump in when extra help is needed.

One of her favorite docent activities is attending the annual Association of Zoos and Aquariums Docents (AZAD) conference. At these conferences, she is able to visit other zoos and connect with docents from across the United States.

One of her most memorable docent moments was when she was waiting for a group of school children to arrive for a walking tour of the zoo. The weather was cold, and Linda had bundled up in preparation to take the students outside.

When the bus arrived, however, all of the students were in short-sleeved shirts without any coats. Linda was able to improvise and present a program to the students indoors instead.

This situation impressed upon her how many students are so caught up with indoor living that they can sometimes forget that the natural world is ever-changing and not always comfortable.

Even with all the memories and experiences she has gathered in her years as a docent, Linda says the thing that makes it worthwhile is the opportunity to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for the natural world. By sharing her passion, she hopes to increase appreciation of nature in others.

If she could tell future docents one thing, it would be to try out the different areas that are available for volunteers at the zoo. Whether that is helping with special events or assisting a staff member with programs, you always have the opportunity to be involved as much or as little as you like.

Being a docent can enrich your life and allow you to increase your knowledge about the living world. The interaction and learning that takes place between fellow docents is also a unique experience.

To put things into perspective, Lee Richardson Zoo has given a total of 870 programs so far this year and reached more than 32,500 people, including students, seniors, preschoolers and hospitals. The docents alone have given more than 461 programs and volunteered 1,006 hours in 2009. This is equivalent to about $17,000 of work.

With an education division of only three full-time staff, there is no possible way so many programs and events could have happened without the help of the docents.

If you like animals, have a passion for the environment, enjoy sharing your enthusiasm with others and are 18 years or older, perhaps you should consider becoming a docent at Lee Richardson Zoo.

An informational coffee session is scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 9, 2010, at the Finnup Center for Conservation Education. We will provide the coffee and the animals; you just need to bring a curious mind and a desire to learn.

Docent training will take place once a week from January to March at a time that works well for the new trainees.

If you have any questions about becoming a docent, please feel free to contact Michelle Mills, the curator of education, at mmills@garden-city.org or call the Finnup Center at 276-1250. We look forward to meeting you.

Visit our award-winning Web site at www.garden-city.org/zoo.