Animal Savvy

Louisville Zoo Docent Program Provides Education and Conservation Awareness

Writer / Annette Skaggs
Photography Provided

Louisville ZooIt could be said that many fond memories can be traced to walking around the Louisville Zoo and marveling at the wonderful assortment of animals on display. Many parents and grandparents take advantage of the generous family membership and return every chance they can. Other memories may include school years, when a representative of the Louisville Zoo would come to a classroom and show off an insect, reptile or bird. Such great memories, to be sure. But did you know that representative was not necessarily an employee, but in fact a volunteer with the organization’s docent program?

If you are not familiar with this program, it is the volunteer and educational arm of the Louisville Zoo, and many organizations use a similar program. While the term “docent” means volunteer teacher, our zoo cleverly refers to their docents as “Edzoocators.” The docents within the program are often out in our community, in classrooms or outreach programs, expounding the ecological and preservationist roles of zoos, as well as sharing a vast knowledge of the role animals play in our lives, often carrying a bug or rodent as part of their presentation.Louisville Zoo

How does one become a docent with the Louisville Zoo? Is there an application process? Is a zoological studies degree required? You will be happy to know that you do not have to carry a degree in those studies (although it couldn’t hurt), but there is an application process and a required minimum of 100 training hours. While some of the training is in a classroom-like setting, much of it is in the field.

John Ulmer is the current president of the docent program. He joined in 2013 after a neighbor suggested the program to him. While Ulmer had already volunteered his time, working with and teaching special-needs children how to fish in Crooked Creek at the Boy Scout Camp, he felt that being a docent would be an enjoyable thing to do. In fact, his wife is one too. With more than 1,500 active hours, it’s safe to say he is having fun.

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Jo Barrett, Anne Downs and Jeff Reasor are also docents. Ms. Jo (the docents are usually referred to by their first names) is the former president, having joined the 2012 class after working with Kosair Charities, and has accumulated more than 2,000 volunteer hours. Ms. Anne could be considered the grande dame of the group, having risen to the rank of emeritus and earned more than 4,000 hours over a span of 22 years of service. Mr. Jeff, the newer member of the program, is a general docent and began his work there in 2016.

Louisville ZooWhat is it about the docent program that makes the volunteers come back year after year?

“This service keeps me young, and my mind sharp,” Ulmer says.

“There is so much to learn and the animals keep us on our toes,” Downs says. “They are all so active, especially the babies.”

Speaking of babies, the zoo’s most recent birth is an African elephant calf.

“He’s adorable,” Barrett says. “Have you ever seen an elephant skip?”

When asked about certain groups of individuals that our assembled docents prefer speaking to, the response was fairly unanimous.

“Presenting to 5-year-olds is certainly different than to adults,” Barrett says. “They are intrigued by the animals and the other artifacts that we commonly bring with us during our educational talks.”

“It is not uncommon for children to ask why we didn’t bring a rhinoceros or a giraffe, so we of course tell them the impracticality of showing off the larger animals, but it doesn’t take long for them to be engaged with the ambassador animals or elephant tusk that we do bring to the classroom,” Ulmer adds.

Ulmer says there is a room filled with items such as the tusk, a rhino horn, skulls, paws of both a grizzly and polar bear, and pelts.

“We also use charts, factoids and informational pamphlets called biofacts that help to aid our educational outreach,” Downs says. “All of these necessary tools are at our disposal.”

You may be wondering what kinds of questions are asked of the docents when they teach, and what is shared with their classes concerning what they might not know about the importance of the zoo? Also, which animals are their favorite or least favorite ambassadors to utilize and show off?Louisville Zoo

“One of the most common questions I get is about the death of animals, especially if I bring a pelt or paw,” Reasor says. “We share with our students that for all of the exhibits that we use, the animal died naturally, and that we are learning more about them through their passing. All of these tools that we use have been given to us and cleared with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Federal Wildlife Agency. As far as which animal ambassador, I enjoy all of them, but Ty the rabbit has proved to be a handful. He once jumped out of my hands and out at a little girl. No one was hurt, but he’s a jumper.”

Barrett is quick to point out the need for zoos.

“I share with our students the importance of our zoos in the fight for conservancy,” Barrett says. “If it weren’t for zoos, the preservation of animals would be almost nonexistent. For example, the black-footed ferret was thought to be extinct, but through our conservancy program, we’ve been able to repopulate the species by putting them through what we call an animal boot camp, where they breed and are raised here and then slowly integrated back into the wild. While their main diet is prairie dogs, they enjoy other prey, like rodents. As far as favorite ambassador, I haven’t had much problem save for one time that I didn’t tie the knot on the snake bag very tight and he started to want to slither away.”

Downs furthers the point concerning conservation.

Louisville Zoo“Yes, our zoos are very important in that regard,” Downs says. “There are only 162 elephants in the U.S., so a birth of an endangered animal is a momentous event. As to my ambassadors, I didn’t care to handle the snakes at first, but now it isn’t any big deal. I’ve handled animals from a chinchilla to the Madagascar hissing cockroach.”

When asked about favorite animals, Ulmer says his is the ball python. He truly enjoys spending time with the animals, and gets a kick out of how much children and some adults want to touch and experience them, as he does.

The docent program is largely self-directed and falls under the auspices of the zoo’s education department. Currently there are approximately 115 docents registered, and they logged more than 60,000 volunteer hours last year alone. While there are some that work only a few hours per week, many spend a great deal more.

Our resident zoo docents are encyclopedic in their knowledge of animals and the conservation efforts that continue to be made.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a docent, call 502-459-2181 or visit

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