Adriel Brewster knows most Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium puffins by name. Gemma Doggins loves patting goats. But for teens, the biggest reward for being a volunteer as a first guide is the ability to change the way others think about wildlife — and of course, spending hours with the animals and the people they care for, each week.
“To me, the zoo and its community feel like a second home,” says Brewster, who has volunteered 600 hours since starting out as an 11-year-old middle school student. “I fell in love with it – it’s such a safe and happy place for me. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the animals better, and some of them know the sound of my voice. But the really satisfying part is interacting with the visitors, and making a difference in how they perceive the wildlife” .
Duggins, who is a 300-hour volunteer, adds: “The people here are so lovely. The other translators are very nice and helpful, and there’s always new things to learn. It’s so much fun!”
For teens, friendship is a big part of that fun. It was Brewster, in fact, who started Duggins in the first place: They were both freshmen at the Institute of Science and Mathematics at Tacoma Public School (SAMi), a high school that shares a campus with both the zoo and the larger Point Defiance Park. Brewster had already spent three years volunteering at the zoo in middle school. When the two met, Brewster told Duggins all about him—and the rest is history.
“I’ve always wanted to work with animals, maybe delve into marine biology, and it looked really cool,” Doggins explained.
Create a community for teenagers
The high school Zoo Guide volunteer program had its first full season since the COVID-19 pandemic halted all volunteer work at the Point Defiance Zoo. Young people aged 14-18 can apply in December, have an informal group interview and orientation, then begin training in late March. Once the summer season officially begins at the end of June, high school volunteers work a six-hour shift once or twice a week during Labor Day, rotating around animal habitats and interacting with zoo guests by explaining natural history and animal facts and answering questions.
In areas where guests can handle animals, volunteers also park inside the goat coop to help visitors pat gently, aid in observing inside Budgie Buddies and encourage exploration in the Tidal Touch area of the Pacific Aquarium. They also volunteer for special events such as the Pride Celebration and Mocktails with the Keepers. Other volunteers help out with the summer camp.
But senior guides have additional responsibilities.
Point Defiance Zoo’s Young Volunteer Coordinator Amy Wilson explains, “In addition to interpretation during the summer, senior guides also mentor our regular zoo guides in smaller groups called ‘capsule groups.'” They participate in group mentoring, planning and hosting events weekly for other young volunteers to build the community, network with interns on a regular basis, and help train new zoo guides.”
This includes Zoo radio communication, emergency drills, and interpretation at Asia Forest Sanctuary, Budgie Buddies, Nature Play Garden, Tidal Touch Zone, Kids Zone goats, Rocky Shores, and the habitats of musk and red wolves. Senior guides also assist with the Bugs Alive programme, which is held twice daily during the summer.
“I love being with the goats and being with them,” Duggins says with a smile.
Plus, Brewster points out, great guides can also get some really great behind-the-scenes experiences, like a close encounter with an animal as a reward at the end of summer.
After the pandemic, though, senior guides have another big goal: to make volunteer work at the zoo more welcoming and accessible to everyone.
“It wasn’t for everyone—for example, it’s hard to keep a job and volunteer,” says Wilson. “So we’re looking at how to create more transferable experiences, flexible schedules, and skills that will help them move forward? Our goal is for young volunteers to reflect the diversity of the Tacoma community. Our biggest.”
Meanwhile, top mentors like Duggins and Brewster – whose younger sister is also on the program – make it as welcoming and inviting as possible to current volunteers. They plan fun social events like Dinosaur Night, focusing on JEDAI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Access and Inclusion) and creating the kind of community teens desperately need after years of pandemic isolation.
“I’m planning on wearing my dinosaur outfit to Dino Knight,” Doggins smiles.
Regardless of the games, volunteering at the zoo can lead to something more serious. Duggins and Brewster, recent SAMi graduates, head to Western Washington University in the fall to study marine biology (they also live together).
“My dream job is to come back and work here,” Duggins admits, as the two collect their radios and head to the zoo’s Environmental Learning Center for their afternoon shift. “I will apply next summer for a seasonal job.”
Positioning himself in a prime corner of the Rocky Shores’ underwater viewing area, Duggins begins greeting visitors with a timid “hello,” pointing to California sea lions Boomer and Eloise and sharing their stories. Duggins’ face is adorned with a serene smile, and you can tell they’re in their element.
In The Budgie Buddies, Brewster stands by the exit door, keeping an eye on potential fugitives. They gently wave a cheeky green and gold bird away from the door area. Brewster, too, is passionate about an animal-related career and was fortunate enough to get an internship at the zoo this year through the SAMi School Program.
“It was unbelievable – I started making food in Rocky Shores, then did some animal feed and a bit of training,” Brewster says. “I would like to come back next summer as an interpreter for the staff. But what really pleases me is making a difference in the way he sees it.” Wildlife people. People can be unsure of what to expect from animals, so I love being able to help them through this to see how amazing these creatures are. That’s the whole mission here to help people discover, connect and then care. I can see evidence of that At what I’m doing now. It’s very exciting.”
Point Defiance Zoo is currently accepting adult volunteers. Applications for high school youth open in December. Apply at pdza.org/connect/volunteer.