Last week, Thanksgiving provided us a chance to reflect on all that we are thankful for. I am grateful every day for the AZA community members that bring to life our mission of protecting wildlife and wild places, including the volunteers who help to make our work possible. Some of those amazing volunteers even donated their time over the holiday weekend to work at one of our 230+ AZA-accredited facilities.
Volunteers are a critical part of the AZA team. Over 164,000 volunteers provide 7.6 million hours of service to AZA facilities each year. They generously give their time and resources to assist our facilities with conservation initiatives, citizen science, and education programming; contributing an estimated 187 million dollars of service in-kind.
Over eighty-five percent of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have a volunteer program for their local community. Nearly half offer programming specifically for participants with cognitive or physical disabilities. AZA’s volunteers range from 7 to 100 years old and include students, veterans, and retirees. Nearly a quarter are young people under age 18, who will hopefully go on to pursue a lifelong connection to nature and perhaps a career in the zoological profession.
I’d like to highlight a few members’ programs that illustrate the many ways AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums engage their communities through volunteer opportunities onsite and in the field.
Houston Zoo’s Adult Volunteer Program received AZA’s 2018 Top Honors in Volunteer Engagement Award. Since its inception in 1970, the program has evolved from a small handful of docents to over 450 volunteers that assist nearly every department within the Zoo. In addition to the volunteers supporting Zoo operations and guest service needs, Houston Zoo volunteers champion conservation efforts both on and off-grounds. Monarch tagging enables volunteers to assist with the capture, tag placement, and release of monarch butterflies to help track migratory patterns. Beach, crab trap, and jetty clean-ups are events where staff and volunteers clean trash, abandoned crab traps, and abandoned fishing line from local waterways in Galveston, Texas.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s 1,000-member strong Volunteer Corps share their love of the ocean and support important marine research by serving as guides, greeters, education specialists, and cashiers. Mote’s volunteers provided 222,618 hours of service in 2017 alone, making this the most productive aquarium program among AZA-accredited facilities. Mote's program is unique in the sheer number of ways people can volunteer and get involved at Mote: assisting scientists and biologists in over 20 marine research programs, providing around-the-clock emergency care for sea turtles or cetaceans in Mote’s hospitals, or supporting Mote as a Trustee or Advisory Council member. Mote is lucky enough to have a large number of long-term serving volunteers, with many having 20+ years of service.
Volunteers at Mote care for a rescued sea turtle
The community involvement program at Brevard Zoo engages thousands of individual volunteers as well as businesses, organizations, and school groups in all aspects of operations, from conservation education to landscaping projects. This past year, 5,541 volunteers participated in projects at the Zoo, making it the largest program among AZA-accredited facilities. Brevard Zoo’s Conservation Team works with volunteers in the field and onsite with conservation projects the award-winning Oyster Restoration Program, helping to restore the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most diversified estuaries in the United States. Volunteers have also raised and planted mangroves helped to rehabilitate sea turtles, and cared for critically endangered Perdido Beach Mice.
San Diego Zoo Global’s highly-trained Conservation Ambassadors contribute 60 or more hours each year, but only after completing a fun and comprehensive training checklist required to begin volunteering. Those volunteers show incredible commitment -- and provided 222,983 hours of service last year -- more than any other AZA-accredited facility.
John G. Shedd Aquarium’s award-winning Guest Engagement Volunteer Program gives volunteers a chance to guide behind-the-scenes tours, support marine mammal trainers during penguin encounters, and inspire guests before they even enter the aquarium. Through the Guest Engagement Volunteer Program, volunteers become ambassadors for the natural world through innovative training suites, continuous enrichment experiences and a culture of value and appreciation. Every volunteer has a crucial role in advancing the aquarium’s mission to spark compassion, curiosity, and conservation for the aquatic animal world. In 2016, nearly 300,000 of Shedd’s visitors had direct interactions with guest engagement volunteers, according to Shedd Aquarium.
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens’ innovative Volunteer Program includes multiple opportunities for adults, teenagers, and corporate/social groups. Regular volunteers undergo extensive onboarding and continuous development to ensure they are prepared to deliver exciting experiences that connect guests to the animals at the zoo and within their backyards. The Zoo’s off-site Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation engages volunteers directly in husbandry and enrichment of Indigo Snakes, a SAFE species program.
Each volunteer is an integral part of the AZA’s mission to connect communities with animals, inspiring compassion, curiosity, and conservation action to save wildlife. For many of our organizations, volunteers are also part of the zoo and aquarium family. Thank you to our volunteers: I hope you know how much you are appreciated every day. Join AZA by volunteering at your local AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium.