Carefully, calmly, confidently, Judy Gregory handles Steve, a red-tailed hawk, in front of a group of mesmerized visitors at the Sacramento Zoo. His talons sink into her leather glove. His sharp beak is just inches from her face. Once a wild hawk, his intense piercing eyes have become blind from cataracts, so now he serves to educate the public. Gregory supports him with grace and respect. The bird spreads his wings to soak in rays of sun on a chilly day.
Since 2008, Gregory has volunteered as a zoo docent. She has served as docent president, given tours, and introduced visitors to animals such as Steve the hawk, Pantanel the snake and Bing the alligator. "I just love animals," she said. "I love the bond you can have with them." Conservation is also important to her. "We need to make room and keep the animals we have."
Gregory loves animals so much that she used to want to be a veterinarian, but she realized that she didn't want to do the hard parts of that job. Now she works as a mechanical designer, and satiates her desire to interact with animals by volunteering on weekends at the zoo. "It's like a vacation," she says, because she enjoys it so much. "This is a way to connect with animals. Not everybody gets to go to Africa. We hope to inspire appreciation and respect for animals."
This may be a lot of fun but a lot of work is required to become a docent at the zoo, particularly if you wish to handle the animals. Gregory has hundreds of hours of training under her belt. Steve, the hawk, requires the highest level of training to handle.
Before she volunteered here Gregory said she was too afraid to handle snakes. Now she happily holds Patanel, a 3-year-old Brazilian Rainbow Boa and explains it's back story. Patanel's mother gave birth to her through a process called partheno genesis, where a female that does not have access to a mate will spontaneously become pregnant and give birth to clones of themselves. Patanel is one of three clones that were born at the Sacramento Zoo, the first time that this behavior was ever documented in this species. "Nature will find a way," says Gregory.
"The alligator's out you want to come see her," Gregory says with a mischeivious gleam in her eye. Despite the fact that this 2-year-old American Alligator will never outgrow it's desire to bite, Gregory is unafraid. She encourages visitors to touch the alligator's back, safe from nipping distance. She is in tune with the alligator's mood and knows when he's had enough interaction and needs to be placed back into his aquarium. When the alligator gets bigger it will not longer be safe to interact with the public so she is excited to let people touch him while they can. "This is fun." she says. "How often do you get to hold an American Alligator? Never!"
To learn more about the Sacramento Zoo's docent program visit http://www.saczoo.org/page.aspx?pid=381
If you know someone who volunteers their time to an interesting cause please email Autumn Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org.