Nancy Stoddard is brimming with facts about the Western hognose snake. They’re native to southwestern Minnesota. They play dead when threatened. And they eat venomous toads, Stoddard explained to several kids as she cradled the small, brown-spotted snake.
“I’ve always been animal crazy,” said Stoddard, who has accrued 6,500 volunteer hours at the Minnesota Zoo in 17 years.
The work of Stoddard and her fellow volunteers hasn’t gone unnoticed. This fall, the Minnesota Zoo received a national award recognizing its volunteer program, which has logged more than 3 million volunteer hours since the institution opened in 1978.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a nonprofit that accredits zoos and advocates for conservation, honored the Apple Valley zoo with its 2016 Volunteer Engagement Award.
The Minnesota Zoo has one of the larger zoo volunteer programs nationally, said Sheri White Commers, director of volunteer services. More than 1,100 volunteers help out in 50 subject areas, contributing 113,000 hours a year. Some have been coming for decades and accumulated more than 30,000 hours.
“Volunteers are integral to our operations,” Commers said. “There are programs that don’t happen if we don’t have volunteers here.”
Many pitch in by providing “animal encounters,” showing animals and artifacts to visitors and offering interesting facts about the animals. The family farm exhibit is run completely by volunteers.
Volunteering at the zoo requires extensive training, including five Saturday classes to start and twice-annual seminars. They receive weekly e-mail updates with facts about new animals — such as the armadillo, the skink, the tarantula and the hedgehog — and must pass a written test and observation before they can show the creatures.
Volunteering is a great opportunity for lifelong learners, Commers said.
“We have to know what we’re talking about,” said Bob Erickson, a 17-year volunteer who loves the farm exhibit.
For every 1,000 hours, volunteers get “something special,” like the chance to view a medical procedure, follow a zookeeper around, or a python party, which involves weighing enormous snakes. “Usually, if you start volunteering here, you stay,” Erickson said.
More than cleaning up poop
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums gives out more than a dozen awards recognizing everything from exhibits to education programs. The volunteering award began last year. Two winners were named in 2016: Minnesota and the California Academy of Sciences.
“We felt like volunteers are such an integral part of the business that a really quality volunteer program should be something that AZA also recognizes,” said Kerrie Kovaleski, director of volunteer programs at the Maryland Zoo.
Kovaleski is also on AZA’s volunteer management committee, which created a list of best practices for managing zoo volunteers. Zoos receiving the volunteering award must demonstrate those practices, which range from having a volunteer uniform and handbook to providing strong orientations and training. There are less tangible markers of a good program, Kovaleski said, including incorporating volunteers in a meaningful way, offering them challenging tasks and recognizing their achievements.
One of a zoo volunteer’s primary tasks is promoting conservation, Kovaleski said.
“I think that a lot of people think that volunteering at the zoo means cleaning up poop, but in fact, what we really need is people who are going to spread our mission,” she said.
People are drawn to helping at zoos because of the animals, but often stay for the sense of community, Kovaleski said. Last year, 165,000 people volunteered at AZA zoos and aquariums.
“The impact is absolutely enormous,” she said.