Some people spend their summers at the beach. Some have summer jobs. Still others spend their days watching reruns of "The Real World." But one lucky group of students spends a month working at the Buffalo Zoo.
The Zoo Apprentice Program is for teens 15 to 17 who are interested in working with animals. There are two sessions, July and August, each with 15 students.
Apprentices serve as zoo ambassadors, interpreting exhibits and presenting small animals to zoo visitors. Apprentices also answer visitors' questions and direct them to where they want to go.
(Sometimes the questions can be pretty strange. In one case, a visitor was under the impression that zookeepers remove elephants' hair with blowtorches!)
After a five-day crash course in zoology, conservation and animal handling, we were ready to go out on the grounds.
Animal handling was the favorite activity by far. We got to work with most of the education department's animals. (Some, like goats or parrots, were too tough for us to handle.)
By spending so much time with the animals, we got to know some of them. Favorites were the rabbits, ferrets, geckos, skink (a type of lizard) and Fred, the ball python. We would take them to a lawn or small pen and let people touch them as we talked about them.
Some of us did animal demonstrations under the tent in the Children's Zoo, talking about the animals and letting visitors touch the animals. This was more structured than what we normally did and was even announced over the loudspeaker.
We also interpreted the exhibits using biofacts (things such as bones and fur that once belonged to an animal) and helped people spot the birds in the bird walk.
Apprentices also got a chance to shadow a zookeeper to get an idea of what the job is really like. Some of the areas we could shadow were reptiles, small mammals and cats.
I got to shadow zookeepers in two different areas. In the morning I helped clean animal pens in the Children's Zoo. In the afternoon I went behind the scenes in the American, Asian and bighorn sheep exhibits.
Every Wednesday morning we had workshops. Tom Garlock, zoo president, spoke to us one week. Another week we explored the non-public areas of the reptile house.
Finally, we got to help with zoo camp, supervising the younger kids while a docent led them on a zoo tour. Toward the end of the month, we took a field trip to the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester.
For kids ages 12 to 14, there is a Junior Zoo Apprentice Program. (Junior apprentices do face-painting and puppet shows and go with the older apprentices on the field trip.)
The Zoo Apprentice program was an amazing experience and is recommended for anyone interested in working with animals.
For information, call the Zoo Education Department at 837-3900, Ext. 106. Applications for next year's program will be available in the spring. The cost this year was $115 for zoo members and $125 for non-members.
Dan Gruber is a senior at City Honors High School.