The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 12:37 pm

Volunteering at zoo better than working

Dave Gong The Journal Gazette

Every Tuesday morning, Columbia City resident Paul Bellant endures the piercing smell of raw fish as he prepares the daily meals for the sea lions at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. 

As he steadies a heaping pile of capelin – a small fish in the smelt family – on a large scale, then divides the pile into 12 large buckets – three for each sea lion – Bellant describes how a mixture of capelin, squid and herring is fed to the zoo’s sea lions each day.

"We have four sea lions, and they get fed three times a day, so I have to put (the food) in order chronological to when they’re going to get fed," he said. "My job is to make sure they’re getting first the right type of food, secondly the right amount of food, and third, its quality."

Bellant is one of about 450 volunteers on the books at the zoo at any given time. The volunteers donated more than 34,000 hours in 2014, said Kathy Terlizzi, the zoo’s volunteer manager. With the 50th birthday celebrations kicking into gear this year, Terlizzi said there’s been some increased interest from potential volunteers. 

The volunteers can do almost anything, from feeding the giraffes and penguins to preparing the animals’ daily meals to office and administrative work, Terlizzi said. It just depends on the volunteers’ interests. The volunteers supplement the zoo’s 72 full-time and 19 part-time employees.

Terlizzi said the amount of time volunteers put in last year equals about $764,896. That amount is based on yearly earnings figures reported to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The zoo’s overall operating budget in 2014 was about $6 million, and its annual payroll costs are about $3 million. 

In 2013, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo became one of 223 zoos to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which inspected the zoo to ensure it met the highest standards possible.

The amount of time volunteers spend helping out means the zookeepers have more time to do the work the volunteers aren’t qualified to do. The volunteers are asked to put in at least 18 hours a year but can set their own schedule. 

"Being a nonprofit, everybody wears a lot of hats," Terlizzi said. "There’s a mutual respect there – the volunteers are totally appreciated for what they do. There’s no unimportant job, and everything they do matters."

The volunteers themselves know that they’re contributing to something when they come to work at the zoo. 

"When I interviewed, one of the questions (Terlizzi) asked me was, ‘Why do you want to work here at the zoo?’" said Bellant, a retired human resources manager. "Bottom line, this is one of the crown jewels of Fort Wayne, and I want to be a part of it."

Bellant’s been helping at the zoo for about a year – sometimes in the commissary, sometimes in the giraffe barn – but some loyal volunteers have been donating their time for much longer. 

Fort Wayne resident Susan Nash, for example, has been helping out at the zoo for 25 years. 

Nash was friends with the zoo’s volunteer coordinator in 1990, who encouraged her to get involved. 

"She said, ‘You love animals, and you should be out here volunteering,’ so I did," Nash said. "They didn’t have the formal classes that Kathy has incorporated. They just got us involved and taught us what we needed to know."

What initially struck her was that even when the zoo is closed to the public, there’s still a lot for volunteers to do. The animals still need to be fed, administrative work still needs to be done, and the zoo continues to give informational presentations throughout the winter months.

"There’s a lot to do in the wintertime, which I like," she said. "It isn’t just seasonal."

Nash is now a docent – a volunteer trained in handling the animals for demonstrations inside the zoo, as well as at area schools and events. 

"Handling the animals is really the fun part for me, it’s what I would say keeps me going back (to volunteer)," she said. "You just learn a lot about them."

Volunteering isn’t something Nash is likely to stop any time soon.

"If I ever moved from Fort Wayne, it would have to have a zoo with a great volunteer program, because that’s not something I would want to give up," she said.

No matter what the season, Terlizzi, a former zoo volunteer, said the zoo can always use help and tries to put each volunteer’s strengths and passions to use. 

"I try to pull them out and find out what talents they have, what they do in their real job, or as a hobby that they don’t think of as a skill," she said. "Volunteers have helped on the website, with data entry, manning the office phones, and we have some seamstresses that make some of our props."

Terlizzi said the seamstresses recently made several quilted carrier covers for the animals that are sometimes taken to area schools so that when they’re taken out during the cold winter months, they’re protected from the elements.

Volunteers can sign up to help out when and where they want, and Terlizzi said she encourages them to find their niche. 

"If the volunteers are happy, our guests are going to have a good time, because their passion is going to show through," she said.

Terlizzi started as a volunteer in 2009 after she lost her job in the overnight package shipping industry. 

Once the company gave her a termination date, "the very first thing I did was fill out my application to volunteer, because I’d always wanted to do it," she said. "Between March and August of 2009, I had 485 hours in of volunteering because I wanted to do it."

The zoo is grateful for all the volunteer help, Terlizzi said, because there’s any number of volunteer opportunities around Fort Wayne. 

"We’re very pleased that they choose to spend part of their time here, when they can go anywhere," she said.

"Our crew, our staff understands that, and we’re very thankful of our volunteers."

Adults aren’t the only ones donating their time, either. The zoo also features a teen volunteer program known as Z-TEAM, which stands for Zoo Teens, Education, Animal Care and Marketing. It’s a structured summer program that strives to teach teens important life skills while also giving them a taste of what a career is like in zoology and animal husbandry. 

"Some kids, maybe they’re not working yet or don’t come into contact with a lot of people, so they learn a lot of responsibility, how to talk to people, they have to be enthusiastic, it’s a wonderful program," Nash said. "I’m really impressed with the kids that come in and help and volunteer their time."

The application period is over for this summer’s Z-TEAM program, Terlizzi said, but the zoo accepts applications from adult volunteers year-round. They’re essential to keeping the zoo running from day to day, she said.

"They’re always there, and they’re always up for a new challenge.

"It’s the family feeling, we’re all on the same team with a common goal – the volunteers absolutely love the zoo, and they’re invested," she said. "It kind of makes my job easier."

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