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Chapter Fifteen

Taronga Zoo

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In 1992, I joined the Zoo Friends volunteers at Taronga Zoo working in the office on Sundays. It was pretty boring work and I found that there was virtually no support from the Manager of the Zoo Friends. For example, I asked that copies of the volunteer newsletter be left for the weekend office volunteers and the reply was that there was a copy somewhere in the office. Later, when I was working in the zoo proper, I asked that some of the dollar coins collected from the luggage lockers be left in the Information Centre at the weekends because we had lots of requests for change and no way of getting any. This request also fell on deaf ears. I came to the conclusion that the woman who was the Zoo Friends manager believed that the Zoo Friends was her private domain and that volunteers were just a nuisance.

In 1994, I was given a place in the training course for guides and moved from the office to the zoo proper. The training was interesting and we were well equipped to talk to visitors to the zoo who wanted to know something about the animals. The reason for the volunteer guides was that the keepers were so few in number that, apart from the few brief keeper talks, they had virtually no time to interact with the public. The 400 guides were rostered for two whole day shifts a month and provided an addition to the zoo staff of 40 full time equivalent workers. Given that there were only 120 keepers, this was a significant contribution to the operation of the zoo and all at no cost; the zoo didn't even provide the uniforms we were required to wear. Their only concession was to arrange staff discount for us at the fast food outlets inside the zoo.

When I visited the zoo in Edinburgh during our trip in 1994, we met some volunteer guides who invited us to lunch at their Zoological Society premises where we were served a delightful lunch by a waitress in black and white uniform. I was impressed at the standing in which their guides were held. One of my fellow guides at the zoo once talked to the Australian Museum about their volunteers and was told that they were valued members of the staff who were given uniforms and lunch. When told the terms of engagement of zoo volunteers, the reply was "The Museum wouldn't dream of treating its volunteers like that".

One of my colleagues, a pensioner, had been a volunteer guide for fifteen years when they introduced the uniform. He was repeatedly asked wear the uniform and he said he couldn't afford to buy one. He eventually received a letter telling him that if he didn't wear a uniform he should leave. He chose to leave. To my knowledge he received no acknowledgement or thanks from the Zoo for his considerable contribution.

I became a shift leader and had to allocate duties among the volunteers on my shift. I soon learned the likes and dislikes of the people and always managed to give people work they enjoyed without leaving anything undone. I had several conversations with the Coordinator of the Volunteers who was an ex-school teacher and who was paid a salary by the Zoo Friends. He claimed that he needed a group of "professional volunteers" who would do whatever task they were allocated. I pointed out that managing volunteers was different from managing paid staff and that one shouldn't ask a volunteer to do anything they didn't want to do. The task facing a volunteer manager is to motivate the crew so that somebody will willingly do every task that needed to be done without having anyone having to do anything that made them unhappy. Unlike paid staff, volunteers always have a cost free alternative to working for you, they can leave. He never understood or accepted what I was saying.

Towards the end of my time at the zoo, they introduced a new map. The old one was a simple one page photocopy sponsored by some company who simply put their logo on the map. We were able to hand these out to anyone who wanted one and could highlight any exhibits they were particularly interested in. The new map cost a few cents each and the Zoo refused to hand them out free or include them in the entry fee. Instead they asked the volunteer to request a donation in return for the map. The money had to go into big locked boxes which appeared on the counter of the Information Centre and created a considerable barrier between the volunteers and the visitors. I refused to ask for donations and when the time came for the new trainees to join the crew, I was asked how I was going to handle the situation, them having been trained to ask and me, a shift leader, refusing to ask. I said that I had the free option and would leave. In mid 1997 I offered my resignation explaining my reasons for leaving. I sent copies to the Volunteer Coordinator, the President of the Zoo Friends and the Director of the Zoo but all went unanswered.

I really enjoyed most of my time at the zoo and grateful for the training I received. It has made my wildlife watching much more enjoyable and productive. We had been travelling for several years when we went on a bird-watching trip on the Darling at Menindee. I remember telling the guide that I had never seen Red Kangaroo. He was amazed as they are prolific and he rarely drove to Broken Hill without having to avoid at least one. I asked him what time he travelled and he said in the evening. I pointed out that we never travel after dark and the kangaroos are usually lying down in the shade when we are on the road. We did see a small group in the East Macdonnell Ranges some years later. On that trip we were lucky to also meet a Perentie crossing the road in front of us and a dingo pup in a dry creek bed.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised 6/2/07
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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