ZooGuides Program Brings SCSD Students for Walk on the Wild Side

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Nottingham High School junior Zebrien Jamison holds out a six-foot length of snake skin as he moves toward an approaching family. “Would you like to touch it?” he inquires. A small boy nods and Zebrien kneels down to interact with the child.
No, this is not a documentary on Animal Planet; nor is it a biology or ecology class. Rather, Zebrien and more than a dozen of his peers are taking part in a one-of-a-kind internship program.
Currently in its sixth year, ZooGuides is a partnership between the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, CNY Works, Hillside Work Scholarship Connection and the Syracuse City School District. It allows students to serve as Zoo Ambassadors, speaking to zoo visitors about the zoo’s mission, the animals and more.
“Kids are so interactive,” Zebrien exclaims. “They give us a great experience to talk about what we know!”
What they know—about animals and the zoo itself—is a lot.
“The Patas Monkey is the fastest monkey on earth,” Zebrien states.
“A lion’s skull is smaller than a tiger’s. I thought it would be the opposite,” Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central 11th grader Jaydia Perry adds.
“Elephants love jelly beans!” Corcoran senior Mia Gallipeau exclaims in delight.
This year, 15 Syracuse City School District students have been selected for the program, plus four returning ZooGuides who are participating in a ZooGuide Fellows program.
Rosamond Gifford Zoo Director of Education Nathan Keefe says the presence of these student ZooGuides enhances the atmosphere for other visitors. “The youth have brought a lot of wonderful energy and enthusiasm to the zoo, and it rubs off on the other zoo staff and visitors,” he explains. “ZooGuides are hired for their outgoing nature and interest in engaging with people, and they excel at this. The youth go out of their way to learn more about the zoo, and share their knowledge with visitors and each other. Since the program’s inception, ZooGuides have interacted with over half a million visitors!”
Each ZooGuide undergoes 35 hours of training, which begins in the spring and features on biological concepts, animal behavior and conservation and sustainability practices. They also meet with staff and take a behind-the-scenes tour to experience how the zoo operates.
Nathan says that through the training process, students are already gaining valuable life lessons. “During the course of training, they build a sense of perspective.  The training and experience is a good chance for them to meld past experiences, new knowledge and a developing sense of connecting to the world into a work experience.  We have seen leaders emerge as youth mentor each other, and friendships develop between youth from different parts of the city that may not have been forged outside of this program,” he explains.
When training is complete, students are able to set up an ‘artifact station’ in the zoo and interact with visitors, acting as additional sources of information about the zoo’s inhabitants.
Henninger High School senior Patty Capone is now participating in her third year of the ZooGuide program. “There’s always new stuff to learn and new animals to see. You can see the new babies after they are born, and you really get to know the animals. But the coolest part is getting to see the new biofacts—the teeth, skulls, pelts and tusks that we use as tools,” she says. “When we’re working, we set up a cart and we get to choose what we want to talk about. It’s helped me build an extensive knowledge on so many types of animals. There are so many facts I’ve learned—little things that I don’t even realize I’m learning!”
But for students, the benefits of the experience go far beyond learning about animals.
ZooGuide Coordinator Pam Hobbs is in her sixth year with the program, having worked there since its inception. She says the personality change in students from the start of the program to the end is exciting. “It’s so fun watching the students from the beginning to the end, watching them complete their Fellows experiments, and watching them develop their skills,” she explains. “Some of them are so shy and start off not saying anything to people. By the end of the summer, they become so confident with their communication skills. They won’t have any problem approaching a complete stranger and saying, ‘Hey, want to see this?’”
Mia, who may want to study zoology in the future, concurs. “ZooGuides has helped me get out of my comfort zone. It’s made me open up and not be so shy meeting new people.”
Henninger senior Tyquan Pounds adds, “I’ve learned a lot about different animals, about public speaking and I’ve gotten to interact with a lot of people, especially young kids.”
Since the program was created with the intent of helping youth gain work experience, ZooGuides typically work four hours a week on weekends during the school year and 20 hours a week during the summer.
“ZooGuides learn what it is like to maintain a job, and this is not always fun or easy, but a key life skill. Youth have [also] expressed a greater interest in pursuing STEM careers as a result of this program,” Nathan adds.
Fowler High School junior Kelli Ramsey is one of these students. “I’ve always wanted to work with animals,” she says. “Initially, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Now, I think I might want to be a veterinarian. I’ve learned so much about different types of animals!”
ITC junior Adayera Kendricks is another ZooGuide who credits the program for preparing her for a future career. “I want to work in the environmental field, to make the world a better place by being less reliant on technology,” she explains. “This experience has helped me in observing people and seeing how they react and interact with the environment. My best experience here has been meeting people—not just from Syracuse, but even from different countries!”
At the end of each summer, top performing Zoo Guides have the opportunity to apply for a scientific research fellowship, allowing them to get an even closer look at the behind-the-scenes operations off the zoo and the animals.
This year, four Syracuse City School District ZooGuides were selected to continue in the ZooGuide Fellowship Program for Winter 2015. At the conclusion of the summer ZooGuide program, these students received additional training and worked closely with zoo staff to select a scientific research project to carry out.
Mia Gallipeau chose to examine the response of Egyptian fruit bats to varying enrichment. “Certain fruits make them more active,” she found. “They love cantaloupe!” Kelli Ramsey examined the effect of differing age of Patas Monkeys with regard to their response to enrichment. “Alpha male MJ hung around and watched the group and ate most of the time, while the younger monkey, Harry, was more responsive to toys,” she said.
ITC senior Keonna Wren focused on the response of Humboldt penguins to varying audio enrichment, and Adareya Kendricks was the first Fellow to base her project on observing human behavior rather than animal behavior, choosing to study the response of humans to the Nigerian Dwarf Goat in varying exhibit situations.
Once their projects were complete, the ZooGuide Fellows were the guests of honor at a formal reception, in which they were invited to present the results of their projects with their families, zoo staff and program partners.
Thank you to all of our 2015 SCSD ZooGuide Fellows, as well as the newest group of ZooGuides, on their commitment to and interest in the program!