If, like me, you enjoy watching movies from the 1940s, you might have seen a prepared message at the end of some of them hawking the value of war bonds. Uncle Sam, in his stars and stripes regalia, would point from the screen and say, “I Want You!” Now, instead of Uncle Sam, picture Kali, the polar bear at the St. Louis Zoo, beneath a banner that reads: “Lonely? Volunteer. The Zoo Has a Place for You!”
Although there are certainly other worthwhile local organizations that could benefit from additional volunteers, it may come as a surprise that there are a number of different categories of volunteer opportunities to be found at the St. Louis Zoo. As many volunteers have told me, the zoo is their happy place. I myself am a volunteer, so consider me happily biased on its behalf.
It might seem odd to discuss volunteering, loneliness, and the St. Louis Zoo in the same conversation unless you’ve read the 85-page report issued on May 3 by the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. His report declares that loneliness has become an epidemic public health crisis. He adds that loneliness “is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.”
People are also reading…
Although much attention has been focused on young people’s mental status, particularly since the start of the pandemic, loneliness is a pervasive problem for the rest of the population as well. Not surprisingly, this report emphasized that one of the best ways to overcome the feeling is a meaningful interaction with other people, particularly those with similar interests. Volunteering at the zoo offers just such an outlet. Being outside, surrounded by people, while providing a community service — these are just perks.
I’ve been a docent at the St. Louis Zoo for 11 years and an ambassador for three years, ever since I retired from a 40-year career of (combined) state and federal government service. Outwardly, my past experience wouldn’t seem to qualify me for anything zoo-related, and yet there was a volunteer category that fit. Even better for me, as a person who had lost my biological family as well as my work family, I gained a third family at the zoo. If you investigate the volunteer section of the zoo’s webpage at stlzoo.org, you might find the exact job to suit your interests and/or your experience as well.
As volunteers, our jobs at the zoo are to assist with non-animal duties so that trained professionals (such as keepers and veterinarians) have time to care for the animals. There are volunteers in the horticultural department to assist with maintaining the lush landscapes throughout the zoo, often in collaboration with the Missouri Botanical Garden. People with carpentry or engineering experience might enjoy becoming members of the enrichment committee, which is made up of both volunteers and employees. With necessary approval, these folks are tasked with designing and developing enrichment items for the animals to encourage their natural behaviors.
Volunteers often staff the First Aid and Guest Relations stations and help with all of the events. Trained volunteers function as tour guides for school classes, while docents might assist the Educational Department in classes and outreach to schools, assisted living facilities and nursing homes.
Some volunteers help prepare food for the animals in the Nutrition Department, or in various other areas like the Bird House when the need arises. There are volunteers in the gift shops and some who help with clerical duties at the Institute for Conservation Medicine or the Wild Care Institute. In the event of a guest emergency, volunteers are there to contact the appropriate department for assistance. If contact with live animals is important, people may volunteer in the Mary Ann Lee Butterfly Wing.
In 2019, before the pandemic, there were 1,800 volunteers in myriad positions throughout the zoo. At the close of 2022, after safety protocols allowed volunteers to return, there were slightly more than 1,500. With future expansions on the horizon (like that reported by this paper’s own Valerie Schremp Hahn concerning the reimagining of the former children’s zoo into the Henry A. Jubel Destination Discovery) there could be additional duties for volunteers. Meanwhile, there’s no need to be lonely — volunteer somewhere. Personally, I recommend the St. Louis Zoo.
Don’t just take my word for it. Even Simon and Garfunkel sang the praises of the zoo on “Bookends,” their 1968 hit album:
Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo
I do believe it
I do believe it’s true.
Janet Y. Jackson is a Post-Dispatch columnist and Editorial Board member.