By KELTON BROOKS
When you're a docent at the Lee Richardson Zoo, there is almost no such thing as a daily routine.
One day you might have the task of caring for a 1-foot chinchilla, and the next, you're watching over a 9-foot tall, 12,000-pound African Elephant. Sometimes you are standing next to a cart filled with pelts, skulls and bones while you're touring the zoo, or maybe, you're at your child's school, bringing animals for a program.
Candi Dillon, who has been a docent at the zoo for a little more than a year now, always has been around wildlife, and is accustomed to being out in the open.
"I grew up in the country," Dillon said. "We've always had skunks, deer, pheasants and coyotes. I've always been much more comfortable being outside than in."
Before Dillon was a docent at the zoo, she worked at Walt Disney World in the Animal Kingdom in the education program seasonally until 2011, and also worked at a zoo in Florida for almost a year and a half.
"I just couldn't see myself working in a cubicle all day long," Dillon said.
Docents are trained volunteers who assist in the zoo's education division. These dedicated individuals come from diverse backgrounds and volunteer their time to help the zoo's Education Division spread its message of conservation and wildlife appreciation. Docents share a love of animals and nature, as well as a desire to promote the zoo.¬
Docents give animal programs to schools, scouts, service organizations, senior citizens, youth groups and others. Docents also assist with Earth Day festivities and discovery carts — featuring interesting animal biofacts — on the zoo grounds. These people are usually volunteers who have received training in how to engage the public and present material in a fun and educational way.
There are three levels of volunteering at the zoo. The base level is the Zoo Ambassadors, who assist with special events, office duties, other non-animal, non-education activities. The next tier is the Enrichment Specialists, who handle education animals in order to provide enrichment and/or socialization.
But the final tier is considered the most hands-on, and those volunteers often have advanced training in animal handling and general care. Docents give online and/or distance learning, formal and informal programs to the public.
Dillon, who is also a keeper, assists in different areas in a variety of ways.
"I'll bounce between the elephant department, cat department and the commissary department. Every day is different. A normal day depends on what section I'm in. A lot of our job is common sense and observation," Dillon said.
Even with the task of remaining aware of different issues that take place day to day as a docent, there is one thing Dillon is always aware of — the joy of the families.
"I enjoy talking to kids and parents because it's amazing to see that child might not necessarily know the size of something like an ostrich egg," she said. "To me, it still looks like something from the Flintstones."
You don't need to have any special background, experience or education to become a docent. All you need is a love of animals, and to enjoy visiting with people. You must be at least 18, have a willingness to learn new things and be able to dedicate some of your time to the zoo.
"I get to meet awesome people here," Dillon said.
"It's nice to see people interested in people and animal observation. I must admit, I love what I do here."