Meet A Scientist Monday: Zoo Docent

This week Kate Kosman tells us what it is like to work at a zoo. Because she is Ellen Kosman’s mom (who was interviewed last week), she also has some valuable insights into raising a scientist.

1. What is a zoo docent?

A zoo docent provides education and information to the public at the zoo. Docents conduct tours, offer “discovery stations” (displays that offer information about a specific topic), and run “animal encounters” (specially designated education animals have contact with the public).  Docents may also offer these educational situations outside the zoo, taking zoo animals and artifacts to schools or other organizations in order to teach a program, allow others to see animals they may not normally encounter, and to offer perspectives on conservation and species survival.

At our zoo, the docent position is a volunteer position.  Some zoos do hire docents, sometimes full time, but usually part time and seasonally.

2. What made you decide to become a zoo docent?

For me it was a toss up.  I looked at Aquarium work for  a while.  Because my daughter introduced me to marine invertebrates, I was very excited about the possibility of working at the touch tank at our local aquarium.  I’ve actually trained for that as well, but then moved to complete zoo docent training after learning the extent of the zoo program.  That they also had my favorite animal being trained as an education animal, a binturong, also influenced my decision originally.

3. How did you become a zoo docent? (What kind of classes did you need to take, etc.)

The zoo offers docent training.  It’s a several month course in two parts.  Part one is zoology, animal behavior, conservation and zoo operations.  It’s rather like going to college in that you have a number of chapters to go through, there are quizzes, labs, and field work, and then a final exam, which you must receive 100% on in order to progress to stage two.   Stage two is education and public contact training, and covers actual teaching methods, as well as allowing docents to explore the different programs available at the zoo and chose those he/she is most interested in working in.

4. Where do you work?

I’m just completing phase two training at the Rio Grande Zoo, part of the Albuquerque BioPark

5. What is the most exciting part of your job? What’s the worst part, if anything?

The most exciting part for me is the continued opportunity to learn.  I find out something interesting and new about various animals every day, and getting up close and personal with some of the animals has inspired me to continue learning.  One of the things we hear at the zoo often in terms of conservation is that people save what they love.  The more experience I have with the animals, the more I learn in order to educate others and help them love these animals, the more I find I love them myself.   I find myself interested in and caring deeply for animals I’d usually give little thought to at the zoo.  Animals which, in the past, I’d pretty much walked past and not thought terribly much about.


It’s rather like falling in love every day.

The worst part for me is having to deal with zoo guests who tease the animals.   It’s so frustrating to me to see individuals… and sometimes groups of people… who go to zoos to show off to each other and have so little regard for the animals.  I try to keep focus on the fact that perhaps these individuals need the education the most, but there are some people who come to the zoo totally unwilling to learn.

6. Do you wear a special uniform?

Yes, docents at the BioPark are required to wear certain colors in their clothing, and to wear a special vest.  At our facility, the pattern of the vest tells what area of the BioPark you are a docent in (there are separate vests for zoo docents, aquarium docents, garden docents, and beach docents).  There are also solid colored vests for other volunteer positions, like solid blue vests for touch tank/ shark ray encounter volunteers.

7. How is a zoo docent different from a zookeeper? How do you become a zookeeper?

Zoo keepers have much more contact with the animals.  Only zoo keepers are involved in animal training:  safety training, animal encounter training, or any of the  enrichment training offered the animals at the zoo.   Zoo keepers are inside the animal enclosures doing the cleaning, bringing in enrichment items, or teaching the animals about their new environment when they change habitats.

Being a zoo keeper requires college education in zoology and a lot more training than zoo docents receive.  It’s usually the zoo keepers you see in uniform at the zoo.  At our zoo they wear khaki slacks and khaki shirts with the BioPark Logo.  Zoo Keeping is a paid position.

*8. As a mom of a scientist, do you have any advice for encouraging children interested in science?

I believe that all people, rather kids or adults, are naturally attracted to some aspect of science.  The problem is that they often don’t get exposure or believe that science is somehow “high brow” and either beyond their capabilities or socially unacceptable.  But with exposure, people realize that there is a broad spectrum of science, not only in the variety of scientific disciplines, but in the level of commitment and education you need in order to “do science”.

Science doesn’t just take place in the laboratory, and you don’t need a PhD to “do science”.  Kids can go to zoos, science centers and aquariums.  They can participate in conservation efforts, or do volunteer work with groups in their community.  If the parents, teachers, and volunteer organizers in the community are all saying “science is fun” then kids will respond… because science IS fun.

I think right now people make the mistake of looking at science as a job, and it isn’t.  Sure, some people get paid for “doing science”, but for the most part science is a way of looking at the world.  It’s a way that induces a sense of wonder, a curiosity, and a willingness to learn.

The best thing I think any parent can do is to offer exposure and to continue to learn themselves.  Take the kids to the zoo.  Don’t just walk through it.  If the kids are interested in a specific animal, learn something about that animal together. Take the kids to science centers. If the kids enjoy a specific activity or display, find out more.  Keep going back.  Once you’ve seen a zoo, aquarium, or science center, you haven’t seen all there is to see.  You can go back over and over and over and learn something new, see a new animal behavior, find something new in a revolving display, or experience something new in an activity you’ve done before.

Expose kids to the world:  Take them to places of natural wonders, to places that expose them to different environments and different cultures.  Being open minded and fostering an open mind to learning experiences helps kids not only in science, but in all domains of their lives.

And don’t be afraid to bring science home.  Kids don’t need expensive lab equipment to find out what soils work best for different plants.  you can do science with plastic baggies and a 10 cent seed packet.    A while back the kids were doing DNA extractions from fruit with stuff everyone has around the house, which is something I’d guess most people would think could only occur in a lab with specialized equipment.   There’s a certain “wow, that’s cool” factor involved in something like that, and it’s naturally attractive to kids.

Most of the time I don’t think we need to encourage kids to be interested in science, but rather we need to stop discouraging them.

Thank you so much for all your sage advice, Kate.

Now, who knows what a binturong is?

Visit Kate’s blog at Adventures of a Free Range Urban Primate.

1 Comment

  1. Kate Kosman

    Actually, it’s Kate Kosman. I must have emailed you this out of the wrong account, a pen name I use for poetry and fictional writing (sorry).

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